Fly to Central America. Arrive. Help build a school and bond with the kids. Come home with memories, accomplishment and coffee.
That's how 16 students from South Surrey's Elgin Park Secondary spent their second week in March, on a spring break that was anything but.
"Mixing cement by hand and shovelling and carrying buckets of sand and rocks is not as easy it seems," said Grade 11 student Molly Ashley, 16.
"And in 36 Celsius, everyone was in the same boat, going to a different country, having an idea of what it's going to be like – but, to be completely honest, none of us really knew what to expect."
The students – ages 16 to 18 – were joined by three teacher chaperones on Me to We's service trip to Managua and Los Campos, Nicaragua. Together, they laid the foundation for a Grade 2 classroom – a project essential to children's education in Los Campos, where the community has already built three classrooms and hopes to have the whole school finished soon.
Currently, the closest school is a four-kilometre walk from where Elgin's students were building.
"Without this school, children from preschool to Grade 1 and older would have to walk to school by themselves, crossing over a busy highway with no street lights," said chaperone Courtney O'Connor, 26, a teacher at Elgin Park.
"As a result, for safety, many of the kids just don't go to school."
The build took a total of four days, with the Elgin Park team working on the school while class was in session.
The 'Me to We' crew spent most of its time painting, making the cement and logging materials to the site, while the children and their teachers were learning and reading in the middle of the action.
"Seeing it all done though really made it worthwhile," said student Asia Dobson, 18. "The community was incredible. For the simple reason that is was exactly that – a community."
Colin Borst, 29, who taught at Elgin until last year, was one of the chaperones, along with his wife, Melissa. He organized the trip, a project of personal satisfaction now completed a decade after his own service trip as a student.
"I went on a similar service trip to Mexico when I was in Grade 12, and I haven't been the same since," he said, adding that he has been aching to return to Latin America.
Me to We's program in Nicaragua provided him – and those 16 Elgin students – the perfect opportunity.
"I definitely felt anxious at times, as I considered the weight of taking 16 students across international borders, into communities that do not have the comforts of home," he said. "But my goals and potential benefits from the trip outweighed these worries.
"Los Campos is a very special place. Life in this community is clearly not easy, but the people always have smiles on their faces."
"The town of Los Campos was the happiest people I have seen, even with having so little," Ashley said, echoing Borst. "The community would do whatever is needed to put others ahead of themselves, even if it meant going without.
"It proved to me that it's not always those with the most that are the happiest."
Los Campos was a very rural town – "like nothing I had ever seen before," she said. "From horses, pigs and chickens roaming the streets, to children cleaning themselves off in their front yards."
Borst said he was "surprised" at how eager the students were to "dive into the work" at hand.
"They persisted through intense heat and very taxing jobs," he said. Taking breaks to play soccer and sing with the school kids was a constant source of motivation."
The group also visited a pineapple plantation, only a 15-minute walk from the school in Los Campos, taking a stroll that left an impression on everyone on-volunteer from the suburbs of South Surrey.
"On the walk, we met many other parents of children we had been interacting with all week," Borst said. "They were all so thankful for our contribution to their community's project.
"It was overwhelming... I began to grasp the real implications of our work, for the people of the community."
Gone for eight days, including a final day spent almost entirely on the plane, the group never had much free time in Managua, where they stayed. But they did have a chance to visit Granada, and tour a coffee plantation that overlooked the historical city.
"I could never pick just one," said Dobson, asked to pinpoint her favourite moment from the getaway. "The whole entire trip is going to stick with me.
"The people there understand what it means to really be not just happy, but content. They are so proud of where they have come, that anything else is just gravy.
"I love that view on life."
Elgin Park students (left to right) Andrea Buitrago, Andy Tang, Sydney Price, and Tia Davison take part in a song-and-dance routine with Grade 2 students in Los Campos, Nicaragua. (Credit: Courtney O'Connor)
Pots and arts n' crafts and things in Nicaragua. (Credit: Courtney O'Connor)
'Community preschool', this sign translates to, in Los Campos, Nicaragua. (Credit: Courtney O'Connor)
Student volunteer Andrea Buitrago, from Surrey's Elgin Park Secondary, with two children from the town of Los Campos, Nicaragua. (Credit: Courtney O'Connor)
Colin Borst has fun with two schoolchildren in Los Campos, while chaperoning a student service trip to Nicaragua with Elgin Park Secondary and Me to We. (Credit: Courtney O'Connor)
Elgin schoolteacher Courtney O'Connor poses with a Grade 2 student in the town of Los Campos, Nicaragua, while on a service trip with Me to We. (Photo contributed)
Two chaperones from Surrey's Elgin Park Secondary pose in front of a volcano in Granada, Nicaragua, while on a service trip in Central America with Me to We. (Photo contributed)
Mairin Kiloh, a student from Elgin Park in Surrey helps build a hammock in Granada, Nicaragua – a hammock that may one day break the Guinness World Record for the globe's longest.
The hammock is being built completely from discards garbage bags, which visitors and locals have recycled and are using the chase the record books.
(Credit: Courtney O'Connor)
Granada's most famous, photographed church in the Main Square of the historic Nicaraguan city. (Credit: Courtney O'Connor)