Sundance, the next time I say “Let’s go to Bolivia”, let’s 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 like Rurrenabaque 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,’” said Brady, who organizes these annual awareness journeys with the Netzerbrady Foundation. “I know they will someday — as doctors, pre-meds, interns, or next year as a junior leader for me.”
Middle School ninth graders Heather Harkness, Christina Tebbe, and Marandah Field-Elliot roughed it this past summer, walking through miles of jungle and doing hours of manual labor in what most would consider the middle of nowhere. Before she left, a friend asked Harkness, “Is that a tropical resort or something? I couldn’t find a Bolivia resort online.” Said Harkness, “I stare at them and say this is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere.”
Under the financial umbrella of Direct Relief International, Netzerbrady International operates the Rio Beni Health Project, which began in 1998 and serves over 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 Rurrenabaque. “Most of the health challenges are gastro-intestinal,” said Brady. “We just need access to clean water.”
Brady has led nearly 150 12-to-18 year olds to Bolivia over the past eight years. In the last 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 makes the filter work,” he said. “These filters help prevent 95-percent of the e coli that makes bad water.”
This was Christina Tebbe’s first trip out of the U.S. “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.”
Said Marandah Field-Elliot, who learned that there is no language barrier when it comes to laughter, “I think about Bolivia about every hour. On top of the amazing relationships and connections we had with people, it’s also so beautiful and a great place to be.”
Bolivian 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 kids in various communities. They made art, played cards, soccer, and music and, at night, there was always dancing.
After “seeing a totally different world than here in Santa Barbara,” Harkness feels like the trip has given her a deeper respect for people. “We have so much and they don’t have anything but seem to be almost happier than us,” she explained.
And so goes the theme of each trip: “El Puente,” or “The Bridge,” which 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 this happen, the Middle School students had to not only pay for their flight, but also raise at least $1,500 dollars each. The eight girls combined raised nearly $40,000, and every penny went to funding the health project.
From all their efforts, Brady witnessed amazing growth and development. “They are young women who are ready to serve,” he said proudly. “This is the generation that never heard, ‘Oh, girls can’t do that.’”
The Netzerbrady foundation is the product of former Santa Ynez physician, the late Lou Netzer, who retired and, with Christopher Brady, started the clinic in Bolivia in 1998. “Service can be international and it can be local,” said Christopher Brady. “If everybody does a little bit, nobody has to do an awful lot. Everywhere we look we can serve others.”