Students travel to third-world countries

Some parents may be concerned about humanitarian trips but they can help teenagers grow and develop a whole new perspective of the world

When Armida Armato’s daughter, Alexia, came home from school one day last year keen to go on a school trip to Ecuador, she wasn’t too sure how to feel. She was happy that her daughter could experience something she never did as a teen but was fearful of letting her travel to such a remote part of the world.

Alexia was 16 at the time, a student at Westwood High School in Hudson. The school sponsored a humanitarian trip for 26 students and two teachers to spend 18 days living in a mountain village to build a one-room school.

Even though Armato trusted her daughter, the other students and the teachers, she was worried about the side effects from the travel vaccines, possible accidents, and medical care.

Now that Alexia is home, Armato said she sees her daughter’s new maturity, greater confidence and independence.

“This is the best thing I ever did,” Alexia said. “The experience was so eye-opening and life changing. You’re with people who are not as lucky as you are. They live in very poor conditions but they’re so happy and outgoing. You say, ‘my God, I’m taking everything for granted back home.’”

She says they built a one-room school from scratch with no mechanical cement mixers. They used their hands, shovels and basic tools. She and another student lived with a local family in a small village about eight hours outside the capital, Quito. Despite  the initial strangeness and having only basic Spanish skills, she says they grew very close and became like family.

Every year, groups of Montreal high school students like Alexia pack their bags and fly off with classmates and teachers to developing countries where they volunteer at a variety of projects including building wells or working at schools.

Armato’s worries are very common among parents, said Bill Nevin, a teacher at St. George’s High School. He organizes a humanitarian trip to India to the Sheela Bal Bhavan orphanage and says the three biggest fears families have are health, security and contact.

To alleviate these worries, St. George’s holds information meetings from September to December for families to discuss the orphanage the students will live in and necessary travel documents. Nevin reassures families that excellent medical services are available and that students rarely get sick since they travel with teachers who supervise what they eat and drink.

Nevin emphasizes that students aren’t travelling alone — teachers provide support, advice and care. Students and parents get to talk and meet their supervisors before they leave. As well, with Internet connections now available in most parts of the world, students are rarely out of contact for more than a few days. During the India trip, students e-mail their parents every couple of days and call home to let them know that everything is going well.

In fact, Nevin says, parents should worry less about their child’s safety while away and focus more on the profound and confusing changes that can happen to a teen who has been confronted with a new culture and values. Students who have seen families living in dire poverty may feel guilty and will probably begin questioning how best to help people in other countries.

“Listen to what the students are saying and talk about it,” advised Hanna Hershman, who works at St. George’s and accompanied students on the trip a few years ago. “By talking about it, they figure out a way to deal with it. There are so many differences (in the developing world), and they’re not always comfortable differences.”

The students who go to the orphanage do presentations for other classes, and that also helps them process everything they’ve seen, she said.

Coming home was definitely the hardest part of the trip for Alexia. “I didn’t know how to be in my old life, didn’t know how to adjust,” she said. “It’s hard being around people who didn’t experience what you did.”

Now a first-year student at Dawson College, Alexia’s already checking into a humanitarian trip they offer to India. “I definitely want to do other trips like it.”

Preparation tips for parents

  1. Go to information sessions and meet the teachers and other students who travelled on these trips. Ask a lot of questions.
  2. Find out about recommended vaccines and medications. Arrange to do the vaccines early; some might require more than one dose over a longer time interval.
  3. Discuss how often you’ll be able to keep in touch — daily, every few days? Make sure you have a plan in case of a serious emergency.
  4. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, focus on the positive outcomes of the trip. Your teen will be challenged, but will also grow and mature.