Children in mountain towns grow up with a different set of skills than those of their suburban peers. And though the nearby majestic mountains offer varied and unique educational opportunities and cultivate unmistakable character, they also create an isolation from the rest of the world. As such, some of the most valuable experiences remembered by Vail Mountain School alumni include those that allowed them to be exposed to cultures, ideas, and locales different than their own.
For the past six years, VMS has been the home to the Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder (SStS) Global Solutions Forum, which brings together people from around the world and has the express purpose of creating opportunities to “collaborate in support of effective strategies in global education and ethical leadership.” The Forum took place this year over the course of three days in October. For those unfamiliar with Shoulder-to-Shoulder, this local nonprofit began a decade ago as a VMS program called Ethically Engaged Youth. It has since evolved into an organization that provides “a comprehensive education-based approach to inspire and support generations of global citizens and ethical leaders.” They have also built a global coalition of likeminded schools and offer travel-based, service learning courses to eight countries where students work with local NGO’s that partner with SStS.
VMS is the founding member of Shoulder-to-Shoulder’s Global Schools Coalition. As host site for the Global Solutions Forum, VMS students had some unique opportunities to hear from a variety of different speakers representing the non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that work in partnership with SStS. These NGO’s are powerhouses for community development and meaningful change. Their work ranges from water purification in the Amazon, to the construction of schools in rural Nepal, to transforming Kenyan wastelands into food forests, and cultural preservation in the high Andes. Though each organization has a distinctly different focus, the common message was global citizenship and showing real examples of how one can transform vision into daily action, and thus, create change on a larger and possibly global scale. It’s an eye opener for many students and serves both as a way to connect classroom curricula to real-world issues as well as an introduction to some of the travel-based service learning opportunities available to VMS students through SStS
“What we’re trying to do at the forum,” said Mike Beerntsen, the Director of Programming at Shoulder-to-Shoulder, “is connect NGO directors to classroom teachers—from the kindergarten to the 12th grade.” And indeed they did. In advance of the Forum, SStS worked with VMS faculty to determine how the visiting NGOs could not only share their work, but also find ways to integrate with work the students were doing in specific courses.
These impassioned advocates spent two days modeling how one person can have make a positive and profound difference in the lives of many. They visited 31 different classrooms including kindergarten to read cultural stories together, middle school Spanish to talk about the inextricable ties between their language and their culture, and upper school government, history, and ethics to discuss political growth in developing countries as well as some of the moral dilemmas that the NGO leaders dealt with as change agents. And these are just a few examples.
Karma Sherpa described how education changed his life. He came from a nomadic Nepalese yak herding family, but had the rare opportunity to leave his village and pursue an education. Karma became the first person in both his family, and his village, to earn a bachelor’s degree. Eventually, he returned to his village and built a school. Today, Karma runs The Small World, a non-profit organization he founded in 2006 focused on education. His work has helped 160 girls graduate from school, and the NGO has built over fifty-nine new classrooms throughout the Nepalese Himalayas.
Joselo Balderrama of the Rio Beni Health Foundation spoke with middle and upper school science classes about the bio-sand water filters that his organization provides to villages along Bolivia’s Beni River. The foundation has been hard at work since 2008 providing mobile health care, clean drinking water, and education to villages in the Amazon rainforest. He described the scientific processes at work in the filters, explaining how each level of filtration works to sift out unwanted parasites, bacteria, and particulates.
Alejandra Arias-Stella is the founder and director of the Llama Pack Project in Peru. The organization’s work is focused on re-introducing purebred llamas to economically stagnant mountain communities and helping them develop a revenue stream from tourism through Llama trekking. The Llama Pack Project provides environmental education and vocational training with the ultimate goal of creating a source of revenue that is economically and environmentally sustainable, but that also helps share and sustain age-old traditions rooted in Peruvian mountain culture. In middle school science, Alejandra described the Andean ecosystems and life zones. In upper school ethics class, they discussed some of the dilemmas that Alejandra has encountered in her work including indigenous cultural discrimination in the Andes, gender roles in families, communication barriers, and short term versus long term solutions to very urgent problems.
In the upper school government class, Dr. Karambu Ringera of Kenya (or, Dr. K, as she’s known in the classroom) spoke about her campaign for Kenyan parliament, her role lobbying for a new Kenyan constitution, and her work uplifting orphans and women living with HIV/Aids. She founded International Peace Initiatives (IPI) in 2002 after getting her doctorate at the University of Denver. IPI started as a graduate school project developed in partnership with one of her professors. Since then, they have also established the Amani Home in Kenya, a community for orphans and women. They fund initiatives to prevent conflicts and violence, and provide scholarships to outstanding individuals for higher education. “My education ignited a fire in me,” she told the classroom, as she flipped through pictures the Amani House and other community projects, “to make a difference in the world.”
If VMS students feel that fire and want to take action too, they are in luck. As a member of the SStS Global Schools Coalition, VMS students in grades 8-12 can participate in the organization's service learning courses during summer receiving priority admission and discounted tuition. If they want to help Karma build schools in Nepal, or teach environmental conservation in the Andes with Alejandra, or deliver Bio-sand filters in Bolivia with Joselo, or help Dr. K in Kenya, they can. And in fact, they have even more opportunities than that.
“Shoulder-to-Shoulder has 10 programs,” explained Beerntsen, “Three are in the US and seven are in other countries. VMS students in 8th grade can enroll in our U.S. based programs and those in 9-12th grades can participate in both our U.S. based courses, as well as those abroad on 4 different continents.”
Not surprisingly, these programs have a powerful effect on the students. For many, this is their first experience visiting a third-world country, and their first encounter with serious poverty and lack of opportunity. Shane Cole, a junior at VMS, worked this summer with the Small World Foundation in Nepal and helped build a school. He described a truly transformative experience that helped shape his outlook on life.
“Waiting in traffic because of construction, or being flooded with the crowd from Denver during the weekends doesn't really seem so bad when you've seen the effects of child trafficking or a catastrophic earthquake in a third world country,” accounted Shane. “Seeing them in real life had a profound impact on me … It helped me understand the world outside of the Vail Valley and really put our problems in perspective.”
Which, is the goal of Shoulder-to-Shoulder’s courses, and part of what makes the Global Solutions Forum so important: it offers VMS students a glimpse of a world that’s far from perfect, and shows them that they can, in fact, make a difference in it.
Each year, the Global Solutions Forum includes a public keynote address. This year it was delivered by VMS Alumnus, Michael Johnston. Johnston was a high school principal for six years before going on to become a two-term Colorado State Senator. He has also served as an advisor to Students Shoulder-to-Shoulder. While in government, he helped pass legislation on education reform, economic development, immigration, and justice reform.
Johnston’s words focused on politics and history surrounding civil rights and education in our country. His stories and perspective were equal parts compelling and inspirational, but we’ll let him speak for himself through the video below that includes his entire presentation at the Global Solutions Forum.
Indeed. Just as every education is a journey toward some brighter future, so is every student a brick of marble taking shape. Vail Mountain School’s partnership with Shoulder-to-Shoulder is another sculpting tool in the craftsmen’s bag, and the Global Solutions Forum a form of inspiration. It’s a way for students to encounter reality outside of the Vail Valley ‘bubble’ through meaningful adventure and worldly experiences.
This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza, working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.