PRINCEVILLE — Elementary students in Bungamati, Nepal, will soon return to new classrooms, and three members of the Rotary Club of Hanalei Bay had a little something to do with it.
Actually, a lot to do with it.
“I just feel good about the fact that as a result of our efforts, 30 kids are going to start school in August,” said Michael Dexter-Smith during a Rotary luncheon Thursday at the St. Regis Princeville Resort. “That’s a chance for them to grow and be productive.
“Giving kids around the the world a chance, that’s what I felt we gave them,” he continued.
Michael, his wife Barbara, and Ai Hashigiwa traveled to Bungamati in May to help build two new classrooms. The old ones had been destroyed by a massive earthquake in the rural area in April 2015. The damage was described as “biblical,” with much of it still unimproved today.
“It was as if it happened yesterday,” Barbara said.
The $5,000 project was a cooperative effort between five Rotary clubs, a Rotaract club, and Worldwide Action, a United Kingdom-based charity.
“This is really Rotary at work around the world,” Michael said.
About 15 people built two classrooms, about 15 feet by 15 feet. The classroom walls are primarily bags of dirt, 50 pounds each, stacked about 9 feet high. The bags were secured with rebar and barbed wire, and plaster was set between the bags. The wall was covered with more plaster and painted. Concrete floors were poured. There are openings for windows and a gap between the metal roof and the walls for ventilation.
Michael described the classrooms as solid and affordable.
“It really is a very inexpensive way to build a very safe building,” he said.
The Rotarians took on any job that needed doing. Michael spent hours filling bags with dirt.
“I probably shoveled more piles of dirt than I ever shoveled in my life,” he said, laughing. “But you knew every shovel you made was going to build another bit of the wall.”
There were 16 classrooms before the earthquakes. The government put up eight temporary ones. The rest were not replaced.
“So about half the kids could not go to school,” Michael said.
But come August, they can.
The Hanalei Bay Rotary Club contributed $2,500 for the materials to build the classrooms. The Rotarians paid their own expenses.
Their trip involved community outreach. They brought clothes, books and other supplies. They visited schools for children with special needs. They spent time with locals and learned about their lives. Residents took part in the classroom construction, too.
“You really want to get buy-in from the community,” Barbara said. “Not only on the worksite. The idea isn’t just to go and build a school; they want to build up and keep the connection going.”
The volunteers got to meet some of the students who will be attending school in the new classrooms. They were thrilled and appreciative, Michael said.
Most live in small homes with outside plumbing, and they have few possessions. Some lost their homes in the earthquake, couldn’t afford to rebuild and ended up living in what was basically a shanty area. But they are grateful for what little they do have, and kids look forward to school.
“They really value education,” Barbara said.
The Dexter-Smiths plan to travel to Cambodia in January to help build an entire school. They were pleased to be part of this project that included connections with Japan, the United Kingdom and Rotary clubs in Katmandu and Kauai.
“It was exciting, all the different entities involved,” Barbara said. “You felt the energy, so many were there to help.”
“It wasn’t just one lot of people going in,” Michael said. “It was just a fabulous atmosphere.”
Their trek to get to Nepal, and return home, took six weeks, 13 legs and 20,000 miles.
“We’ve been to a lot of places, 70 countries. This is the first time I didn’t just get off the bus and take a picture,” Michael said. “I actually got in there and helped a community.”