by Sue Ann Rybak
Arianna Neromiliotis, director of Teenagers Inc., a lifelong resident of Mt. Airy, said on every service trip that her group makes to Guatemala “there is this ‘aha moment’ when we see kids sort of change right before our eyes.”
“When they meet 15-year-olds just like them that are living in Guatemala, that bridge sort of naturally happens,” she said. “These young naive teenagers realize that ‘this could be us.’”
Since 2008, Teenagers Inc., a nonprofit teen organization in Chestnut Hill, has been traveling to God’s Child Project in Antigua, Guatemala, to build homes for poverty-stricken families. Many families live in small huts that consist of lamina, reeds and a dirt floor.
To go on the 10-day service trip from July 1 to 10, teenagers must raise roughly $2,000. In addition, the organization must raise the funds needed to build the five houses.
This year, Teenagers Inc. received $11,000 in grants from various organizations including the Clover Fields Foundation, the Patricia Kind Foundation, Our Mother of Consolation’s Peace and Justice Committee, Chestnut Hill Community Association donors and many more.
“Building a house for them means lots of things,” Neromiliotis said. “It means they are going to have a dry place to stay at night. We put down a cement floor which cuts down on 85 – 90 percent of the parasites that live in the dirt. And that house is going to last 40 years.”
She added that these houses are “a beacon of hope for a lot of families.”
“There are a lot of beautiful things that happen when you realize you are not only giving someone a home but you are giving them hope, said Neromiliotis, who was one of the first teen members of Teenagers, Inc. “It’s a chance for them to do better in their lives, and the kids really get that.”
She added that when participants come home they begin to realize that even their “worst day” here “seems so small in comparison to what you’ve seen there.”
Marianne Dwyer, of Chestnut Hill, who helped found the organization, said this year Patrick Atkinson, founder of God’s Child Project, spoke to Teenagers Inc. volunteers.
Dwyer said Atkinson told them that wile many kids see the trip as an adventure, they “took it a step further in the work ethic and compassion they displayed while there.”
She added that Atkinson told them that “only one percent of their age group will ever do something like this in their lives.”
Alysha Robertson, 17, of Bala Cynwyd, recalled how when they presented a house to the mother of one of the families, she told her and Dwyer that they changed her image of Americans.
“It was the first time that a Guatemalan family ever said that to us, and it really hit me here,” Dwyer said, laying a hand on her heart. “It’s an unbelievable thing to me as a mother to think that everyday I have a roof over my head, food on my table and clothing, and I never have to worry about that. When you hand the house over to the family you give them a great gift – a home.”
Anya Seehusahai, 15, of Cheltenham, recalled squeezing between tiny dirt alleys to paint the house with Eloise Kadleckek.
“In the neighborhood, where we were building houses they really didn’t have anything,” added Kadleckek, 15, of Chestnut Hill. “They didn’t even have actual walls it was just plastic. They slept on dirt floors.”
However, it was the children of Guatemala that Seehusahai said she would remember the most. She recalled the joy they had in their eyes at being able to help build a house.
“So many kids came out of nowhere,” she said. “All the kids in the neighborhood would gather around while we mixed the cement. They just wanted to help us do everything.”
Seehusahai said while it was exhausting lifting the buckets of cement to carry to the building site, “It was so worth it.”
“The kids were incredibly hard workers,” she said. “A little 8-year-old boy was lifting buckets of cement. You could never find a little kid up here who could lift buckets cement like that.”
Carlos Diaz, 19, of Chestnut hill, agreed. He added that even though the families were living in extreme poverty, they didn’t hesitate to spend what little they had to show them their gratitude.
“They were living in extreme poverty, but with the very little they had, they offered to buy us a coke,” he said. “Of course, we said, ‘No thank you.’”
He added that Americans often spend money frivolously.
“Living in Chestnut Hill, it’s a well-off neighborhood, and when you go down to Guatemala and see such extreme poverty, it really hits home,” he said. “It puts life into perspective.”
Grace DiGiovanni, 15, of Mt. Airy, agreed.
“It changed my perspective by showing me I didn’t really need everything I had,” she said. “I have like 20 outfits and they are lucky to have two pairs of clothes.
She said before the trip she would occasionally think “Oh, my God, I don’t have the right outfit for the party.”
Now, she said she is so grateful for everything she has.
DiGiovanni said her group built a house for a family whose father was abusive and left them.
“We were building the house for the mother who wasn’t actually living there at the time because she had to earn a living for her family,” she said.
She added the mother’s three children lived in the house with her extended family.
“They were two beds for around 10 people,” DiGiovanni said. “It wasn’t really a bed just a few cinder blocks with a mattress or bedding.”
She recalled how the children would be so happy for the simplest toys like balloons and bubbles.
“They loved the gum,” she said. “That’s all they asked for, ‘chicle, chicle, chicle.’”
DiGiovanni said knowing you help bring someone joy and hope changes you in a profound way.
Chandler Dixon, of Overbrook Farms, formerly of Mt. Airy, agreed, saying, “the trip helps shape you as a person.”
“It was really an eye-opener,” she said. “It made me appreciate everything I have. I wish I could help more, but I would rather build houses than spend that time on a tour. One of the best moments for me was being able to play soccer with the kids because they were so welcoming. Even with the language barrier, we still connected.”
Besides helping to build houses, Teenagers Inc. also visited Casa Jackson, a center for malnourished children, The Dreamer Center, a school that provides a free education for children aged 5 through 12, Santa Madre Emergency Shelter and the Scheel Center Dental Clinic.
Georgia Hight-Schickel, of Mt. Airy,recalled talking to a man in Spanish at the homeless shelter for a half-hour.
“Talking with him made me realize how much you can improve someone’s day with just a conversation,” she said. “I feel so lucky to have been part of such a great experience.”
Eloise Kadleckek said her favorite part of the trip was going to Casa Jackson, a center for malnourished babies.
“The babies were so happy to see people visit them and hold them,” she said. “They just wanted to be held all the time.”
Kadleckek said that, like all babies, they just wanted to feel loved and safe. She said being able to give that to them, even for just a short period of time, was “a great gift.”
A gift that Ceci Schickel, of Mt. Airy, believes will last a lifetime.
Schickel said she felt “indebted” to Teenagers director Neromiliotis and the other chaperons for providing her daughter and the other teenagers with this opportunity.
“It was priceless for our kids to have this opportunity,” she said. “It will be something that makes a profound difference in their journey [in life].”
For more information about Teenagers Inc. go to www.teensincphilly.org.