Family learns as it lends hand

GUCKEEN – “Our kids may not be home-schooled, but they are getting world-schooled,” John and Deb Oothoudt wrote on their Facebook page as they prepared to leave Guatemala this spring.

This was the family’s second trip to help build bottle schools for Guatemalan children who otherwise would not have the opportunity to attend school. John has been there three times now, since he first went alone in March 2012 to see if it would be a family-friendly venture before bringing his wife and children, Josiah, 14, and Lizzie, 12.

The Oothoudts plan to visit Guatemala again next year. Every time they have returned, they’ve been able to see the children they’ve helped in past visits to the region.

“The kids would like to go back in May … but for sure we’ll go back in August 2015,” Deb said.

Each of the Oothoudts’ trips have been with a nonprofit organization called Hug It Forward. Through “voluntourism,” a philanthropic effort that combines tourism with volunteerism, willing and financially able volunteers are recruited to help out the locals while learning about their culture and doing some sight-seeing.

The results of these volunteers’ efforts can be seen in the 37 three-room school buildings in the past 53 months, according to John, who has worked on several of those schools.

“As soon as one is built, the government supplies teachers,” Deb said.

She compared Hug It Forward’s bottle-school program to Habitat for Humanity, in that the recipients of these buildings – the communities – are required to invest time and labor into their school.

Community members in remote parts of Guatemala gather the building materials from an unlikely resource: the vast supply of garbage that litters the countryside, since there is little to no waste removal service. They pack thousands of plastic bottles tight with garbage, and the end result is an “eco-brick.” The eco-bricks will eventually comprise the walls of the community’s school.

The volunteers/tourists then enter the picture. They supply funds for other supplies and provide much of the labor to construct the building. The volunteers, one on each side of the wall they’re building, tightly weave the bricks in place using a sort of twine.

“You spend hours doing that, until you have blisters on your hands,” Deb said.

All the while they’re surrounded by indigenous Guatemalan children, trying to communicate with them and often playing with their hair. Josiah and Lizzie Oothoudt worked on the school buildings, but they also spent time with their Guatemalan peers, with Josiah spending hours each day playing soccer and basketball.

“The kids made really good friends,” said Deb, who described the atmosphere as very safe.

During their free time, they toured the region, visiting houses to learn how the rural residents live – often one-room structures with mud floors and a fire pit in the center, smaller than an average American living room, are home to large families. They visited Mayan ruins as well, toured Antigua, and watched a live volcano from the swimming pool of their hotel room, among other activities.

The most difficult part of the trips for the Oothoudts hasn’t been the labor but saying goodbye when the week is over.

“This last time, all the kids lined up from the school to the bus, and we hugged every kid on the way to the bus,” John said. “I’m pretty emotional usually, and after the fourth kid I couldn’t see out of my glasses.”

Some also like to send their guests away with small tokens of their appreciation.

“They have nothing,” John said.

“But they want to give you something,” Deb said.

For more information on Hug It Forward, go online to hugitforward.org