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Final Lifetouch Memory Mission Brings Three AASA Representatives to Guatemala to Construct a Plastic Bottle School

Among the 2024 Lifetouch Memory Mission volunteers were (from left) Shari Camhi, Kevin McGowan, Susan Harkin and Tara Gao. Photo by Lifetouch.

Three official representatives of AASA joined dozens of educators from around the country for the 2024 Lifetouch Memory Mission Jan. 17-24 in Guatemala to help build a school out of plastic bottles.

The participants included Shari L. Camhi, superintendent of Baldwin (N.Y.) Unified School District and the immediate past president of AASA; Kevin McGowan, superintendent of Brighton (N.Y.) Central Schools and the 2023 National Superintendent of the Year®; and Tara Gao, a staff member at AASA in the finances department.

Also volunteering in Guatemala was AASA member Susan Harkin, superintendent of Community Unit School District 300 in Algonquin, Ill. Her name was drawn randomly by Lifetouch at the 3rd General Session of AASA’s 2023 national conference in San Antonio.

Since 2000, Lifetouch, the leader in professional photography for schools and AASA’s official photographer, has hosted this project that has served children, families and communities throughout the world.

“Educators work in service of children every day. The experience in Guatemala took that work to a whole new level,” said Camhi. “The camaraderie amongst the adults, the gratitude, joy and smiles of the community, teachers, parents and children, and the knowledge that in some small way, I have helped a whole community of children to grow and have a bright future is more than I could ever hope for. We have only one life to live and this was a gift.”

For January’s mission, Lifetouch partnered with Guatemala-based Hug It Forward and the local community to build a school consisting of “bottle classrooms.” Hug It Forward has been building educational infrastructures using plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash or eco-bricks since 2009. Bottle classrooms are built using the established method of post-and-beam construction. The foundations, columns and beams are made from concrete reinforced with iron rebar. Instead of cinder blocks, the eco-bricks are used to fill the wall. The schools are expected to last 100 years.  

The trip took educators to the community of Xepatan in the state of Chimaltenango and included building three new bottle classrooms that will be added to 11 classrooms that serve more than 335 students. 

“The Lifetouch Memory Mission was an incredible experience in every way,” said McGowan. “We were provided with a unique opportunity to serve alongside an incredible group of volunteers from Lifetouch and throughout the educational community. Lifetouch and the Hug It Forward organization developed the initiative where the greatest gift to participants was the honor of being in community with the Xepetan school and the incredible Guatemalan people.”

Gao, upon her return, said: “The trip was wonderful and meaningful. We not only built relationships with local communities but also formed strong bonds with colleagues. It was truly a wonderful learning experience.”

The 2024 Memory Mission will be Lifetouch’s last trip. Overall, the company has organized 19 week-long expeditions to nine global destinations offering more than 6,000 days of service. In total, more than 600 volunteers devoted over 100,000 hours to Lifetouch Memory Mission projects. 

In addition to the work in communities, Lifetouch photographed, printed and hand-delivered more than 6,000 student and family portraits. 

Click here for more information about the 2024 Lifetouch Memory Mission.

(Jimmy Minichello is a senior editor on Conference Daily Online and AASA director of communication.)

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