This is the third such trip organized by ASM math teacher Dovid Fein, who has been focused on providing students with volunteer opportunities abroad.
While the past two years have seen the school send a small group of high school students to Nepal to participate in school building projects, this year their focus has shifted to Puerto Rico, which was hit hard by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The powerful Category 4 storm knocked out the island's electrical system and damaged hundreds of thousands of homes, and according to some figures, around 16 percent of the island remains without power. The ASM students will be working with the U.S. non-profit organization All Hands to help rebuild houses on the island. (Silvia Pocorobba, a Spanish and Italian teacher at ASM, will be chaperoning the trip with Fein.)
These service trips came about organically, a result of Fein's long history of volunteering in the U.S. and abroad. After the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal, he made the decision to spend his summer break in the country, helping out in any way he could. Fein was familiar with traveling for the purpose of volunteering, having been to New Orleans to aid in the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and leading groups of college students on similar trips to Louisiana and Mississippi.
Maureen Madden, ASM's director, heard about Fein's summer plans and approached him with the idea of developing a service trip for a small group of ASM students in the spring of 2016. Enthusiastic about the prospect, Fein agreed to do some research on the ground. So as he spent the summer rebuilding walls and working at an orphanage, he also asked around and made connections on the ground, which is how he first discovered All Hands.
On a return visit over the Christmas break in 2015, as a trial run of sorts, Fein worked on a project with All Hands and was impressed by their close communication with and involvement of the local community. As part of the final preparations, he set up appointments all over Kathmandu to lay the groundwork for the trip that following spring, including a meeting with the Lincoln School, an international school in the city that had begun working with All Hands.
This careful approach to finding and vetting a program was important for Fein and ASM – within the realm of international service projects, which are sometimes given the label "voluntourism," it can be difficult to differentiate between groups that are having a positive impact and those that are doing more harm than good on the ground. What was appealing about All Hands is their focus on integrating local labor and working on long-term solutions that will benefit the local community, something that Fein witnessed on his two personal trips.
The ASM service trips that Fein and Anna Vimercati, a science teacher at ASM, led to Nepal in 2016 and 2017 were a success, both for the unique experiences they gave the students and in terms of the work they accomplished: the small group worked with local laborers to help build schools in Nuwakot and Sindhupalchok, two districts hours away from Kathmandu, as part of a larger "schools building schools" project.
The decision not to return to Nepal this year and to instead turn their attention to Puerto Rico stems from a few factors, namely that many of the school-building projects in Nepal are wrapping up and also the immense need in post-Maria Puerto Rico.
Plus, the immediacy of the problems facing Puerto Rico can be quite powerful. In Fein's opinion, people feel a stronger connection to a place and the work they're doing there when the needs are so acute. Going somewhere new also opens students' eyes to what life is like in other parts of the world. "One of the most important aspects of these trips for the students is learning firsthand what it's like other places," he says.
He also hopes that by helping to rebuild homes, students will have more interactions with the local community. While the "schools building schools" project in Nepal gave students the satisfaction of increasing access to education, most of the time during the day was spent working on construction sites. But rebuilding homes, as Fein experienced in New Orleans, is an act of sharing directly with a community and provides more opportunities to get to know the homeowners, which in turn allows for more personal connections and stronger bonds to form. "The relationship you're able to build with the homeowner is profoundly deep, you really are able to get a sense that you're helping somebody," he says.
Even though the students, who are all 16 or older, miss a good chunk of school for these trips, the ASM community, including the administration and other teachers, are incredibly supportive, recognizing that the experience of volunteering abroad, with its hands-on knowledge and opportunities for developing new skill sets, will have a long-lasting impact on these students. It's an educational experience that is equally as important as what is taught in a classroom.
By keeping the groups small – a deliberate choice on the part of Fein and ASM – students can't hide in the crowd; they're forced out of their comfort zone and into situations where it's necessary to interact with locals and other volunteers. But Fein has been impressed by the students' adaptability and resilience. "It opened my eyes a bit," he says, "how open they were to new experiences and how they leaned into the difficult circumstances. They were amazingly resilient, more so than most adults I know."
On both trips to Nepal, ASM's students worked hard and led by example, earning the respect of the site managers, and many of the students asked if they could stay longer to continue their work. Their dedication was inspiring, says Fein, who is looking forward to seeing this year's group bring the same sense of purpose and drive to help the local communities in Puerto Rico.