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Imagine waking up on a sandy white beach, eating local organic fruit for breakfast, bathing in the ocean and immersing yourself in an entirely different way of life. For some, this vision might seem like a distant dream, but for a small group of UC Irvine students, this was their daily routine over the summer. No, this wasn’t just an ordinary vacation filled with resorts and touristy excursions. This was an opportunity to learn and give back to the world — and for these nine Anteaters, they certainly did just that.

Courtesy of GIVE at UCI
Courtesy of GIVE at UCI

On August 19, 2013, UCI students Rachel Lamonica, Marlen Gomez, Kelsey Duque, Ashlee Davis, Stephanie Tran, Janeth Torres, Belem Gomez, Melissa Bell and Elaine Hsieh boarded a plane to Tanzania after months of planning. The trip was arranged through a non-profit organization called GIVE — Growth International Volunteer Excursions.

The goal of GIVE is to “inspire growth, empower the marginalized and encourage sustainable change worldwide.” The volunteers and leaders of this organization accomplish this mission by taking trips to different communities around the world and offering needed services. The non-profit is completely secular and is open to people from all backgrounds.

“What [GIVE] does is they go into really small countries and they talk to the communities and say, ‘We want to help. But we want to do what you want to do. Tell us what your problems are, and we’ll try to fix them,’” Rachel Lamonica, a fourth-year Psychology and Social Behavior major, said.

Before going to Tanzania this summer, Lamonica, Melissa Bell and Belem Gomez travelled to Nicaragua last summer as their first trip with GIVE. When the volunteers arrived, the community members expressed a need for a secondary school. The village that they were in did not have this kind of school — it only had one for grades K-6. After graduating from this school, the students would have to go to a school five kilometers away in another village, which was too far to walk and too expensive to take by bus. The GIVE volunteers decided to solve this problem by building a secondary and vocational school, that way the residents could continue their education and learn other technical skills for jobs.

However, the volunteers weren’t going to build just any kind of school —  they were going to make sure it was sustainable and environmentally friendly.

“The way they [build the school] is they take the bottles that the community recycles — plastic soda bottles — and then we pack those with sand, and those become the bricks. And then we build the school out of these bricks,” Lamonica said.

Courtesy of GIVE at UCI
Courtesy of GIVE at UCI

“So right now in Nicaragua, they have one school already finished, and then they are coming back the next couple summers to build the other school in the same place.”

Lamonica, Bell and Belem Gomez spent the majority of last summer preparing the bottle bricks in Nicaragua, but this summer, they spent their time laying the bricks for another school in Tanzania. Additionally, this year’s trip included more UCI students, as Lamonica and Bell spread the word about their adventures and expanded their participants this year.

Aside from working on a construction site to the build a school, the volunteers also helped the people in the community learn English. In Nicaragua, younger kids have the chance to learn English in order to apply to new business opportunities.

In Tanzania, high school students take an after school class to prepare for a required post-secondary school test administered in Arabic, Swahili and English. Failing this test has been a widespread problem for the community members because they haven’t been able to learn proper English, so instruction from the volunteers was a huge help.

The trips to Tanzania and Nicaragua were life-changing experiences, and these traveling Anteaters had nothing but positive anecdotes to share about their adventures abroad.

“I think one of my favorite parts of the trip was working with one of the girls at the school. She was about 17 and really shy, and I’m really shy, and she didn’t speak English very well. We worked with her for about four days, and by the second day, there were just some parts where the light bulb went off and I saw her eyes light up,” Bell said.

“It was just really amazing to see how she was learning and understanding.”

Also during their time in Tanzania this past summer, the volunteers went on a few adventures of their own. They went on a safari and saw sea turtles before their perilous trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The climb was challenging and exhausting, but it pushed the girls out of their comfort zones with a reward unlike any they had ever known.

The girls who travelled to Tanzania and Nicaragua can talk for hours about their own unique memories and aspects of their journey, but no matter how different their individual stories may be, they can all agree on one thing: You just have to experience the magic of Africa in order to fully understand.

Courtesy of GIVE at UCI
Courtesy of GIVE at UCI

Because GIVE is such a new organization, Lamonica and Bell have been working hard to spread information about the trip and even created their own chapter called GIVE at UCI. For students who want to hear more about the adventure and how to get involved, an information session will be held on Thursday, October 3 from 10-4 in the Student Center’s Balboa Island B.

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