Columbia high school students will travel to India to repair school

Monday, May 2, 2011 | 4:44 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – The students of Columbia Independent School are helping five of their own travel more than 7,000 miles to restore a school on the other side of the world.

On July 31, Alejandro Chávez, Natalie Collings, Lea Selby, Cecily Krehbiel and Lauren Roehlke, all juniors at Columbia Independent, will embark on a two-week journey to Ayur, India. The town lies near the west coast in India’s southern tip.

The students will work to patch up Karunya Special School, which has classrooms that serve 70-100 special education students. The building doesn’t have windows, doors or a roof.

Before they can take on the construction work, the five students are tackling travel expenses — the trip will cost $3,000-$5,000 per person. It’s up to the students to raise most of it, and their classmates are pitching in.

Dozens of Columbia Independent School students have been raising money to send their friends to Ayur.

“This core group of kids is pushing it and organizing it, but they have the support of their peers,” said Kayse Beza, a teacher at the school who will travel with the students as a chaperone.

Last year, the school raised more than $7,000 by holding a rummage sale. Second-graders helped by selling cookbooks, which added $600 more to the travel fund.

The willingness of the school to contribute is inspiring for the students and adults going on the trip. 

In March and April, the school had two trivia nights, raising about $500. Beza said they are well over halfway to being completely funded.

“You should have seen how many students came out to set up the rummage sale and who showed up at the rummage sale,” she said with an impressed smile.

The group will travel with Be The Change Volunteers, a Columbia-based charitable organization that specializes in building schools around the world.

Be The Change Volunteers started in 2007 with 35 people traveling to Butare, Rwanda, in connection with Habitat for Humanity. They went to rebuild a primary school severely damaged in the 1994 genocide.

The walls of the school were pockmarked with bullet holes. Doors and windows had been torn from their hinges. For the 500 children who attended the school, the damage was a constant reminder of the tragedy that left many of them orphaned.

The 35 volunteers spent two weeks working on the school and completely restored six classrooms. They raised an additional $45,000 to continue the project.

“It was a healing process for themselves and the country,” said James Cook, who traveled with the group and would become one of the founders of Be The Change Volunteers.

Cook said the Rwanda trip, the book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson — now under fire for his use of funds — and David Oliver Relin inspired him to start an organization of his own.

 “I read the book and I thought, ‘This is what we need to do. We need to build schools,’” Cook said.

Officially established in 2008, Be The Change Volunteers has repaired or built schools in Cambodia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, South Africa and Nepal. Future trips will send volunteers to Ethiopia, Malawi, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand.

Cook visited Columbia Independent’s global issues class to talk about the group's mission. He sparked a lasting interest among the students.

After the visit, Jennifer Anderson, who teaches the class, asked her students to come up with an action project. The result was Chili for Change, a fundraiser dinner that raised $1,500.

“Parents and other members of the community started asking questions,” Anderson said. "The key question was 'How can we start going?'"

In 2010, the school sent its first team of students to South Africa for a successful two-week trip.

“We got to see parts of the country, but most of the time we spent building the school,” said Seth Gordon, a senior this year, “The kids that we met there were really cool.”

Seth's trip to India will be his second with Be The Change Volunteers. He’s planning to graduate in May, so he’s raising money on his own to make the trip as an adult.

His sister, Chelsea, is also going. She’s a former Columbia Independent graduate now at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Among the five new faces is Alejandro Chávez, who said he's getting ready for the trip by bringing Indian snacks to class. Alejandro travels regularly to visit family in Mexico, but he’s never left the continent.

“I want to travel the world, but India is one of the main places I want to visit,” he said.

Be The Change Volunteers is sending another team to Sri Lanka at the same time. The two groups will meet at the end of the trip to travel back home together, leaving two improved schools behind.

Donations to Be The Change Volunteers can be made on their website.

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