Something had to change for a group of young students in Prek Toal, Cambodia. Their education was in jeopardy because their floating primary school located near the mouth of the Sanker River was sinking. In their village, thousands of families live and work in floating homes and buildings balancing on thick, bamboo trunks. During the rainy season, it’s challenging to keep structures afloat.
At the school, students used buckets to remove water from their classroom. They crammed themselves into the right side of the small building where it was still dry.
Finally, in 2018 the Rustic Pathways Foundation stepped in to help. The organization raised money to build a new school, but then took things a step further. As happens with so many Rustic projects, a long partnership with the villagers began.
Rustic Pathways sends students to villages like Prek Toal to immerse themselves in service-oriented travel programs. In Cambodia, Rustic students worked alongside local professionals to not only help with the school but also repair and build new floating houses for the community.
“I was on the second floating village program. I really loved how the program leaders made a deliberate effort to introduce the significance of Cambodian cultural norms,” Matthew said. “It gave me a glimpse into how others live life and the importance of respecting and appreciating the differences among others.”
Overall, Rustic students like Matthew have provided a half million service hours over the years in 20 countries. Here is a look at some of the ways students make an impact through their travels with Rustic Pathways:
Community Building – Helping People Live Better Lives
The work Rustic students did in Cambodia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to community-building projects. Students also frequently assist with other infrastructure efforts, such as building aqueducts to provide clean and reliable drinking water.
Zach Gross says cheers erupted when his group helped install a water tank in the Peruvian village of Markuray. A local boy named Ishmael ran over to Gross with tears in his eyes and jumped into Gross’ arms. Ishmael told Gross he never wanted him to leave.
“The pure appreciation for life that Ishmael possessed was something that continues to live inside me today,” Gross said. “Now, whenever minor inconveniences occur in my life such as running out of hot water during a long shower or being served food I don’t like, I think of Ishmael and his appreciation for life.”
This kind of personal encounter is a frequent occurrence in Rustic Pathways’ programs. Students also work directly with villagers in many social service projects, including public health initiatives, meal delivery, and education. This includes work at Rustic Pathways’ Children’s Home in Thailand.
“One of the things that the Children’s Home students taught me that struck me and I’m still thinking about is their appreciation towards education and the opportunities that come with it,” Alumna Margaret Skillman. “They all looked forward to school each day, valued their teacher’s time, and were eager to learn anything and everything.”
Economic Development – Ensuring Stability
In addition to these efforts, Rustic students also help communities by assisting with economic development. This includes helping villagers make items ranging from chicken coops to women’s purses. On a larger scale, Rustic students also have assisted with the construction of tilapia fish farms in Costa Rica to generate income. Clara Matlack, who traveled with Rustic to Peru, said these kinds of projects helped her appreciate responsible economic practices.
“One of the biggest things I’m going to take away from this trip and hopefully carry with me for the rest of my life is the importance of fair trade and responsible tourism,” Matlack said.
Conservation Projects – Restoring our Environment
Rustic Pathways’ also puts a strong emphasis on the local environment and its importance to villagers. In Costa Rica, program leader Felipe Hernandez is an expert on sustainability. He has led many groups through projects to save sea turtles and plant trees.
Hernandez directs groups to gather hundreds of turtle eggs to bring them to a hatchery, keeping them safe from poachers. He also has led Rustic students on missions to plant trees. Whatever the project, Hernandez says he keeps detailed notes.
“We always have a three year plan and track our data so we can make long-term projections for our work,” Hernandez said.
It helps students to see the benefits of this planning process. They often bring these lessons home.
“Turtle conservation opened my eyes not only to what we do each day that impacts the planet in a negative way, but also let me open my heart to work that people do everyday without recognition just because that’s what they want to do,” Alumna Kelly Kane said.
Parent Tatyana Ali found her daughter had a similar experience and that she took those lessons to heart.
“Jasmine had an amazing experience this summer. She came home with a deeper understanding of how we impact the environment,” Ali said “She took charge of our recycling, and refused plastic use, banned plastic straws, and she started composting. She encourages her friends to do the same.”
Years of data show many Rustic students follow the same path as Jasmine. This means their impact is more than doubled. Not only do they help the communities they visit, but they also help their hometowns and beyond.