After a week of work in the hot and humid rainforest, a dozen members of Quarry Communications have gained a new respect for the hardships of Latin America and a renewed sense of teamwork. Working in the village of San Pedro Columbia in Belize from Feb. 11-19, 12 employees of the St. Jacobs company sweated it out to help build a new schoolhouse in partnership with the Belize-based Columbia River Cooperative and a North American charitable group called Students Offering Support.
The school that the Quarry team helped build, dubbed The Rainforest Academy, will be vital for the long-term sustainability of the village and the people who live there. Currently there is only one elementary school in the village which serves 600 students, but if they wish to proceed to high school, they must travel two hours by bus every day. The cooperative is a non-profit organization seeking to conserve and protect the land, forest, rivers, and people of Belize’s rural south. The Quarry team was tasked with finishing the one-storey, two-room schoolhouse that a team of 20 Wilfrid Laurier University students started last August. Quarry made a lump-sum donation to the project, while team members had to pay their own way and spent months fundraising for the cause.
“It’s a farming region and for the kids who know they’re going to stay in the region and become farmers, there is no reason to stay in school given the time it takes to get to school every day,” said Lisa Stapleton, marketing automation strategist at Quarry and one of the team members who travelled to Belize. Stapleton said that the aim of the project was to establish in the village a high school that focuses on agriculture. The goal of the Columbia River Cooperative is to get the enrolment numbers up across the village and to spread knowledge to help them transform their lives.
“It’s not a typical high school,” said Duane Wadel, the director of productivity support at Quarry and another team member. “It’s almost like a trade school because they’re specializing in agricultural techniques and sustainable farming to help them help themselves.” Wadel said that although the enrolment rate in elementary school is 100 per cent, only 50 per cent continue on to middle school, and of that 50 per cent, only 35 per cent continue on to high school. For every 100 students who start elementary school, only about four ever graduate high school. Some of the projects that Lisa White, the director of the Columbia River Cooperative, is working on include sustainably growing and harvesting tilapia as another source of food, and successfully breeding cows that are capable of being milked in the often oppressive rainforest conditions. They also want to help farmers learn more environmentally-friendly farming practices and move away from their traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, which destroys large tracts of rainforest and is unsustainable in the long term.
The school was built of concrete blocks, poured concrete and plaster. For the employees of Quarry – who are typically more accustomed to sitting behind a computer screen all day than swinging a hammer – there was help in the form of a pair of local foremen, as well as other tradesmen. Wadel said the team marveled at their ingenuity and ability to work around any problem. On the first day he broke the handle of his hammer while taking down some concrete forms, but instead of throwing it out and finding a new one, the foreman went into the jungle with a machete, chopped down a branch, and whittled it into a new handle within minutes.
“I called them the McGyvers of construction,” laughed Wadel. The team typically worked between eight to ten hours days a day in 30-degree heat with close to 100 per cent humidity, but Wadel and Stapleton said they were pleasantly surprised with the dedication and optimism shown by the team members to complete their work.
“Any job that had to be done, no matter how labour-intensive or how boring, there was never a ‘no’ it was always a ‘yes’,” said Wadel.
This was the second time that Quarry had teamed up with SOS for a development project in Latin America. Last February Quarry sent another team of 12 to Costa Rica to help a group of women establish their own small business; Stapleton said their partnership will be an annual occurrence. The two groups first came in contact about two years ago when Quarry, still located in downtown Waterloo, rented office space to SOS, a charitable group that raises money through university exam review sessions at universities and colleges across North America. The money raised in these study sessions is spent creating sustainable educational projects in developing nations, and since 2004 more than 2,000 SOS volunteers have tutored more than 25,000 students, raising nearly a million dollars for development projects in Latin America.
Aside from building the school, though, the trip provided a chance for the Quarry employees to get to know each other outside of work, which should in turn benefit the company and each other. “You can never walk past somebody in the hallway in the same way if you’ve been on this trip together,” said Stapleton. “You share a bond.” There are about 90 employees at the Quarry office in St. Jacobs, and Stapleton said the aim is to have everyone participate in at least one trip in the future.
The team has a blog complete with a day-by-day journal of their experience in Belize, as well as many photos of their trip. Visit https://quarryoutreach.wordpress.com/ to see their blog, and for more information on SOS visit www.studentsofferingsupport.ca and https://www.columbiarivercooperative.com/ for more information on the Columbia River Cooperative and their work in Belize.