A group of Oak Bay students are preparing to embark on a journey that will change their lives as well as those they encounter. And a group of prominent Oak Bay residents are prepared to do some time behind bars to make sure they get that chance.
Oak Bay High teachers Brent Garraway and Ben Turner will be accompanying a group of 34 students in grades 10 to 12 to Vicente Guerrero, Mexico during spring break 2016.
“We build two homes for two families while we’re down there. We’re fully immersed within the community the entire time, so from the moment we get there in the morning we’re with the family all the way until 5 at night,” said Garraway, who has led Oak Bay students on three previous trips to the poor, rural community.
“Half the kids are normally building and half are entertainers and piggyback providers. You bring a ball out to the field and within seven minutes there’s 60 kids running around the field so happy to have people to play with.”
He said many families live in shacks made of wood pallets, tarps and cardboard, sometimes with as many seven living in a single room. The students help construct a pair of pre-fab two-bedroom homes with a small kitchen area. The building may be less than 500 square feet in size but they seem like mansions to those who will call them home.
“One thing down there is they don’t like showing emotion very much, especially the males, so to watch them crying at the end is such a big moment,” said Garraway.
While each of the students is responsible for covering their own costs for the trip, the cost of constructing the homes and supplying basic furnishings along with a few months worth of food is likely to run about $30,000. And that is where the support of the community comes in.
“The big fundraiser for us is our jail and bail where we hope to make the majority of what’s needed to cover the costs,” said Garraway.
The jail and bail event will see more than 40 local ‘inmates’ rounded up and carted off to a makeshift prison in the Bay Centre. The volunteer inmates will work to pre-raise their bail amounts before doing hard time – two hours behind bars in the Bay Centre while wearing prisoner garb.
“They’ll make some phone calls and friends will come down and make fun of them. What happens a lot of time is people will come down and pay money to keep them in a little longer,” said Garraway.
The jail and bail event will be held Saturday, May 2 in the Bay Centre courtyard from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the public is welcome to come down and take in the spectacle.
One of those who understands the value of the event is Isabella McNamee. The Grade 11 Oak Bay High student went on the trip last year and will be returning to Vicente Guerrero next spring break.
“Every time there’s two or three kids that we’ll take for a second time and they become our leaders on the second trip,” said Garraway. “They’ll help organize fundraising and when we’re down there they’ll take a major role in the house build.”
McNamee called the trip “life-changing” and is looking forward to renewing acquaintances with the families she met on her last journey.
“It completely changed my outlook on everything – on community, on family – it really taught me what matters,” she said. “I feel like here we really take so many things for granted. It taught me a lot of lessons on how to deal with family because family is everything. If you have nothing, all you have is your family.”
The thing that remains with McNamee from her past trip to Vicente Guerrero is the memories of those who she met there.
“The people are amazing. You’re swarmed with kids, they’re just so happy to have you down there. Obviously they’re grateful for what you’re doing for the community, but even just for a hug or to play soccer with them.”
And McNamee is not alone in the experiences she took away from the program. Garraway said the importance of family in the culture is something that strikes all the students who make the trip, and all return to Canada changed by the experience, with one student calling it “life awakening”.
“To see kids smiling through most of the day who have no video game systems, no second set of clothing – they have nothing and they’re still enjoying life to the fullest,” said Garraway.
And after seeing the difference those little things can make in the lives of the villagers, not having the latest i-Phone doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
“When the kids come back, a lot of times the parents will be, ‘Who’s this?’” said Garraway. “They’re hugging their brother and sister all the time, they’re appreciating what I’m doing for them – this is a different kid than went down there.”