A little tutoring went a long way for 17 Vancouver Island University students.
Hosting exam review sessions for peers earlier this year made possible a two-week volunteer outreach trip to central America.
It all began last fall when a group of science students decided to start a Students Offering Support chapter at the university.
Students Offering Support, or SOS for short, is a national outreach program that requires branches to organize review sessions for students before mid-terms and final exams for a $20 donation, with all proceeds going toward initiatives in developing countries. The group also organizes volunteer outreach trips.
Zack Yim, a fourth-year science student and VIU SOS member, said the idea was to start raising money this year for a project in a Latin American country through science tutorials, with the aim of eventually going on a volunteer outreach trip to build the project funded through the review sessions.
But the group started with a bang, raising $4,000 in the first semester alone, an amount bumped up to $6,000 in the second semester.
With funds matched by SOS, the group had enough to buy building supplies, tools and hire local professionals to build a community centre in the small village of Las Vegas in Costa Rica.
“Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to go to another country and help out,” said Yim. “In some ways, it’s kind of selfish because it makes me feel good. I want to make a difference in this world.”
The Costa Rican village has no running water or electricity in the middle of the jungle, well off the beaten path, said Yim.
Many of the roughly 300 residents are subsistence farmers.
“It’s very simple, but you don’t have to worry about the price of gas, electricity, anything that we worry about up here,” said Yim.
The greatest sign of the modern world was seeing cellphones in the hands of some of the residents – charged by a generator and used in the one small area that had reception.
“That was probably the biggest surprise, seeing a bunch of villagers with cellphones,” said Yim.
All of the wood used to build the community centre was logged and milled by hand by the villagers and then brought to town using horses or on people’s backs. The students constructed the building with hand saws, hammers and other hand tools.
“The only power tool we had was a chainsaw,” said Yim. “Everything took so incredibly long. There was no blueprint, it was just kind of, ‘We want a building, so let’s just start’. I’m amazed it went as well as it did.”
The students slept on the floor of a storage shed cleared out for their use. Meals – prepared by a villager they hired – were cooked over an open fire in the middle of the small room used as the kitchen.
Yim said they quickly learned to check their boots before putting them on – one of the students found a tarantula hiding in her shoe – and to watch for other potentially dangerous creatures.
Nathan Stefani, a science student and a founder of VIU’s SOS club, said he has never been to a place so removed from civilization.
After slogging through mud and over rocks in a four-wheel-drive vehicle for two hours, the students were suddenly flanked on all sides by three young boys riding bareback on horses and moments later they entered a clearing that turned out to be the village’s soccer field.
Stefani said the progress was slow on the community centre due to the primitive tools used, but the students still managed to get the project more than halfway finished before they had to leave, and the community has promised to send pictures of the finished product.