More than 220 university students from North and South America took part in the new Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) volunteer program “ADRA Connections” this July in the Brazilian Amazon.
Students assisted in the construction of the Adventist Technical School of Massauari (ETAM) in Boa Vista do Ramos, Amazonas, Brazil. The school enrolls 45 students, aged 5 to 14, some of whom previously had no educational background.
“I wanted to come on a volunteer trip and never had the opportunity”
ADRA is the humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, providing development and relief options around the world. The ADRA Connections program includes hands-on projects that cater to and engage university students willing to help communities in need.
“Though ADRA Connections sponsors the trip and projects, student volunteers fundraise themselves to cover traveling costs,” said ADRA Connections manager Adam Wamack. “This, in turn, helps make the ADRA Connections program accessible and sustainable.”
ADRA Connections Extreme trips like the one in Brazil involve larger scale construction and community development projects, explained organization leaders. “[They] encourage student volunteers to learn about different cultures while connecting with local dwellers, and serve as an avenue for students to develop new friendships.”
ADRA collaborated with several Adventist universities to register students for the trip, including US-based Pacific Union College, Kettering College, La Sierra University, Loma Linda University, Oakwood University, and Walla Walla University. Students from the Adventist University of Sao Paulo in Brazil (UNASP), River Plate Adventist University in Argentina, and Peruvian Union University in Peru also joined the large group of young volunteers to help.
“I wanted to come on a volunteer trip and never had the opportunity,” said Raiane Porto, a music education major at UNASP in Brazil. “This year God said it was time, and since February, I have been planning and saving so that I could go to the Amazon.”
Down the River
When students arrived in the city of Manaus, Brazil, they quickly became immersed in the rainforest territory. To travel from the airport to the school, students piled into seven boats to ride from Manaus down the Amazon River, on a trip that lasted 30 hours. The only way to get to the ETAM site was by boat.
Once at the school, students had no wi-fi or phone connection and relied heavily on bottled water, facing intense heat and sleeping in hammocks.
“It took me by surprise how the indigenous people lived. Their houses have no insulation, and they use water from the river to drink and bathe,” said Deborah Kim, a human biology pre-med major at Kettering College in Ohio. Kim wants to be a medical missionary and saw ADRA Connections as a way to get firsthand experience.
Students worked from dawn till dusk assisting with construction, putting up telephone poles, placing tiles on the floor, and painting. During breaks, students enjoyed swimming at the beach, playing with pink dolphins, meeting local villagers, and going on a nature walk.
“Meeting new people was what I looked forward to when I signed up,” said Tayler Dixon, a communication student at Oakwood University in Alabama. “We’ve been doing a lot for the school as well: building houses for teachers, painting, putting tiles down, putting windows up, wiring electricity, and helping out with kitchen duties, like cooking.”
“We also worshiped every day, and it helped me to reflect on the bigger purpose for our hard work, and that was we did this for the kids,” said Ashton Harden, a business management and legal studies major at La Sierra University in California. “Education is important, and the kids deserve this school,” she added. “I didn’t realize it before but by building a school for them, we are impacting their lives and they, in turn, impact us.”
Years in Waiting
The construction of ETAM initially started in 2011, when local villagers shared their need with mission leaders for a bigger school.
“At the time, 20 children were receiving lessons in a small room, and one of our staff members on ADRA Brazil’s team taught them,” said Daniel Fernandes, a nurse by trade and founder of the school. “But the class grew as parents saw that the children were able to read and write. Of course, holding them in one room wasn’t sufficient, and it became clear they needed more classrooms.”
In 2015, the first two classrooms were built, thanks to more than 30 mission groups that helped. However, getting enough aid to construct the school became a hurdle. “We thought it would take ten years to build the school, but when we got in touch with ADRA Connections to aid us with volunteers, we saw God working and knew we could build the school sooner,” said Fernandes.
On July 20, 2018, the team finished remodeling the school complex. Volunteers then attended an inauguration ceremony dedicating the school.
Earlier that week, the 45 ETAM children were able to attend school at the new complex featuring newly built and freshly painted classrooms and new books, chairs, and desks.
“It’s an unexplainable feeling; the kids had dropped jaws when they saw their new classroom,” remarked Gabriela Dos Santos, a teacher at ETAM who works with students ages 4 to 6. “I also think the houses for teachers are beautiful. It’s a joy to see something so well done.”
“We are truly thankful to everyone for their time, effort and money to help put this school together. ETAM would not be possible without you,” said Poliana Peixoto, ETAM’s principal, who served as the school’s first teacher and now oversees six teachers.
The school complex also featured a new library, cafeteria, five houses for missionary teachers, an urgent care clinic, a chapel, and a dormitory for girls and boys.
In honor of the volunteers, a giant canvas with a tree-like image was created for the school. Forming the leaves of the tree were green thumbprints of student volunteers who helped construct the school. “The tree-like image is a reminder of the mental, physical, and spiritual growth that occurs for each student at ETAM,” leaders said.