We board the van as the first rays of light reach into the eastern sky.  Eight volunteers and our Site Supervisor on our way through the dusty rural town of Santa Maria de Tonameca to our charming worksite among the trees.  We disembark.  The morning light illuminates the spring green buildings of Vincente Guerrera Primary School – a cavernous set of buildings without windows, cracking concrete walls and a lone set of swings drifting in the breeze.  We shuffle to our Covid-safe group area and don our hard hats, gloves, ear and eye protection and layers of sunscreen.  The other group of volunteers arrive as well as the Masons, or local contractors, who know how to obtain and use the local materials.  We gather for a lively stretch to work out the kinks from yesterday’s labor, and then we get a quick overview of the work needed to be accomplished for the day.  We choose our tasks, collect our tools and spread out across the construction site.  When the tunes get cranked, the real work begins.  7am.  I smile and dig in to my new adventure.  I’m helping to rebuild a school in Oaxaca, Mexico.  

Like most out-of-work people living through Covid, I spent much of 2020 trying to enjoy quality time with my family and not worry so much about the future.  I traveled around the States some, researched and dreamed of opportunities to return to Ecuador and looked for something to do that wouldn’t put my family at risk.  Finally, after researching “International Volunteer Opportunities” one day, I came across a “too good to be true” organization named All Hands and Hearts who – in spite of Covid – are continuing to provide humanitarian aid and crisis relief in communities that have suffered from natural disasters.  They work in both the US and abroad, and have had a presence here in Mexico for many years.  Since Mexico’s borders are still open, All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) decided it was safe to restart an initiative to rebuild two schools here on the coast of Oaxaca.  For me, their efforts had “adventure” written all over it and I applied immediately!  Four weeks later, I was on a plane to Mexico City and onward to meet the seven other like-minded souls with whom I sleep with, live with, eat with, work with, and recreate with every moment of every day for the next 10 weeks.  It’s a good thing we like each other:

Kim, 31, from the UK, funny and strong, and teaching me how to talk like a Brit.  This is Kim’s 6th AHAH project (previously working in Mexico, Nepal and the Philippines) and she loves the hard work and the camaraderie.  I learn a lot from Kim and she motivates me to do my best every day.

Kaitlin, 28, from Canada, audacious and fun, always ready for anything, especially a game of Uno!  She has volunteered around the world and this is her 5th project for AHAH, previously in the Bahamas, Dominica and Florida.  She’s my favorite teacher for any construction process due to her patience and kind encouragement.

Hanna, 28, from Poland, an architect and talented artist who lives in Paris, speaks five languages and wants to use her knowledge to give back to the world.  Hanna is quiet, and sweet to work with, but is a vicious competitor when playing games.  I don’t even try to beat her anymore!

Logan, 30, from North Carolina USA, came to learn more construction skills and do good in the world.  He has also been on an AHAH project before in Nepal and we rely on his construction knowledge.

Liz, 31, from Mexico, loves to share her laughter and a bottle of Mezcal.  She’s a self-employed architect who founded a non-profit to build houses with and for single moms in rural Mexican communities.  She came to learn more about the logistics of organizing volunteers for a job site.

Francesco, 23, our “little brother” from Italy who has traveled the world but wanted a volunteer experience completely out of his comfort zone.  Although he had never before held a tool in his life, he rounds-out our group by being eager, a profound conversationalist and a complete smart-ass in three languages.

Donna, 60, from Michigan USA, with the biggest heart I’ve ever seen and the raunchiest potty-mouth I’ve ever heard.  She initiated a lot of laughter!  This was really hard work for Donna, but she came to challenge herself to live and work internationally while giving back to others.  Unfortunately, during Week 4, Donna experienced some health problems and had to be sent home.  Now our volunteer group is down to seven. 

Rowan, 24, from the UK, and the best construction site supervisor I could dream of.  He takes every question and turns it into a learning experience- no matter how long it takes.  He wants us all to completely understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and have the freedom to offer any ideas of how we might be able to do it better.  He also oozes positive energy for a relaxed, super safe and fun work site.  He’s been constructing a variety of things around the world (mostly for the wind energy industry) and this is his second staff position with AHAH.  He’s doing an amazing job!

So here I am, a construction laborer, four weeks into my commitment.  Before coming here, I had very little experience with power tools and I really had no idea how to start building something- anything- useful.  During our initial 10 days of quarantine at our Base Camp, we used the time to get trained on how to safely use different tools and build some things to enhance the hotel grounds where we live.  Tables, shelving units and shade palapas for the security guard and cooks were some of what we built.  It was such a new experience for me to design and build something useful, it gave me pause to reflect upon what processes I value.  For example, I’m happy to spend months preparing, planting and nurturing my garden and upon harvest, hours and hours more in my kitchen cooking salsa or homemade jam.  I would never think about buying a jar of jam because I was raised to know that making my own was best.  But if I ever wanted a shade shelter for my garden, I’d NEVER consider building one.  I’d go down to the store and buy a collapsible tent- no matter how much it cost.  To build it, I thought would be a huge waste of time.  But here, with bamboo growing near the river ready to cut, and palm fronds laying everywhere for the taking, a shade shelter can be created in a few hours for only pennies spent for the wire.  And I built it.  I was proud of my efforts and surprised at how much pleasure I took from seeing it standing.  I value that.  With my new skills and confidence, I’m learning to value different processes and different things- especially the amount of work, materials and details that go into constructing a building!  After all of us volunteers received a negative result on our third Covid-test, we were able to take off our masks within our group, leave our Base Camp for the first time, and finally head to our work sites.  There, I’m gaining confidence and skills in completely different tasks and feeling very valuable in the process.

To build a building in earthquake prone Mexico, you have to have a lot of sand, rock, cement and rebar of varying thicknesses, which I learned is measured in eighths.  In our first four weeks, I have already become adept at cutting, straightening, and bending rebar to specific shapes called stirrups, which will hold other long rods of rebar in place to make a column or structural beam.  I now know how to mix a lot of sand, rock and gravel into concrete of varying levels of slump or viscosity, based on the need.  Sometimes we are creating small 3cm thick “cupcakes” that will act as spacers between the rebar structures and the outside edge of the wall or floor.  These little concrete blocks are so important to keep the rebar from being exposed to the air, which would cause it to rust and compromise the strength of the concrete.  Moreover, I’m confident with using a Circular Saw, Reciprocating Saw, and Chop Saw-  I love all that power!  And, I’ve tied more wire than I care to remember, which holds all the rebar pieces together.  But to accomplish all of this, I’ve also had to learn many tricks of the trade such as how to grind off the burrs of the rebar using the side of the Chop Saw blade.  I’ve made a metal jig, or frame, to bend Number 2 and 3 rebar and I’ve had to learn the sound of when my Impact Driver is stripping a screw.  Words like Batter Board, Rock Bars, Angle Grinders, and Alambron are now part of my daily vocabulary, and taking incredible amounts of time to build something that frankly can be bought at your Home Depot, is now part of my ever-expanding value system.  Some days are really tedious and I leave feeling not much was accomplished.  But then, the next day finds us making so much progress visually and I feel so proud to be part of this effort.
Break and Lunchtime finds us resting back in the shade of our group area eating a deliciously prepared meal by the cooks at Base Camp.  Our tupperwares are invariably stuffed with rice, avocados, grilled meat and vegetables and always a tortilla, since in Mexico you can make everything into a taco.  If we’re lucky, a community member or school parent might have already stopped by to bring us a snack of coffee, a warm oat drink called Atole or some bread.  Break times are also the best time to use the bathrooms and possibly catch a glimpse of one of the two iguanas that live in there.  We’ve named them Taco and Poco and they actually live in the hole in the wall, but if you enter the area really quietly, you might catch a glimpse  before they shuffle swagger back into their home.  Scorpians and spiders also like to hang out under the toilet seat, so I’ve learned it’s best to check for them, too.  


After lunch, it’s back out into the hot sun, and the bright intensity of the day.  If I haven’t drank four quarts of water by this point, I have learned that I will have a severe headache waiting for me by mid-afternoon.  At 3:45 it’s time to pack-up, which includes cleaning up our worksite, sanitizing all the tools we used and replacing them to our tool shed.

While the others load into the van for the short ride home, I often change into my sandals and walk the sandy backroads back to Base for a little time alone, and a chance to see the real Mexico.  Along the way, I pass a farmer working in his Nopales cactus field.  I drop in to chat with a little store owner who is still homeschooling her children due to the Covid shut-downs.  Her daughter is in 3rd grade and she gets very little direction from the teacher.  But admittedly, they are lucky.  They have internet.  Most families don’t have that, so “virtual school” is impossible for many children here.  A little further on, I pass one of the largest most expansive trees I’ve ever seen.  It reaches completely across the road with its graceful limbs and each time I see it, it takes my breath away.  Then, there’s the banana plantation on the left, and the drainage ditch I cross easily as I walk under the road- something I can do now that it’s not the rainy season.  Finally, after the restaurant and the car wash, I turn down another unnamed sandy road and walk past the house with perpetually drying white sheets hanging from the line.  I assume that family must have the contract to do the washing for one of the local hotels down by the beach.

About 30 minutes after leaving the school, I reach my home away from home, a relatively nice encampment for a humanitarian crisis effort.  Base Camp is made up of four different dorm rooms and sitting areas for each of our volunteer groups.  Somehow, our group was lucky enough to score the accommodations with indoor showers and chairs for our hang-out area.  Outdoor plastic-sided showers and plans for build-your-own-benches is all that some of the other groups were allotted.  In addition to this, staff built an open-air office and a long open-air dining facility for us all.  It’s hot and buggy, the Internet is spotty, and the dust is always blowing, but it’s home.  I like it here.  And the best part of my day is awaiting my arrival: my three-minute cold shower!  It’s the only time during daylight that I’m not sweating!

On the weekends, after receiving a strong reminder from the Covid Coordinator as to the realities of visiting tourist-infested beaches and crowded restaurants, we are free to leave Base to go as far as a taxi will take us.  They repeat the mantra: we are here to build schools, and we all know the novelty of accomplishing this kind of task during a pandemic.  Many other humanitarian efforts have halted operations around the world due to Covid.  Obviously, I’m all too familiar with this since I’m still waiting for the US Peace Corps to restart their programs again.  We are reminded everyday that if one volunteer caught Covid, and they had close contact with anyone from a different group, the virus would run through our camp and All Hands and Hearts would have to close operations and evacuate again.  Nobody wants this to happen.  So, we try our best to wear our masks, keep our distance from the other volunteer groups and community members, and stretch our wings on the weekend in really safe and self-contained ways- which means we try to go to the more remote beaches instead.  Really, there’s so many choices- the Oaxacan Coast is stunning.  The locals who work with us have taken notice of our efforts and they are trying to help keep us safe by following all of our protocols, too.

At 5:20 each work day, we spray on the deet and gather in the large, partitioned dining tent for a daily meeting of work updates, Covid community news, program updates and any new rules that staff think we need to enact to increase our efficiency or safety.  

Dinner is then served family style (strictly within our groups) and our evening is free to hang-out with our group, attempt to find a place on our own in camp, or join one of the evening events.  We’ve played Mexican Bingo or Loteria, participated in Trivia Nights, large group yoga classes, Speed Dating chat sessions through large clear plastic dividers, and Spanish Lessons designed to help us write a basic Spanish letter to one of the school kids who want a pen pal.  Again, community events to meet and play with the kids are the previous norm of an AHAH program.  Not anymore.  We can only meet the general school community through a letter exchange.  It’s all so sad, getting the opportunity to integrate with the community was a big hope of mine.  But in reality, this effort transcends the kids who will reap the reward.  Thirty-four volunteers and 17 staff members from more than 20 different countries have come together during a pandemic to this remote, earthquake prone, sandy community to build two resilient and safe schools, the center-points of these communities, which will serve them for generations to come.  It is an extraordinary effort supported by thousands of funders and program visionaries who are finding ways to do good despite the obvious obstacles in the world today.

9:00 pm is lights out.  I don’t even make it that late.  I’m often in bed by 8:30 and I sleep like a rock all night. The intense heat, sun and the evening dance with the mosquitos really take it out of me.  All too soon, my alarm beeps at 5:15am.  I roll out of bed and grab my yoga mat, making a spot on the terrace for a few minutes of silent stretching and reflection in the cool of the morning.  I’m tired.  Really tired.  But the neighbor’s rooster is announcing the day and the geckos are making their gutteral chirp while skittering across the walls.  Cars start to drive by, probably workers on their way to the beach.  I note the moon’s phase and position across the sky.  This is a great place to study astronomy since there’s rarely a cloud here to block its light.  The stars twinkle above and once, in this moment of calmness, I caught a glimpse of one shooting across the sky.  I knew it was going to be a good day.  I push on.

As my roommates start their morning routine, I head to our outdoor kitchen area to make an egg.  If I’m lucky, I remembered to save some rice and vegetables from last night’s dinner to round out my morning energy intake.  In the final minutes, I grab an AHAH work shirt, slip into my already worn-in steel-toe work boots, and head to the van.  The streaks of pink are lighting my way.  I wonder what job I’ll get to accomplish today?  What new tools or construction process will I learn about?  What new British word will I add to my growing dictionary of outlandish terms?  Either way, I know I’m going to work hard, learn a lot and laugh even more.  I’m building a school.  It’s always a good day when you get to pay it forward like that!

All Hands and Hearts is an amazing organization rebuilding schools that were destroyed by natural disasters around the world.  For more information about their efforts, and volunteer opportunities, checkout: https://www.allhandsandhearts.org/

If you would like to make a donation to help buy materials and tools for this Mexico Program, check out my fundraising page at: https://give.allhandsandhearts.org/fundraiser/3090959

I appreciate all of your support!

Finally, please excuse any formatting frustrations… I´m working harder than the wifi down here!