Nine Virginia Tech students decided to forgo the usual spring break of fun in the sun for a week of wielding pickaxes and lugging rocks while making life a bit easier for residents of a rural Honduran community.  

The students visited the small mountain town of Copantle in western Honduras this spring where they worked on a farm, helped develop a source of alternative energy, and built a school. Many of the students are minoring in civic agriculture and food systems, an academic program within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that helps students identify and develop ways to help communities build, maintain, and thrive in a safe and healthy agricultural environment. The program blends academics with real-life situations and solutions.

The farm in Copantle was an “agro-ecological” development, where every fruit tree, plant, and animal is chosen for a reason. Pineapples, for example, provide a natural terrace on the slope.        

“I loved the communal nature of the families where everyone was working together on every task, be it gathering rocks, mixing cement, washing clothes, harvesting yucca, or preparing lunch,” said Laina Schneider of Alexandria, Va., a sophomore majoring in crop and soil environmental sciences. She is also in the civic agriculture and food systems program.

Most of the students had previous experience with Heifer International, a nonprofit that works with communities to end poverty and hunger while caring for the earth. Activities at Heifer Ranch in Arkansas influenced the students’ decision to go to Honduras, where Heifer has a strong presence. By giving families a hand-up — not a handout — Heifer empowers them to turn lives of hunger and poverty into self-reliance and hope. Heifer gives animals to communities, an act referred to as a, “living loan.” In exchange for their livestock and training, families agree to share the livestock’s offspring with others in need. It is called, “Passing on the Gift.”

The students stayed in a family's home that was converted into a hostel. The host family, who lived in rural Trinidad de Copan, nourished the students with hospitality as well as homemade fresh tortillas, queso fresco, and fresh fruits.

“We ate vegetables straight from the garden with all the people from the community. I will never forget those meals shared together,” Schneider said. “Those moments of peace were embedded in long, hot days of hard work.”

While in Copantle, students helped build a biodigester, a system that turns manure into methane gas for cooking. The biodigester also helps reduce respiratory problems because it offsets the need to burn wood, which creates air pollution. The students also laid the foundation for a farm school and planted fruit trees in gardens.

“We did a lot of digging and a lot of mixing of concrete,” said Lisa Hill of Fairfax, Va., a sophomore majoring in humanities, science, and environment in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“Everyone came together to get the job done,” said Hill. “Having the opportunity to work side-by-side with the people we were helping really showed me just how important the work was.”

Building the biodigester, which was 15-feet long and three-feet-wide, was an exercise in both physical labor and teamwork, the students said. The biodigester is a long tube of plastic that fills with methane.

“We all cheered the moment the plastic inflated. We were happy that our work had paid off and the biodigester construction was successful,” Schneider said. “In that instant, it didn't matter that we spoke different languages or came from different backgrounds. We were united by the fruits of our labor and the joy that came with completing a project together.”

The spring break concluded with a tour of Mayan ruins, a reminder of a powerful civilization that once ruled Central America. 

“Although impressive, the ruins only represent the rulers and upper classes. Of the common citizens, there is no trace,” said Susan Clark, associate professor and director of civic agriculture and food systems.

The ruins also hinted at the issues of sustainability that the students were in Honduras to study.

“The ruins were a very poignant metaphor for a very advanced civilization that did not manage its natural resources, and the disastrous effect mismanagement can have,” said Laurel Heile of McLean, Va., a senior who majored in landscape architecture.  

“Our trip was not a finite one,” said Nate Foust-Meyer of Forest, Va., a senior who majored in crop and soils environmental sciences. “Every lesson, insight, and experience did not end when we left.”

Students will pass on the gift of knowledge for years to come, Clark said.