Volunteers and board members of the nonprofit Schools for the Children of the World are scattered across the globe so much that board meetings are held over the Internet. One of the board members sits in a third floor office at the Spokane Valley City Hall.
City Public Works Director Neil Kersten just returned from his annual two-week trip to Honduras to work with the group that has built 75 schools in countries like Nigeria, Zambia, Belize and Haiti. It’s a trip Kersten has taken for 14 years, ever since one of his employees launched the charity while Kersten was the public works director for the Fairbanks Northstar Borough.
William DeJong, who was in charge of building schools in the borough, started Schools for Children of the World in the late 1990s. He brought together architects, engineers, planners and other professionals as the core of the group. “In ’99 he asked me to go down with him,” Kersten said.
The organization picks out school sites, designs the buildings, has the Department of Education in Honduras agree to provide teachers and works with the community to help build and maintain the school. Getting the government to agree to provide teachers is key, Kersten said. “We kind of learned that the hard way to start with,” he said. “We were pretty green.”
On Kersten’s winter trips he gets projects ready, pours concrete or picks up a hammer. The schools are normally only a handful of classrooms, although one big project a few years ago included seven classrooms, a library, a kitchen and an administrative office. “Most of the communities we do are rural where there are no schools,” Kersten said.
The schools are concrete with metal roofs and a lot of screened windows. In Honduras, almost all of them are elementary schools. There are very few middle schools or high schools in the country. “The boys, they’re lucky to make it through second or third grade and then they’re working,” Kersten said. “There will be more girls than boys and the girls stay longer. In the rural areas, people live off the land.”
The charity provides school supplies for students and teachers. “They just don’t have stuff,” Kersten said. The schools are also furnished by the volunteers and some are equipped with playgrounds, which are largely unknown in Honduras.
The organization is supported by donations from individuals, service organizations and Hanes Underwear, Kersten said. Hanes employs a large number of people in Honduras and has committed to donating money to build schools in villages their employees live in, he said.
Kersten said he isn’t interested in getting kudos for his work and few of his co-workers know about his annual trips. He’s just happy to spend his time helping kids and then taking a few days on the way home to scuba dive near the island of Roatan.
“I know how to do schools,” he said. “I enjoy working with this group and providing schools to those that need them. It’s a lot of fun.”