From Litter to Letters

In the time it would have taken him to complete two semesters of coursework on Georgia State’s campus, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies graduate student Justin Hargesheimer built an eco-friendly schoolhouse in Guatemala from the ground up. Rather than conventional bricks and mortar, the school is constructed of “eco-bricks” made of discarded plastic soda bottles that have been packed full of trash.

Hargesheimer is enrolled in the Peace Corps Master’s International program, offered in various disciplines at universities around the country and established at the Andrew Young School in 1999. As he pursues his master of public administration degree in public management and policy, his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer effectively serves as the internship required for his degree – it just happens to be a bit longer than the average internship.

“The idea [behind PCMI] is, what can spending two years working in a developing country contribute to your graduate studies, and what can your graduate studies contribute to working in international development for two years?” Hargesheimer says.

The Fairbanks, Alaska, native began his studies at GSU in the fall of 2009 and took a year of classes in Atlanta before departing for Guatemala in August 2010. After the requisite three-month training period, he deployed to his site assignment in El Tumbador, the biggest town in a county of more than 40,000 people. In his capacity as a municipal development volunteer there, he meets with presidents and leaders of the many small villages in the county and helps them bring development projects to fruition.

Children hold the “eco-bricks,” plastic soda bottles filled with trash, used to build a school in the village of Nuevo Paraiso, Guatemala.

Built in the nearby village of Nuevo Paraiso, constructing the bottle school has been the centerpiece of Hargesheimer’s service in the Peace Corps thus far. He got the idea for the project from a previous Peace Corps volunteer, and support came primarily from a nonprofit called Hug it Forward, which helps rural communities build these bottle schools. By partnering with HIF, Hargesheimer procured supplies, skilled labor and financing for the undertaking; the village had only to provide the unskilled labor, as well as 8,000 or so trash-filled bottles to insulate the structure’s walls.

Many of the 50 or so families in the village pitched in, as did all the teachers in the school district, whose students helped collect and stuff thousands of plastic bottles. “It’s easy for teachers to say to kids, hey, let’s help out and save the environment,” Hargesheimer says. “It’s [a lesson in] civic responsibility.

The structural components of bottle school construction are standard: a foundation of concrete and cinder blocks, with rebar providing a skeleton for poured concrete columns and beams. Once the frame is complete, chicken wire is stretched across the space between columns and bottles are bound to the wire, side by side, with plastic string. With lightweight insulation in place, workers smooth stucco over the bottles to finish the walls. A poured concrete floor and a decorative coat of paint are the final touches.

Hargesheimer launched the Nuevo Paraiso bottle school project just about a year ago, in January of 2011. They broke ground and ceremoniously placed the first block into the ground in mid-May, and inauguration of the new two-room schoolhouse, complete with ribbon cutting and a village-wide celebration, followed on Aug. 21.

“The community got what they wanted. They wanted and they needed a school, so that makes me feel really good,” Hargesheimer says. “I was really happy that it was a collaborative process. I think it will be more sustainable in terms of encouraging a collaborative model of development for that community. They understand that they all helped out, and that all the people involved had a stake in the project.”

With about nine months remaining in his Peace Corps service, Hargesheimer will continue to work as a development adviser to community leaders who come to seek support. He has ideas of his own, but, as an outsider, he knows to rely on his local counterparts to bring projects to his attention because they know best the needs of their communities.

When Hargesheimer returns to the states this fall, only a semester’s worth of classes stands between him and graduation. The job hunt, of course, begins right away. Hargesheimer says he has been thinking of going into either development and fundraising or working as an administrator in the nonprofit or government sectors.

“I want to be able to go to work and come home every day and not question why I’m doing what I’m doing, to know that the way I spend my days and my time is meaningful,” Hargesheimer says. “I realized a long time ago that I want to work for an organization that has a mission that I really believe in.”

Jan. 30, 2012