3 months
2 pairs of gloves 
1 school, half-way finished 
I’ve never worked so physically hard in my life. 
It’s been a great adventure on the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico!
In January, when our group of international volunteers arrived on site to Vincente Guerrero Primary School, we found a sweet little schoolyard with cavernous buildings in various levels of disarray. The school of course was void of children’s activity and laughter, but that’s because the Covid-19 pandemic has shut them down. But many of the buildings that make up the school had not been used since a destructive week of earthquakes hit this area in 2017. The parents, upon inspecting the school, knew that some of the buildings were not safe for their children, so they set up emergency outdoor palapas for the short-term and started pressuring the government to fix their school. Nothing happened. Then they started holding “bake sales”, and fundraising in the typical Mexican way: blocking off the highway until the drivers cough up some funds. They finally earned enough to start construction, but the construction company, upon starting the project, ran-away with the cash. After all of that, All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) arrived on the scene in January 2020 offering their help. We all know what happened in March of 2020, and it took AHAH until December to get back to this community with funding, tools and a team of volunteers to restart the work again. Now, with our hard work, by fall of 2021, the children from 17 different communities around Santa Maria de Tonemeca, Mexico are finally going to get a new and reconditioned school.
 When we arrived, some classrooms were intact and the walls and windows appeared solid.
Other classrooms had all the broken windows and doors removed. The paint was chipping and it was obvious these rooms hadn’t been used since the earthquake of 2017. We used these classrooms for carpentry stations, staging areas and tool rooms.
Some buildings were completely destroyed by the earthquakes so for this school, All Hands and Hearts committed to building a new classroom, a washroom, and a new septic tank. Additionally, all existing classrooms will be remodeled to meet safety standards, and will be painted and beautified to look new.
For the first three months, much of our task was to work on the two new buildings. When we arrived on site, the local Masons, who had just been hired a few weeks prior, had already dug the trenches for the classroom and the washroom.

The mission of All Hands and Hearts is to rebuild resilient schools and communities in at-risk areas around the world. Building a resilient school means obviously building it so it will likely withstand a natural disaster, but it also means making it with local resources and easy to maintain in the future. Schools are also designed to function as the center, and the safest place in a community. To build a resilient community, All Hands and Hearts programs are orchestrated in a way to teach the local construction workers about modern and more resilient building designs. They also involve the community in evacuation education and teach safety protocols to keep them more safe in the future. In non-Covid times, this information would be dispensed during community gatherings and workshops. This year, these lessons were imaginatively integrated into podcasts and video interviews with us volunteers, which were distributed virtually around the community.

Ofcourse, AHAH, as a humanitarian relief organization, is doing all of this adhering to the government’s requirements and covid-safety standards. Here in Mexico, it is mandated that schools are built with a standardized reinforced concrete construction design. Some parts of those designs seem to be a good idea. For example, all schools are oriented to have windows and doors in a north-south direction with solid walls blocking the intense sunlight on the east-west sides. Other parts of the designs kept the AHAH Structural Engineer and Construction Supervisors scratching their heads. In a ratio for concrete that calls for cement, sand and gravel, is 1-part cement part of the ratio or is it measured in terms of the bag? Apparently this answer depends upon what country you are from. There was a lot of lively discussions between the AHAH staff, the Government engineers and inspectors, and the local Masons who had previous experiences with only some of these official construction protocols. Then, throw 34 international volunteers in the mix – with little to some construction skills – and it makes for a wild variety of work days. Some days were so slow and “fiddly”, and ended feeling like we hadn’t accomplished very much. Then the next day, the building would change drastically and we felt really buoyed by our progress.
To build a building correctly, I have learned, takes a lot of planning, materials and attention to details. Most of all, it takes a lot of time. I knew I was coming to the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico to gain skills and learn about building materials and power tools, but I’ve also learned a lot of physics and improved my 5th grade math skills in a variety of ways. For example, reinforcing concrete with rebar combines the best of concrete’s compressive strength, which is resilient to downward pressure, and rebar’s tensile strength, which is resilient to side-to-side pulling. This kind of construction is ideal for this coastal earthquake-prone zone. Thus, most of my new-found expertise includes concrete and rebar!
But as the days turned to weeks, a pattern began to emerge. Compact the soil, lay down specific lengths and spacers of rebar, build wooden forms around that rebar, pour concrete to encase that rebar, take off the forms, build a brick or concrete block wall up a little ways, and start again. Add another layer of rebar, build more forms, pour more concrete, add onto the walls. Slowly, bit by bit, the building gets taller, the structural columns start to become more prominent and the spaces for doors and windows start to emerge.

Here, we’ve laid the plantilla, or foundation, of the classroom
and the Masons built footings with concrete blocks.

After straightening, cutting and bending miles of #2 and #3 rebar to exact specifications
called stirrups, we tied these stirrups to form structural columns and beams.
Then we built wooden forms around the rebar to contain the wet cement.
Cement pour days were everyone’s favorite days as we all got involved and there’s so much action on site. On this day, we were able to get a gasoline powered mixer which really made the work faster and easier.  We often did concrete pours on Friday or Saturdays so it could set over the weekend.
On Monday mornings, one of my favorite jobs was to unscrew the forms and pull them
from the new concrete walls. It was like unwrapping a present and was exciting to see
the progress. Rowan, our Construction Site Coordinator, inspected the walls to AHAH expectations.
When we had to fill in around the foundation, backfilling was the job of the day with lots of shoveling, wheelbarrowing, spreading and wetting the soil so that it could get compacted by hand, or with the “jumping monkey” compactor. I definitely gained some muscles in the wheelbarrowing, but I really preferred the easier job of being in the trenches and helping to spread the soil and keep it wet for the compactors to do their job.
Next, the local Masons would expertly lay the bricks to build the walls between the structural columns.
After the walls got to a certain height, more rebar was added to the top to form a structural grade beam.  This sounds so simple, but this was the only job that brought me to tears. It was so hard for me to stand in the hot sun and tie all the wires tight enough to keep the beam structurally strong and straight so the concrete would be able to cover it completely within the wall.
Afterwards, wooden forms were built around this rebar.
More concrete was poured, carefully encasing that rebar so
it would not have any exposure to the outside elements.
Then the middle grade beam for the classroom walls was finally done! Interestingly enough however, if this picture showed the inside of this building, you would see that it still has a dirt floor. This building is designed so that the footings and walls will take all the weight of the concrete roof, and the floor will eventually only be a concrete slab that connects all the walls together.
The second building we were constructing was a washroom. This building was designed very differently.  It essentially did not have a deep foundation or footings, but had a very structurally strong floor to hold the weight of its walls. This floor was very “fiddly” to put together taking several weeks to compact the soil, add all the complicated layers of rebar, and install the plumbing pipes.
I never knew a concrete floor could be so complicated, especially
when we started to add the rebar columns to the maze.
Finally, we were ready to pour the concrete floor slab,
which essentially covered up weeks of our hard work!

Then the Masons started to build the walls and add more of the plumbing for the sinks
and toilets. After this, more rebar, more forms, more concrete and more bricks will follow.
In the final days, our group also got to build some steps to an existing palapa. It was fun for me to learn some masonry skills, too. These steps are the first phase of a larger seating arena and playground which will be built along this hillside overlooking a new stage. The students of this school are known for their traditional dance performances and we wanted to give them a place to perform.
Although the days were long, Rowan tried to create some fun with contests and
wheelbarrow races. Here he is pushing Francesco across the fútbal field.
I liked to swing in the small playground at lunchtime.

And I regularly enjoyed my walk home under the mango and pistachio trees.

Sometimes the walk home with other volunteers such as Eduardo (Mexico)
and Jess (Minnesota) included a cold beer or soda from Iker’s tienda.
And of course there was Sunday – Beach Day – to look forward to every weekend.
In the last three weeks, I discovered my favorite beach spot, Puerto Angel, and returned
again and again for the great fish tacos and tranquil swimming in the bay.

And just up the road from that beach, another cove with an incredibly productive reef
became a favorite snorkeling adventure.

The Oaxacan Coast is really beautiful.
Back at Base Camp, the staff put together super silly nights for trivia, games, Spanish lessons and movies. We also had an auction, where we donated money for someone to cook us breakfast, cut our hair or tell us a joke. Hanna auctioned off one of her drawings, Rowan raised $300 to wear a dress for a day on site and Francesco offered a serenade in Italian. We made a lot of money for the organization.
The Taco Eating contest was also a favorite fundraiser as teams had to compete in contests including who could eat the hottest taco, the taco with the strangest ingredients, who could fit the most in their mouth at one time, and of course who could eat them the fastest.
My money was on this team made up of Ricky (Georgia), Kim (UK), Harry (UK),
Logan (North Carolina) and Rowan (UK). They easily won.
Then we had a Cross-Bubble Construction Olympics where we had to compete 
in contests such as Nail-Driving, Rebar Tying, Hole Digging, Screw Identification, 
and Measuring. I carried our team flag (built on a rake) into the games.
Although I didn’t win, I was proud of my efforts in the saw competition.
However, I did win the Concrete Spacer Smashing Competition.
Here’s Kaitlin, Kim and Francesco representing our team in the Reverse
Backfill Competition, attempting to form a mound of dirt to cover the rebar post.
Although the Masons – the three that could stay after work and join us- beat us all
in almost every competition, our Bubble team eeked out a Bronze Medal in the games!
It was a super-fun way for all of us volunteers to wrap-up our time together and
show off some of our new construction skills.
Thanks to Luisa Jabiles for her photos of the Taco Eating and Olympic Competitions!
On the last night together, we put seven of us in a taxi and went to the local beach
to toast the sunset and laugh together one last time.
The last day of this intense experience with Hanna (Poland), Logan (USA),
Kaitlin (Canada), Francesco (Italy), Liz (Mexico) and Kim (UK).
What a Bubble we were!
Three months ago, our new school buildings looked like this:

Now, it looks like this:
During the next few weeks, the local Masons will continue to build the structures (probably more quickly with all of us out of their way!) and a new cohort of international volunteers will arrive in mid-April for another three months. They will get to help finish the walls, install platforms to pour a concrete roof, build a septic tank and stage, and then start to landscape and beautify the buildings, a new playground, and the entire school grounds. As I understand it, AHAH will hire local experts to finish the electricity, plumbing and install all the windows and doors. They hope to have the project finished and turned over to the community by the end of June. It would have been so nice, in a time without Covid, to have gotten to know this community and be able to see the smiles on their faces when they get to see their new school. It’s going to be beautiful. Although I won’t be there, my brick will forever be encased in one of the classroom walls overlooking the new playground and fútbol field. And, a community will forever smile knowing that volunteers came from around the world to help build this place for them – just because we cared.
One of my favorite memories on site happened on a random day, I don’t even remember my task at hand. The song “Imagine” by John Lennon was playing on the loudspeaker and I took a moment from my vantage near the new classroom building to look around. Antonio and Beto were laying bricks, Huantes and Alberto were hand mixing mortar for them, while Andres and Jorge were laughing with Rowan about something. All of us volunteers were spread out around the construction site; those from the other Bubble were doing their magic with rebar tying and compacting the brick steps, and my Bubble group was helping to backfill or cut and bend rebar in some capacity.
34 volunteers. 17 staff members. From more than 20 different countries.
Building a school in the middle of a pandemic.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one. 

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! And if you have some time on your hands, volunteering with them is a lot of fun, too!