As soon as Rishele Settle stepped off the bus after returning home from Ecuador, she broke down.
She was home — a place of luxury when she considered where she had spent the past week.
Settle was among the 28 students from Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School who travelled to the South American country to help build a school.
Sure, she was happy to be home, but her tears were also for those she met and worked alongside during her time just outside of the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.
“I expected we’d be building all the time, just working. We got there and got to speak with all these families and see what their lives were like,” said Settle.
Settle’s classmate, Emily Fallows, recalled a visit to a local man’s home and farm.
“He opened up his home to us, cut up his own fruit that he farmed, and invited us in — these strangers,” she said.
He shared his story with the Orillia students, telling them he moved near the river because it was closer to the school his kids attended — some kids walk for hours to attend school — but that meant clean drinking water was harder to come by. The man continues to fight for clean drinking water, after a lack of it led to the death of his daughter.
“That was the most moving thing for me,” Fallows said.
During their time in Ecuador, the students worked through sweltering conditions to build foundation posts for what would be the cafeteria in the school. It was hot and it was loud, with rooms separated by pieces of wood that didn’t reach the ceiling. The “surreal experience” gave the Orillia visitors a new appreciation for what they have, Fallows said.
“Seeing their school conditions and our school conditions, we were grateful, but it also made us work so hard,” she said.
Ecuador wasn’t always the plan. The students were set to head for Nicaragua, but political unrest in that Central American country diverted them south about a week before they left Canada. They had spent a year preparing for the trip to Nicaragua, studying the country.
“It was a weird mix of emotions,” said Settle. “We were disappointed that we couldn’t go to Nicaragua, but we were excited to experience Ecuador.”
Some of the students had to raise money to pay their way to Ecuador, and they decided, as a class, to pay it forward. After holding various fundraisers throughout the year, the students collected $1,000 for the Orillia Youth Centre, $1,000 for Youth Haven and $1,000 for the Lighthouse Soup Kitchen and Shelter/Building Hope campaign. Representatives from those groups were at the school Tuesday to receive the cheques. The students also raised $1,000 for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Christmas food campaign.
“It’s really gratifying when young people reach out and support their peers, fellow youth,” said youth centre director Kevin Gangloff.