Students give back in Guatemala house-building project

Fourteen months ago, Scott Wickman, an associate professor of counseling, opened class with a discussion about his sabbatical work in Guatemala and his desire to go back one day.

T.J. Schoonover and another student suggested that Wickman take the counseling class with him when he returned.

“The next thing I know is Dr. Wickman is asking us to meet on Tuesday to start planning the trip and it kind of grew from there,” Schoonover said.

TJ Schoonover, Jessica Bedrich, Mary Kate Olofson, Rachael Boyd, Dr. Scott Wickman, Mary Stamps, Victoria Taylor, Lucero Martinez, Erin Scott and neighborhood children
TJ Schoonover, Jessica Bedrich, Mary Kate Olofson, Rachael Boyd, Dr. Scott Wickman, Mary Stamps, Victoria Taylor, Lucero Martinez, Erin Scott and neighborhood children

Schoonover, a Sterling, Ill., native who completed his bachelor’s degree at NIU (class of ’14) in sociology and started the COE’s master’s degree program in counseling two days after graduation, said he had wanted to do international service work since he was an undergraduate.

Wickman, who is also NIU graduate (class of ’87) with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and journalism, said he was surprised how fast word spread across campus about the trip.

“We had twice as many students show interest than could go this year,” he said. Students that did participate received three credits for the course “Social Justice for Service Learning in Guatemala.”

The January 2016 trip to Durazno, Guatemala, lasted seven days and included a team of 10 people, all from the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education — except for one brave graduate student in sport management. “Erin Scott heard about the trip from a co-worker and decided to sign up and go on a trip with nine people she did not know,” Schoonover said.

When in Guatemala, the team stayed at Catalyst Resources International (CRI), a not-for-profit organization that hosts service groups in dorms on their campus. Schoonover said CRI can house up to 100 people at a time and that they do a lot for the local community, including feeding 1,000 children a day, employing Guatemalans, and hosting sports camps.

The house
The house

While in Guatemala the team built a small wood-frame house with a block-and-concrete floor, corrugated iron roof, ventilated stove and covered patio for one family of five. The students also built a hen house for a family that raises chickens. None of the participants except Wickman had previous building experience. As part of their commitment to service teams, CRI provides foremen to guide them through the building process.

“I had a long conversation with Fontaine Greene, the founder of CRI about his reasoning for why they help teams build houses,” Wickman said. “He explained that he is really passionate about the significance of our contact with and immersion in the culture of these Guatemalan villages.”

Schoonover said the trip would not have been possible without the careful guidance of Terry Borg, director of the Office of External and Global Programs. “He helped guide us throughout the planning process and suggested we connect with Huskie Alternative Breaks.”

Founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which devastated Galveston, Texas, in 2009, HAB provides opportunities for NIU students to take service-learning trips during school breaks, both in the United States and abroad. “Each trip has a focus on a particular social issue, such as […] poverty, education reform, refugee resettlement, and the environment,“ according to the HAB website.

Schoonover also credits Diana Mondragon who helped coordinate and raise funding for the trip. “She worked with us the whole time throughout the entire process,” he said. The fundraising involved applying for grants, starting GoFundMe pages, and gathering donations from family and friends. The team raised a total of $4,650 for the materials to build the house, the stove and the hen house.

Overall, Schoonover and his team learned many lessons in Guatemala, but the most important one he hoped to bring home was a lesson of gratitude. “We learned to be grateful for what we have. There are people who have it much worse. Sometimes we are very frustrated with our classes, but we need to remember we have this opportunity and privilege to go to school and to be grateful for it,” he said.

Culturally, the people of Guatemala taught the team to be in the present moment, something that is hard to do in academia. “We feel so rushed all the time like we have to be going 100 miles an hour,” Schoonover said. “They taught us to slow down, take a moment to enjoy life and to try to be nicer to people.”

When asked about a service trip in 2017, Wickman said the team is definitely planning to return to Guatemala with some of this year’s participants as well as new people—while some team members are considering other locations for service work.

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