by Pete Mazzaccaro
Early in the pre-dawn hours of July 3, 23 Teenagers Inc. members packed themselves and 45 suitcases of supplies destined for Guatemala on a bus bound for Newark Airport.
It was the sixth trip the Chestnut Hill-based group was making to the Central American nation for a rendezvous with an agency that builds homes for people in the rural mountain areas around the city of Antigua, 45 minutes west of the capital, Guatemala City.
At 3 a.m., it took a heroic effort to move the suitcases – each packed with just under 50 pounds of more than $12,000-worth of supplies donated by Chestnut Hill residents and institutions – aboard the bus. But it seemed to work perfectly.
“It seemed meant to be this year,” said Teenagers Inc. Director Arianna Neromiliotis. “Each person had two suitcases. It was a neat experience to see the kids take them on the bus, and every time we needed to move them, they were ready.
Those supplies ran the gamut from children’s toys and games to baby formula to sheets and towels donated by Chestnut Hill Hospital.
“We had a lot of really awesome donors,” Neromiliotis said.
Neromiliotis said that the object for every trip is to build houses. Teens Inc. works with God’s Child Project, an agency focused on delivering social aid to the San Felipe neighborhood of Antigua. In addition to building homes, the charity operates a school and hosts a vegetable drive, all of which Teenagers Inc. volunteers assisted in the 10 days they spent in Antigua.
“When we first arrived, we participated in a field day at the God’s Child school, which is a little different from what we’ve done before,” Neromiliotis said. “Our kids fit right in – playing and dancing and having a great time. Soccer and play is an international language. It takes nothing to pick up a piece of chalk and drawing or kicking a soccer ball.”
From there, the teens got settled in with host families who live in a historic neighborhood of Candelaria, which Neromiliotis said has sections that resemble Chestnut Hill – cobblestone streets lined with nice shops that attract international tourists.
This year, in addition to participating in the vegetable drive, Teens Inc. built four homes. Each, Neromiliotis said, is a 10 by 20 foot, one-room shelter with a concrete floor, solid tin roof with a skylight and a lockable window and door. All are big improvements over the makeshift homes that are sometimes held together with plastic bags.
“They are not complicated homes, but the give people an opportunity to have a dry place to stay,” Neromiliotis said. “We’re also lucky. We have six college-aged boys who’ve been going down six years straight. They know how to swing a hammer and can teach the others what to do.”
One of those repeat home builders is Brendan Dwyer, a Teens Inc. “lifer” who has made every trip.
“There’s nothing quite as humbling or grounding than seeing each family stand in their newly built home with big smiles on their faces and tears of joy and gratitude in their eyes,” he said. “That is what keeps bringing me back each year.”
That connection is a big part of the experience. Teens Inc. home builders meet the families who are having the homes built and know their stories. They might be farm workers, coffee pickers or unemployed, young parents who are still in school. Each family must meet a set of standards set by God’s Child Project in order to qualify for a home.
“When I look back over my shoulder after we say our goodbyes, I am struck with the scene of our family waving back, standing in front of their new blue house,” said third-time participant Liu Ann Volpe, 19, a rising sophomore at Davidson College.
In many ways, Neromiliotis said, the work really raises the awareness ,of each participant.
“Everybody has that ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “Let me just check to make sure I’m doing everything I can in my country.”
Indeed many of the participants said as much. It’s an experience that changes their outlook on the world and themselves.
“Guatemala taught me that although we may have more materialistic items than the Guatemalan people we met, they have more love and gratitude than we will ever have,” said Gabrielle Weiss, a 17-year-old Springfield Township High School student after her first trip. “Everyone should have the chance to experience a trip like this one at least once in their life.”
“Guatemala has been the most influential experience of my life,” Said Brennan O’Donnell, an 18-year-old La Salle High School grad who went to Guatemala for the fourth time. “I have learned that everyday is an opportunity to help make the world a better place as well as everyday is an opportunity to better myself. Guatemala has also gave me the confidence and knowledge that I can change the lives of people within a short time period. The possibilities go as far as you believe as well as the work you put into it.”
“My experience in Guatemala was extremely eye opening and humbling,” said first-time participant Rachel Koller, a 16-year-old Gwynedd Mercy Academy student. “Although the trip was only 10 days, I learned life-changing lessons and created memories that will last a lifetime.”
Neromiliotis said that connection is part of what has made the trip and the organization popular. It’s a vital part of the organization’s annual program. It’s something the participants look forward to.
“I think our trip is a goal,” she said. “It’s something we work towards. It encompasses not only service and fun but also our community. Without this project, we’d end our year, and it wouldn’t be as powerful. We can bring all the people in our program and show them the world. We show them the difference but also the similarities. It’s an experience that’s so much different than anything else.”
In the future, Neromiliotis said she’d like to add a medical component to the trip. The need is there, she said, and many families of Teens Inc. members have medical practitioners among them.
“This could be an experience that would help the teens be part of a medical effort,” she said, “Something different than building the houses. We do great things. Why not? Let’s see what else we can do.”
In any event, it is clear Teens Inc. is going to retain the relationship it has begun in Guatemala.
“Guatemala is our second home,” Neromiliotis said. “It’s Teen Inc’s Central American office. It’s like going to the shore.”
For more information or to join Teenagers Inc., see teensincphilly.org.