Seeds of Learning: A homegrown agent of change
It was blisteringly hot and uncomfortably humid, and Sonoma Valley High sophomore Christina Uzzo was surrounded by an alarming array of bugs unlike any she had ever seen before, but in recounting the story, she laughed that the tough conditions just added to the adventure of her fourth trip to El Salvador with Sonoma-based Seeds of Learning.
Uzzo will return to Central America for a fifth time this summer with her stepfather, building engineer Mark Etherington, but this time to Nicaragua, which she has heard is even poorer than El Salvador. “It is hard to imagine that,” she said. “I had obviously heard about people living in poverty before, but after my first trip to help build the school in El Salvador, the concept of poverty now comes with really vivid images.”
In its 20 years of operation, Sonoma-based Seeds of Learning has transformed the educational resources available to thousands of Central American families ... but the transformation experienced by the Sonoma volunteers building the village schools has been equally impressive.
Seeds of Learning is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities in rural Latin America. It works with North Americans and Central Americans to build and equip schools in Nicaragua and El Salvador, to educate children and adults, and to promote cross-cultural understanding. Its U.S. headquarters is in the Sonoma Community Center but the organization also has field offices in Nicaragua, as well as El Salvador.
Seeds of Learning sends 12 or more work groups of volunteers to Central America each year, who spend 10 days working with communities in Nicaragua or El Salvador. While there, volunteers partner with communities, form relationships, build bridges and explore each others’ cultures while erecting or improving a school building.
Sonoma resident Todd Evans co-founded SOL and has played a huge role in its subsequent growth. He and co-founder Patrick Rickon went to Nicaragua with a Habitat for Humanity project in the 1980s and, upon return trips, were touched by the desperate needs of the region. Galvanized to help, they collected educational materials in the states and worked with community members to build rustic school desks out of scrap lumber from a Habitat for Humanity saw mill. It quickly became obvious that beyond desks, actual schools were needed as well. In 1991, they founded Seeds of Learning with the goal of improving the future of the citizens of Central America through education, while also increasing cross-cultural understanding with North Americans.
SOL began to attract the attention of a wide population of youth groups, schools and churches. In 1992, 22 volunteers traveled to Nicaragua to build a one-classroom school and seven schools in Northern California began communicating with schools in Nicaragua. Today there are more than 2,000 students and 80 teachers involved in a sister school program, exchanging letters, artwork and cultural traditions throughout the year. In Sonoma, Flowery Elementary School is very active in the program.
There are other organizations that offer service trips of this kind, but SOL director Annie Bacon said that what really sets Seeds of Learning apart is that it works hard to empower and listen to the people with whom it works, both in Central America and the U.S. as well. “When we work with a community to build a school, we make sure that they are part of the process every step of the way, and that they are defining their needs and the groups from the U.S. come to work alongside of them, not to build for them.” Local Seeds of Learning staffers hold many community meetings to understand what is really needed and wanted by a community, and to ask questions of local teachers, students and parents. “SOL is committed to approaching their work with humility and respect,” Bacon explained.
Bacon is the organization’s only full-time employee in the U.S. While remaining lean, over the years the organization has grown and now includes adult education and literacy initiatives. In 1996, SOL established a scholarship program, which today supports more than 113 primary, secondary, and university students in Latin America, and has awarded 974 scholarships over the past two decades.
Almost 300 volunteers, as young as 6 and as old as 84, from all over North America, participate in SOL’s work group program each year. Over the past 20 years, more than 2,440 volunteers have traveled with SOL and built or renovated 139 classrooms in 48 communities, benefiting more than 21,000 area students. These days, SOL volunteers work on approximately 17 school buildings a year, depending on available funding.
Altimira sixth-grader Kimberly Uzzo was only 8-years-old the first time she went to El Salvador with her stepfather on an SOL trip. “I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to help but there is work that all ages can do. My favorite job was to mix the cement and fill cinder blocks with cement.”
When asked what has stuck with her most when thinking back about the trips, she said, “I like learning about the local culture and meeting the families that live there. It has made me realize how lucky we are to have such nice schools and nice homes. People in other parts of the world aren’t nearly so lucky.”
Sonoma High teacher Judy Frey-Cohen has accompanied several student groups on SOL trips. Said Cohen, “The trips that my students have participated in to El Salvador have been life changing for everyone. The interaction with the Salvadorian culture has served to broaden perspectives and the actual hands-on building has allowed us all to gain the satisfaction of giving back to the world and being grateful for what we all have as Americans.”
The 7-to-10-day trips cost $1,300, plus airfare, although the cost is entirely tax-deductible and every dime goes toward the local project underway. And the cost is all-inclusive, as volunteers are provided with hostel-type housing, all meals, local travel, sightseeing trips and service learning. Many work group participants raise money for their trips from family and friends, bake sales and car washes. The local Rotary Club has also provided a number of scholarships to help Sonoma teens defray the cost of participating.
On a typical 10-day trip, weekdays are spent building or repairing a school all morning with afternoons spent visiting local spots. Weekends might include home stays or day trips to a nearby volcano, botanical garden, turtle hatchery or open market. Each evening, the group leader and local staff speak with the volunteers about local issues, political conditions, customs and philosophies of development.
It is useful but not required to have a working knowledge of Spanish. According to group leader Mark Etherington, those who speak some Spanish come back with enhanced skills, people who don’t speak any can still navigate daily life and learn some along the way. “It is amazing how much Spanish the group can pick up in 10 days,” he said.
Etherington added, “Without exception, my work groups have been truly humbled that people can live in conditions like that. We visit the homes of some of the locals who are working alongside us and students frequently come back to the work site crying. They are shocked that kids their age are sleeping on a dirt floor with no running water, no electricity, no toilet and, until we got there, no school.”
“These are not trips for people who are looking for a tourist experience or a leisurely slow pace.” Said Etherington. “You don’t come back rested but your heart and mind are full.”