Teens build more than houses on service trip

Posted: April 07, 2014

BRENNAN O'DONNELL had to travel more than 3,000 miles to get a better understanding of life in the Philadelphia area.

For the last four years, O'Donnell, 17, has devoted one week of his summer to building houses in Antigua, Guatemala, through Teenagers Inc., a youth service organization based in Chestnut Hill.

"I never understood how blessed I am, how much I have in my life," O'Donnell, a senior at La Salle College High School said. "I never realized how hard my parents worked to get me in [La Salle]. I just assumed I deserved to go to such a nice school.

"After the trips, I realized I have to work to make the best of what I'm given."

O'Donnell and 24 of his peers have been hard at work during the past few months raising money for their trip, scheduled July 1 through 10. Their most recent fundraisier, a "Carnaval" night held March 22 at Seven Dolors Church in Wyndmoor, brought in $7,500.

Every cent of that is going to what, in O'Donnell's eyes, is the greatest cause in the city.

"It's amazing how much having a sturdy house means to these families," he said. "To be able to help give them that is just an amazing feeling."

During their stay, the Teenagers Inc. crew helps workers from God's Child, a North Dakota-based charity, build simple, metal homes for impoverished families. The work isn't overly technical - anyone who can use a hammer, screwdriver and shovel can do it, O'Donnell said - but it's rewarding, especially when the families lend a hand.

"I've seen dads come home from working full days, tired and ready to relax, come over and help build his future house," O'Donnell said. "Then you get these 9-, 10-year-old kids who help us cement without gloves or even shoes.

"It's just a whole 'nother world."

That kind of reaction is what Arianna Neromiliotis, director of Teenagers Inc., is looking for.

"When we started this trip, we envisioned taking teens down to show them a different kind of life and take away everything comfortable for them," she said.

"It's a way to strip things down to the bare minimum and, in the process, get a life experience that's unforgettable."

Neromiliotis, herself a product of Teenagers Inc., has watched the trip evolve since its first outing six years ago, and said that many of its original volunteers still return to lend a hand.

"I think this gives a lot of perspective to people," she said. "The dream of having teens help each other is tangible. It's a real thing, and people make it happen every day."

And if there's any doubt, one only needs to look at Antigua's skyline, she said: Upon each return visit, more and more of it is dominated by the signature blue roofs of the houses built by God's Child.

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