Elyssa Clauson tasted salsa for the first time with a group of people surrounding her a few weeks ago. Describing herself as somewhat unadventurous, the sophomore at Lower Merion High School said a fear of trying new foods has plagued her since age two.
But going to Haiti this May could change all that. Along with 17 of her LMHS classmates, Clauson will be forced to eat rice, beans and other local foods in order to keep energized. As a part of the LMHS Trek chapter of buildOn, a national organization that facilitates youth volunteerism, the students will travel to Haiti to construct a school in a rural area of the country in two weeks while living in homestays.
"Especially for seniors and the upperclassmen, we're finishing out our four years here, and we realized how much we take for granted the education we have at Lower Merion," LMHS buildOn President Anna O'Neill said. "Lower Merion is so different even compared to what we have in the United States."
"It's buildOn's mantra to use education to break the cycle of poverty," O'Neill, a senior, added. "We're taking that abroad to Haiti."
Thirty percent of Haitian children make it to sixth grade, and while the school district renovates the LMHS campus and administrative facilities, coconut and banana leaves hold up some schoolhouses in Haiti. After seeing images of devastation on news channels and through documentaries, junior Josh Metzman said actually seeing the landscape will help him understand how the project will impact Haiti, and more importantly, how Haiti will impact his classmates.
"I wanted to break the barrier and get out of my comfort zone," Metzman said. "I want to get a different view on life the way they see it. It's something I know I won't get a full grasp on unless I experience it first-hand."
Before touching down in Haiti on May 12, the Trekkies have a $66,000 task at hand: fundraising. The money isn't just for the group's travel expenses; 52 percent of the donations are designated to purchase building materials, and the rest goes toward paying construction costs and skilled Haitian laborers. The large sum makes the goal an arduous one, but with the help of the Web, their community and constant planning, the Trekkies have raised slightly more than $27,000.
Using buildOn's website, people can donate electronically from anywhere – junior Sara Kramer's Argentine relatives accidently donated $20,000 after a mix-up between the two countries' varying uses of commas and decimal points – and some students have seen success using Twitter by following charitable organizations and individuals to get donations and spread the message.
But the students aren't just monitoring their computer screens or refreshing their Twitter feeds: Larger projects include a spaghetti dinner that raised $2,000 and a future open-mic night at LMHS' Black Box Theater. Among their smaller projects, sophomore Sarah Schelling is selling old clothes and junior Charlotte Smith is having people sponsor the creation of hand-knit duduza dolls to give to children in Haiti as junior Julia Kramer-Golinkoff runs to and from car dealerships to collect change buckets the club placed. During winter break, Reese and the students will begin planning a telethon to air on Lower Merion Township's public access channel, LMTV. (The students will forgo tuxes and gowns for buildOn sweatshirts and t-shirts.)
"They're busy and working hard, and it's incredibly time-consuming," LMHS buildOn faculty adviser Tom Reese said. "But I think they've also found it's incredibly fun."
The students' hard work is beginning to pay off: The LMHS Trek chapter is No. 1 in the country right now for fundraising, Reese said. Though the Trek chapter is comprised of 18 hand-selected students, the overall LMHS buildOn club has about 200 members who completed 4,000 hours of service last year doing projects with organizations such as Philabundance and the Jane Addams Place homeless shelter.
Part of the club's large size contributed to the reason Joanna Branch, Pennsylvania's regional manager for buildOn, offered the LMHS chapter a chance to participate in an individual high school Trek project.
"We offered a group trip to them as an opportunity because they have hundreds of kids in that school, and they could do it," said Branch, who is also a graduate of LMHS.
Traditionally, buildOn's Trek program selects two students from various chapters in each region to send to countries for school construction, but Tom Silverman, buildOn's global chapter manager, said the 20-year-old organization is trying to encourage more high schools and universities to take routes like the LMHS buildOn model.
"It gives the community a chance to participate," Silverman said, noting that in order for the students to raise enough money, the whole community has to rally behind them. "It's bringing people on the other side of the world together who care about each other regardless of where they are."
Already seasoned travelers and volunteers in their teens, Kramer-Golinkoff recently worked at a medical clinic in the Dominican Republic and sophomore Benji Pollock only has one continent left to visit: Antarctica. Smith too already experienced the global connection last summer when she rehabbed schools in Costa Rica.
"I fell completely in love with this little boy," Smith said, adding that she's eager to have siblings when she stays with her host family in Haiti. "I wanted to do everything for him, but he lives there. He was the one that made me want to go to Haiti. I'd just never met someone so happy before who had nothing."
While most students expressed excitement rather than nervousness for the trip, Clauson said experiencing the changes in routine will be part of the process to realizing how life-changing the trip will be for her.
"I feel like for the first couple of days, I might have a little trouble getting comfortable, but I think by the end of the two weeks, I'll realize, 'Oh my God,'" Clauson said as if the three words were enough.