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Transforming schools and people

Wayne Hoerning (right), with a young volunteer

Wayne Hoerning was one of two overseas volunteers to work on the transformation of Nelson Street Girls’ RC School for Project Care TT in late May. He recently sent his experience to share with Catholic News readers.

While the US was celebrating their Memorial Day weekend a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work on the renovation of the Nelson Street Girls’ School in Port of Spain, Trinidad with a rather large and wonderful group of people under the guidance of the organisers of Project Care TT.

I first got involved with Project Care TT three years ago when I was asked by our customer and friend Ryan Ali if we would be able to donate some materials to cover the floors in the bathrooms and hallways of the school that they were working on that year.

While my travel arrangements didn’t allow me to stay and work on that school, I did get to visit and see what the work consisted of and also to meet several of the organisers of the event.

While speaking to them I asked if I could come back the next year and not only donate materials but also participate as a volunteer. The beeshive of activity swirling around the school that day gave me an indication of the commitment of the group to make significant changes to not only the physical structure of the school but additionally, and more importantly, the lives of the students and staff who spent their days there.

Lots of paint

Project Care TT amazingly, with the help of over 300 sponsors and 1,000 volunteers transforms these schools into warm and friendly and updated versions of their past selves.

New plumbing, electrical, walls, floors and paint (LOTS of paint!) go inside the school buildings, while outside cheerful and creative playgrounds welcome the children back after the long weekend.

This year the work took place over Friday, Saturday and a long Sunday. Large groups of volunteers of all ages, genders, skill levels and backgrounds showed up.

The common ground they all have is that they are volunteering their time to make a difference in others’ lives with their hard work. With the leadership of the organisers everyone is soon put to work and the school grounds are virtually overrun with volunteers working away at their different tasks.

Given the large number of people in a relatively small space, the opportunity for conflict could certainly arise. However, I’ve noticed in my time volunteering that there is nothing but good vibes, with every potential dispute quickly and cheerfully resolved. Having a construction background and having spent many years on jobsites, I know firsthand how remarkable this is.

This year was every bit as memorable as last, and while the result is always the most important and memorable part of the weekend, during the course of the days there are always other things that happen which add a wonderful quality to the overall story. I’ll share these two memories out of the many I brought home with me.

Working on her alma mater

On the Saturday I was painting a breezeblock wall in what would become the new staff lounge area. At the time I was the only one working in the area, and a woman walked by and asked if I would like something to drink. (This is a recurring theme, I did the same with the guys who were doing all the floor covering on the second floor, and a couple of different young people would regularly walk around with cold drinks making sure everyone stayed hydrated.)

So being up on a ladder painting I said “sure, that would be great!”. A moment later she was back with a cold bottle of water so I came down from the ladder and we struck up a conversation. And that’s how I got to meet Janet Johnson.

Janet told me the story of how when she was a girl her father worked in the oil industry on the oilrigs, and that he was involved in an oil rig accident when she was 11 and killed.

Her family, in which she was the oldest, was forced to move from the employee housing of the oil company into the neighborhood by the school, and she told me that she had actually attended the school.

Janet is now 82 years old, and I just found it amazing that not only was she volunteering and interacting with everyone else by helping to serve lunches to everyone, but that she had actually attended the very school we were working on.

I had made a point of staying in Trinidad this year to be able to be at the school on Monday morning when the children came and saw it for the first time.

During the weekend I had commented to several of the organisers that the church with which the school was affiliated was lovely and that I would really like to see the inside of it.

Monday morning we arrived early enough so I had time to walk over and have a look at the interior of the cathedral. I love stone cathedrals and the exterior and interior architecture are always very interesting and beautiful. This one was no exception.

Tears of joy

As I had never been to the church before I didn’t know where the main entrance was, so seeing a side gate and door open I chose to enter there. Once inside I saw where the main entrance was so I walked over so I could view the interior from there.

There seemed to be a Mass going on at the front of the church with people, mainly parents and students arriving through the front entrance.

One recurring story that I heard over the course of the weekend was about the tiny office that the school’s principal had been in for the last 30 years tucked into a corner on the second floor.

And now the principal’s new office was spacious and air-conditioned with a personal bathroom in a separate building with a large window overlooking the new playground.

Back in the church, once I walked over to the main entrance and was admiring the beautiful interior architecture, a smiling, very nicely dressed woman approached me and asked if I were there for the Mass.

I smiled back and said that no, I had been working on the school across the street all weekend and that I admired the architecture of cathedrals and had heard that the interior of the church was remarkable and I should come see it. Her smile got even bigger as she said “I’m Lisa Lynch, the principal of the school!”.

I thought that this chance meeting was wonderful. “How has your weekend been? You must be very excited!”, to which she responded, “I’ve been crying all weekend and haven’t slept…”

I told her to make sure she had some tissues or a handkerchief to wipe her tears and that I thought she would be very pleased when she got to the school. About an hour later when all the girls were running from room to room and playing on the new playground equipment and screaming and laughing and crying with joy, she had a lovely if rather wet purple handkerchief that matched her dress perfectly.

I’m greatly looking forward to being there next year to celebrate what will be the tenth anniversary of Project Care TT. During my conversations with people while I’m there they often have a remark about how they think it’s wonderful that I’ve come from New York to their little island to help.

But I know that I’m the one who’s blessed by being able to participate in this wonderful and life-changing event.