By AMY M. PETERS Planet Contributor
This week the Telluride Mountain School (TMS) community gathered for its weekly all-school Monday morning meeting to view slide presentations of a seventh and eighth grade trip to Hawaii, a ninth and tenth grade trip to Puerto Rico and an eleventh and twelfth grade trip to Europe, all experiential learning trips students took last month.
Each spring, middle and high school Spanish teacher Ross Perrot takes ninth and tenth grade students to a Spanish-speaking region. Last year they traveled to Costa Rica and the year before, they went to Cuba. This year Perrot took 12 students to Puerto Rico.
This year’s trip was different from previous trips because it was an entirely service learning-based adventure whereas TMS spring trips are usually more broadly experiential.
While Perrot’s students completed in-class projects on historical, cultural and geographical features of Puerto Rico prior to the trip, there was no way to know the lessons they would gain by visiting an island country ravaged by a category four hurricane — Hurricane Maria — last September 20.
Students spent the first day in Puerto Rico touring Old San Juan, a picturesque part of the capital city where hurricane restorations appear to have already been made. When they left San Juan and drove 40 minutes west, however, they witnessed destruction of homes and forests.
They spent the next four days in Villa del Rio, near Cerro Gordo, where they worked five hours each day helping to build three homes: shoveling rocks and sand, filling concrete columns to support a roof and building cinderblock and retaining walls.
“Visually, it didn’t look like that much work,” admitted TMS freshman Cassidy Craige. “But for the community members, it meant so much. I appreciate how much they showed their gratitude.”
Students worked side by side with families to build the new homes. In turn, community members provided lunch every day and together they and TMS students would speak Spanish.
For Camille Denman, also a TMS ninth grader and who, like Craige, had never been to a Spanish-speaking country, speaking Spanish was challenging because she couldn’t find words for what she wanted to say. So she used what Perrot calls “circumlocution” — describing words with other words — and her Spanish improved.
Students also spent a day working in a sustainable forest, digging a ditch along a washed-out road near a mudslide.
Perrot had never been to Puerto Rico before and he learned that the Caribbean island has lost over 1 million people since Hurricane Maria and more are leaving every day because recovery efforts are moving so slowly. “
There are a lot of problems without definitive answers,” Perrot explained. “And hearing this from the community members meant the most. It’s one thing to read it, its another thing to hear it firsthand.”
Going into the trip, Perrot was unsure about how his students would engage with the service learning work, if there would be “buy-in.” “The kids blew me away,” said Perrot. “I don’t know how many of these kids had ever held a pick-axe or a shovel or mixed concrete before. They put their gloves on and got sweaty, dirty, covered in concrete — they might have argued a little bit towards the end of the day when they got tired — but as a team, they absolutely killed it.”
Denman said that when it was time to say goodbye to community members, everyone was crying. “The community was so selfless,” Denman said. “It’s amazing to see people with so little, do so much for other people. It’s a good example for how to live.”
While Perrot, Denman and Craige agree that there’s more work to be done, they also believe that Puerto Rico will rise again, pointing to an inspiring credo of the people: “Puerto Rico Se Levanta.