“Sundance, the next time I say, ‘Let’s go to Bolivia,’ lets go to Bolivia.” — Butch Cassidy
Every time Santa Barbara Middle School assistant head of school and human geography teacher Jim Brady utters that quote, he has a half-dozen or more of his students following him into the upper Amazon River basin.
The nearly three-week sojourn is for young people who want to experience life no matter how backwater or breathtaking in jungle communities with names such as Rurrenebaque and Uncallamaya.
It’s called experiential education. It’s pushing one’s personal envelope in service of others. It’s challenging, it’s rewarding and, in some cases, it’s a window into a young person’s future.
“These girls all said on the way back, ‘I want to go back.’ I know they will someday as doctors, pre-meds, interns or next year as a junior leader for me,” said Brady, who organizes the annual awareness journeys with the Netzer Brady International.
Ninth-graders Heather Harkness, Christina Tebbe and Marandah Field-Elliot roughed it walking miles of jungle and doing hours of manual labor in what most would consider the middle of nowhere.
Harkness recalls a conversation before she left home: “A friend asked, ‘Is that a tropical resort or something? I couldn’t find a Bolivia resort online.’ I stare at them and say this is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”
Under the financial umbrella of Direct Relief International, Netzer Brady International operates the Rio Beni Health Project, which began in 1998 and serves more than 40 small villages along the Rio Beni River. Local and International health practitioners reach out to these communities by boat and four-wheel drive and also run a clinic in Rurrenebaque.
“Most of the health challenges are gastrointestinal,” Brady said. “We just need access to clean water.”
Brady has led nearly 150 12- to 18-year-olds to Bolivia for the past eight years. In the past five years, he and his brother Christopher have developed a bio-sand water filter to purify undrinkable river and well water.
Christopher Brady says this year’s group learned about the problems with water and public health.
“They study the bio-sand filter, make it, and install the gravel and sand that make the filter work,” he said. “These filters help prevent 95 percent of the E. coli that makes bad water.”
It was Tebbe’s first trip out of the United States. “It makes me want to help out more,” she said. “It gives me more of a sense of community and charity work. It was an eye-opener.”
“I think about Bolivia about every hour,” Field-Elliot said, adding that she learned that there is no language barrier when it comes to laughter. “On top of the amazing relationships and connections we had with people, it’s also so beautiful and a great place to be.”
Local children benefit greatly from the foundation’s efforts and from the eight young women who came along. They found plenty of time to play with children in various communities. They did art, played cards, soccer and music, and at night there was always dancing.
Harkness, who said the trip has given her a deeper respect for people, reflected on “seeing a totally different world than here in Santa Barbara. We have so much and they don’t have anything but seem to be almost happier than us.”
So goes the theme of each trip, el Puente-the bridge, which Jim Brady insists is a two-way street. “We need them to help us understand how the world works because we’re sure not going to do it sitting around here,” he said. “Everything we learn we learn through experience.”
To make all of this happen, the middle school students not only had to pay for their flight, but the eight girls raised nearly $40,000. Every penny went to funding the health project.
From their efforts, Brady said he witnessed amazing growth and development. “They are young women who are ready to serve,” he said. “This is the generation that never heard, ‘Oh, girls can’t do that.’”
Netzer-Brady International is the product of the late Lou Netzer, a former Santa Ynez physician who retired and, with Christopher Brady, started the clinic in Bolivia in 1998.
“Service can be international, and it can be local,” Brady said. “If everybody does a little bit, nobody has to do an awful lot. Everywhere we look we can serve others.”
Click here to learn more about the Rio Beni Health Project.
— Larry Good is a Santa Barbara Middle School parent.