Westwood Senior’s International Development Project in La Concepción
PHOTO BY ALEX LANTHIER
Hudson’s Westwood High School students Johanna Desjardins and Erika MacInnis were part of the 18 students of the International Development Project who traveled to La Concepción, Mexico recently to help construct a new medical centre.
There are many opportunities in life for both young people and adults to participate in projects where they can travel to an underdeveloped country and live as the locals do. Eighteen Grade 11 students from Westwood Senior High School recently had the privilege of spending 10 days in a remote Mexican settlement called La Concepción, located in the southern province of Oaxaca, as a part of the school’s International Development Project (IDP). Our goal was to build a new medical centre, but the real payoff was the personal growth and awakening that came from the experience.
Getting there consisted of a five-hour flight to Mexico City, followed by a short flight to Oaxaca. After spending a night in a local hostel, - a three hour bus ride brought the students to the town of San José del Pacífico. The final leg of the journey involved being loaded into the back of a motorized covered wagon called a “camioneta” and for 30 minutes, we flirted with precarious cliff edges until we reached our new homes amongst the clouds in La Concepción.
While we knew that the settlement would be quite remote, it wasn’t the “Upper Canada” style village we had anticipated. Instead of being a cluster of houses all within sight of each other, some IDPers were forced to hike 30 minutes on mountainous trails connecting their host families’ homes and the work site. These houses were wooden structures with corrugated steel roofs, only one room, and no indoor plumbing. You soon begin to create a mental checklist of all the things you take for granted back home, such as insulated walls and windows. Who knew that roosters crow almost hourly at night; not just at sunrise like in the cartoons?
The purpose of the project was to join together with the residents in order to build a new medical centre. Our role in the construction was primarily to mix cement so that the local “maestros” could put up the structure. We quickly learned that nothing can prepare you for seven hours a day of shoveling cement in the hot Mexican sun, at an approximate 8000-foot altitude. That being said, we were so efficient that we also built a large cement play area! We of course encountered various obstacles, but both projects were completed in time for a humble ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebratory fiesta.
Although much of our time was spent at the work site, most evenings saw us grouped around the dinner table with our families. They asked questions about Canada and we inquired about their lives in Mexico. Sometimes the answers we were provided didn’t match the questions we attempted to ask, and it didn’t help that not all of us had reached the linguistic heights of Spanish fluency that we had once envisioned, but we nonetheless enjoyed fruitful discussions with our families. One of the more notable conversations that took place involved an explanation of how maple syrup was made which required advanced miming techniques and frequent use of the word “árbol” (tree).
Ten days after we had initially arrived it was time to leave La Concepción, and it was a tearful good-bye for both sides. The villagers got to meet us and learn about us as people outside the context of our regular lives and while maybe their opinion of us would have been different had they seen how we usually live, from what we saw during our brief stay, they were genuinely happy to share their homes with us. We don’t know if they consider themselves poor, but we never felt poor living amongst them and couldn’t have expected more than what was already provided.
Opportunities like this don’t just happen. They require initiative and commitment from Westwood teachers who make this project a reality for Secondary V students. We, the IDPers, worked hard to raise funds but are also indebted to the parents who lent their experience and organizational skills. With the support of our community we, in turn, were able to help a community several thousand kilometers away and that feeling of empowerment, of being able to bring about change, will stay with us for the rest of our lives.