Sophie Gibson, a teacher with St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA, is a faithful Bridges volunteer who also organized her first Bridges trip for her students this past June. She wanted her students to be impacted by Bridges the same way she was in her youth.
Sophie was going into 8th grade on her first Bridges trip with the very high school where she now teaches, St. Anne’s-Belfield School. She loved it so much that she returned 7 times as a volunteer throughout high school and college, a few more times with the school and then with the Wardle family. Sophie remembers the empowering feeling of building things. She says, “I remember making friends with a community member on the construction site and the excitement of trying to communicate with new friends in a language I had absolutely no grasp on. I was learning new skills and new words all at once. I had never had that experience before…and it felt like a team effort.
As a kid, I was totally enchanted by this different way of living, by the indoor-outdoor permeability and communities integrated into environments and one another more than my community back home. I remember the landscape of where we were was so gorgeous with the pineapple fields. I loved that everyone’s homes were close together. At my mom’s house, we had to walk quite far to get to a neighbor’s house and so I remember comparing the isolated living where I am from with the community feeling and the proximity of the homes.
I know there are also problems in the communities, for example, domestic abuse and alcoholism, but as a kid, I saw a lot of positive things. I saw people being kind to one another and loving and I thought that felt right in a lot of ways. It also felt like a more flexible environment in some ways than the one where I grew up and everything has its place. It felt like there was more creative potential in some of the communities with people jerry-rigging their electricity off of other people, or for example in Derrumbadero with kids making go-karts out of milk cartons and bottle caps. There is an ingenuity that exists in these communities in comparison to the US, where there is so much material excess and everything has its purpose. Maybe there isn’t room for that ingenuity in my world, it’s a little bit stifling.”
Sophie organized her first trip as a teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfied this past June and she and a group of students traveled to the DR to build a house in our community of Caimonial. It was important to Sophie to organize this trip so that her students could have that same important and informative experience that she did when she was a teenager. Sophie says, “The kind of broadening of perspective on a bridges trip: it is still something very valuable and very valuable for my students. I want them to experience that as well. You allow a window into a different culture and way of life that is more honest than following a travel guide. There is so much privilege in the school, and it’s even a huge privilege to be able to step out of the life that we have where everything is so much easier…reliable electricity and water all the time… to see the inequality that exists. Even just the visual landscape shows much more extreme poverty than my students have ever seen.
I hope that my students will take this experience and use it to make our community at school stronger, and reach out to their friends. It puts things in perspective in their lives and they are more appreciative of what they have and of each other. I hope they try to build relationships and work together in groups towards good causes.”
Sophie has already started seeing these changes and immense growth in her students. She says, “On the way back from the trip and since then, the students have been very kind to one another and communicating with one another more face-to-face.
I think they also came away with respect for the community members that they interacted with and a more nuanced perspective on all the factors that create inequality. If people make generalizations about anywhere in Latin America without thinking about it, my students will think again about that and question those people. They don’t try to simplify things that aren’t simple. My students also have more sensitivity and, if they had a sense of superiority–that they have what they have because they deserve it and these people don’t–it was obliterated.
Likewise, through our conversations in our reflections on the trip, one of my students pointed out that you don’t have to travel very far to help out; you can do service work in your own community. My students have really taken that to heart. Three of them have revamped a previously almost abandoned community service club at school, scheduling regular meetings to help out in the local community.”
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