Summit High School senior Reena John’s Thanksgiving this year was way different from her normal routine. Rather than eating mashed potatoes and turkey with her family, she read books to a sweet little girl, Cleofis, during class at an orphanage in Honduras.
Seven senior and two junior Spanish students from the high school traveled to Honduras during Thanksgiving break to complete service projects, experience Latin American culture and immerse themselves in the Spanish language.
Spanish teacher Susan Mocatta said the team helped paint a school, set up a children’s play area in a local clinic and, for the first time, visited an orphanage. This is one of the handful of service trips Summit in Honduras runs every year, she said.
“The kids are working in small villages where no one speaks English, spending all day in Spanish mode,” she said.
John, Spanish Honor Society president, said in order to make any sort of personal connections with the people, she had to speak their language.
“Honduras was the first time I feel like I broke out of my shell in speaking Spanish,” she said. “There were no short cuts, like here in class where if you get confused you can just switch to English. It was very difficult — talking with people, they talked so fast and it was hard to even understand words I knew. But when I was able to have conversations with people it was so much fun.”
The team painted a schoolhouse in El Cedral, but Mocatta said the group was originally scheduled to paint two. However, a controversial presidential election resulted in a quick change of plans.
“There was so much controversy about the votes, we were told to stay in our hotel the first and second day because both parties claimed victory,” she said.
At the Amigos de Jesus orphanage, the Summit High School students sat in on the children’s classes for the day, seeing how they learn in English.
“They don’t call it an orphanage. To them it’s just home,” said student Keeley Minor. “Everyone is family there. The most important thing I learned is that happiness isn’t really measured in wealth, or possessions.”
The team played some of the children from the orphanage in a game of baseball, losing miserably, said student Lizi Andersen. The kids also played soccer, she said.
“During the game it didn’t matter that we may not be able to communicate with each other, and we still had such a great time even though we lost,” she said. “It was really cool to see the kids who have grown up playing soccer enjoy a sport that I have loved all my life.”
Mocatta said while she’s always done immersion trips, having the service projects is something she’s only done in the last few years. Though the team did get to spend one day sightseeing at Mayan ruins.
“This year trumped all other groups,” she said. “Driving up to the villages, they were already speaking in Spanish, in the hotel after we got back still, with locals in the market, everywhere.”
Most students were impacted most by their time at the orphanage, including John. She said seeing a pre-K classroom count to 10 in English really helped demonstrate how cool bilingual education can be.
“[An orphanage] is imagined as a dark and lonely place, I mean we have all seen ‘Annie,’” she said. “This place was completely different — there was so much happiness.”
The high school students were also able to visit local markets and meet villagers. Minor said walking through town, she was able to fully appreciate the different culture.
“Seeing little houses with years of wear-and-tear, and seeing families who have the basic necessities and not much else, I didn’t see sadness in anyone’s face,” she said. “They were enjoying life to the fullest.”
Maggie Ducayet, Summit in Honduras executive director, said while this is only the third trip the organization has taken high school students along to help in Honduras, their impact and help is felt in all of the projects.
“We have been doing outreach in Honduras for almost nine years and the addition of the high school students has added an incredible new dimension to our outreach,” she said.
Ducayet said this year, like years before, she noticed how the trip helped to change some students’ outlook.
“They see the world in a different light,” she said. “They go on these trips for many different reasons and they return with a totally different perspective on what the real world looks like.”
Cole Currier said he found traveling and service valuable, because it added to his perspective of the world. The students worked throughout this semester to gather donations and raise money for the trip.
“I hope the projects we worked on and the donations we brought down with us will make their lives better,” he said.
And as for their Spanish, Mocatta said the results were apparent as soon as the students returned home.
“On Monday in class, they very obviously left everybody in the dust,” she said. “They had about one to two years of classroom time in one week. It’s really the best way to learn.”
For John, this trip rekindled her plan to travel and volunteer all around the world in college.
“The main thing I took away from this trip is how much I love to help people, not in the doctor type of way, because I can’t do blood, but making people happy is so fun and is really rewarding,” she said.