The three Amigos

Forsaking Sebastian Joe’s for boiled bananas, three Southwest students find satisfaction working with Central and South Americans for a summer

Last summer, Peter Hepburn, Brian Ignaut and Emily Kerben, all 17 years old and seniors at Southwest High School, traded Lake Harriet, Sebastian Joe’s and a reliable supply of hot water for a few weeks of worrying about amoebic dysentery, wild monkeys and a house with a dirt floor.

Do they regret it? Kerben, who lives in Armatage, speaks for all three when she says, "I wouldn’t trade this summer for anything."

Kerben spent six weeks living with a family thousands of miles away from the chaos of American daily life in a community called Pau D’Oleo (oily wood), two hours by car from the city of Natal in rural Brazil. "It was a whole other life, and these people can help me. They have what I need: a simpler life," she said.

This year, 16 Twin Cities kids got to know a simpler life when they took part in Amigos de las Americas, a volunteer program that places young Americans in communities across South America.

Volunteers live with families in their homes, not hotels or separate accommodations away from the communities. Amigos volunteers experience firsthand everything the family goes through: spotty electrical and water service, no carpet and no air conditioning.

But don’t think for a second they live in poverty, Ignaut says.

"I never thought of them as poor. All the things we associate with wealth and happiness, they don’t have," said the Linden Hills resident.

Kerben finishes Ignaut’s thought: "And they are happier."

Hepburn continues, "They didn’t understand how we didn’t know our neighbors. Everyone is friendly and open and says ‘hi’ to everyone else."

The kids call the group Amigos, or friends, a word Peter, Brian and Emily use repeatedly when they tell you about the summer. Words you won’t hear are Third World and village. Catherine Croft, executive director of Amigos Minneapolis, a ’98 Southwest High grad, explains why: "We associate those words with stupidity, and the people in the communities we serve are not stupid, they are wise."

Ignaut chimed in, "The people I met had a sense that people are precious. That makes them very wise."

Here’s a little about how three Southwest students got a little wiser.

Peter Hepburn

In exchange for room and board during their six-to-eight week stay, volunteers lead community improvement projects. Hepburn, a Tangletown resident, lived with a family outside Neyba in the Dominican Republic. He helped leaders in the community become empowered to write grants and continue to build support for their own community development. In return, Hepburn learned to love coffee with lots of sugar and ate boiled bananas and eggs for breakfast everyday.

Hepburn also had time to hang out, Dominican style. "There was a lot of downtime, and so we played games. We (the Amigos volunteers) taught them poker. It was really fun," he said.

Emily Kerben

While Kerben was in Pau D’Oleo, she fell in love with the fruit and the people. She said, "the fruit here just isn’t the same," and that she "loved the community feeling, everyone wanted to get to know you, really get to know you. It was great to go on long walks and talk to everyone you met."

She taught English classes, built a sports court and mobilized several interest groups: a women’s group, a youth group and an artisan group. The artisans create many colorful, gorgeous items like dolls and crocheted home furnishings. Kerben worked with the artisans to collect their work and set up a booth at the market in a neighboring town.

Now that she’s home, what does Kerben miss most? "Speaking a different language," she said. "And dancing — people here have no sense of beat."

Brian Ignaut

Right now, the 80 kids in the Honduran community of Pueblo Viejo are having a ball running around their new playground screaming "head-shoulders-knees-and-toes."

Pueblo Viejo hosted Ignaut this summer, where he helped build the new playground. "We made the mistake of teaching them the head-shoulders song," he said. "Once they learned it, the kids didn’t stop singing it."

When they weren’t trying to teach the kids songs, Ignaut and his team found ways to save thousands of dollars on a new playground by recycling things they found laying around. Old pipes became monkey bars. The team turned excess sheet metal into a grand slide, and old tires were used for a bridge. The crowning piece of equipment, according to the Pueblo Viejo kids, is the old flagpole they dug up, rolled to the playground and turned into a fire fighter’s pole.

Over the winter, Ignaut will work with Amigos management to roll out these playgrounds in communities in Bolivia and Mexico next summer. Usually, the organization budgets around $2,000 to put in a safe, fun playground — but because of Ignaut’s work, that figure can be slashed.

Can I join?

How can you get involved in Amigos? Could it be right for you? It takes almost a full year of planning and fundraising to go on an Amigos trip.

The commitment is a major one, involving countless hours of meetings with parents, Amigos administrators and extensive fundraising. (The program costs $3,900, though $600 scholarships are available.) The Amigos leaders guide volunteers through every step of the process; from how to write a letter asking Great Aunt Thelma for financial support to lessons on how to pack and vaccination tips.

Students must have completed their sophomore year in high school and have taken two years of Spanish or Portuguese.

To find out more check out http://www.msp.amigoslink.org or call Catherine Croft at 729-7191. Everyone interested in Amigos is invited to an information session on Sunday, Sept. 15 and Sunday, Oct. 13, 4 p.m. at the Brennan Center at Fairview Riverside Hospital, 2450 Riverside Ave.