David Law wasn't sure what to expect when his group of American travelers arrived in the small village of Agua Escondida in Guatemala to build an addition to the school. But he'd never imagined the exuberant welcome they received.
On their first day there, a crowd of locals, including teachers and maybe 200 children, turned out to greet them. There was traditional song and dance, and the group from the United States stood up and danced along for about an hour.
"I was overwhelmed," Law said. "They were there, standing and clapping. There was a level of appreciation I hadn't expected, and it was emotional. I looked around my group and everyone was tearful."
Law, who is superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools, was among a group of 38 people from around the country on a trip organized by Lifetouch, an Eden Prairie-based school photography company. The group included educators in addition to Law — teachers, principals, PTA members — and employees of Lifetouch and of Shutterfly, the California-based photo-product company that bought Lifetouch in 2018.
Every year since 2000 (minus a couple of pandemic years), Lifetouch has taken a group on a Memory Mission, in which they travel, usually to a developing country, and help locals with a construction project, often related to education.
Volunteers are moved by the experience, said Jan Haeg, a retired Lifetouch director of learning development who has stayed on to organize and manage the company's Memory Missions. "Oftentimes, the volunteers are so moved by everything that happens they're like, 'How do I talk about this experience, because I'm a changed person?'" said Haeg. "'Now I have to go back to my old world and try to digest and process everything that's happened this week.'"
A novel building material
The twist in this year's construction project was the materials they used. Working alongside locals, the group built a two-room addition to the small school out of discarded plastic beverage bottles. That's right, pop bottles. When used as building materials, they're known as "ecobricks."
The company partnered with Hug It Forward, a nonprofit that has built 341 classrooms out of ecobricks, mostly in Guatemala.
Ecobricks provide insulation while reusing plastic that otherwise would likely not get recycled. When Hug It Forward finds a community that needs help building a school, Haeg said, the project starts with residents collecting 10,000 bottles.
Each bottle gets stuffed tightly with plastic bags until it can't flex, then tied with twine between walls of chicken wire. Spaces between bottles are further stuffed with trash.
"Once all these walls are built, they put cement over it so the finished building looks like a schoolhouse," Haeg said.
Stuffing and tying the bottles is "dirty, tedious work," Law said. "Kneeling on the ground, being in awkward positions, threading bottles. It's a combination of a little bit of physical labor and a lot of concentration and patience, because that twine was hard to work with."
A Lifetouch photographer took portraits of all the students, uploaded them to a lab in Plano, Texas, printed them overnight and shipped them back to Agua Escondida while the group was still there. The kids had never seen printed photos before, Haeg said.
"I was helping one of the little boys and I showed him that you could open the envelope — he was shocked that the envelope could open," she said. The envelope contained an 8-by-10-inch picture of the boy and eight wallet-size prints. "The look on his face was like, there's eight of me. It was a foreign concept, how a picture gets printed. We [Americans] are so saturated with pictures and our ability to print."
'Being present is a present'
The group learned a lot about a different way of life. Families live in one-room houses with no plumbing and little electricity. Women weave vivid textiles and make corn tortillas.
Observing up close, the group "became much more appreciative and understanding of the culture and tradition of the Mayans and of Guatemala," Haeg said. "We think we're going there to help them, and what we find is we got so much more out of this than we gave."
The travelers absorbed the idea that "being present is a present," she said. We're so focused on what do we need to get done or our to-do list or running here or having our phone in our hands. We just realize our lives have become cluttered and complicated with everything. … A mission trip allows us to slow down and let people be present, let the day unfold, and be, allow yourself to experience what's in front of you."
Law's experience involved "learning nonstop," he said. He and his wife had been applying for the Lifetouch trips — the participants are selected by random drawing — for about a decade before he was picked for this one, he said. (His wife, sadly, was not able to go.)
"I believe that education has the chance to improve lives and the quality of life," he said. "Creating education where it doesn't currently exist, or where it's hard to access, speaks to the core of who educators are."
The Lifetouch group had the opportunity to witness education's power at its most rugged and fundamental level. The school there has four rooms — up from two before the bottle-walled extension — without heat or air conditioning. Students walk an hour or more to get to the school, down a milelong hill, then along a busy highway without sidewalks to the school; back up the steep hill at the end of the day.
"But the students are so appreciative of the opportunity to get to go to school," Law said. "You have to go to school in the United States, it's a requirement. You get to go to school in Guatemala,"
The local school serves students through sixth grade. To go on to higher grades would require riding a bus to another town. Many families don't have cars and can't afford a daily bus.
The experience "re-grounds you in why you do what you do," Law said. "Education has power to improve the lives of the people involved and society at large, and I could see it there. It was much more visible.
"At times," he added, "I was a little bit envious."