Each week we bring you the story and perspective of an outstanding volunteer. This week, meet Luke John Fernandez, an Environmental Brigades volunteer from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (Durham, NC) who recently participated in an Environmental Brigade in Panama.
The last few years have been an eye-opening experience for me. I first started to do mission relief work in 2010. My first projects were local, but as time went on I felt like I was called to do bigger and better things. I started to expand my horizons to larger projects, traveling up and down the East Coast with various relief teams. After about six months of doing this sort of thing, I was offered the chance to travel to Haiti and help rebuild a community center that had been destroyed during the earthquake of 2010.
My first impression of Haiti…speechless. There are no words to explain the needs of people around the world. Every day I went to sleep, knowing that there was so much more that I could do. I just didn’t know how to take that first step in making a difference. We were helping people, but we weren’t making connections. We weren’t teaching them how to help themselves. When I arrived home, I felt displaced. I wanted so much to change the way that we live. From this point on, I knew that I wanted to pursue a future in mission and humanitarian work.
When I started going to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, I had no idea that I was going to be given the opportunity to go to Panama. I was walking down the hall one day and I saw a poster for a trip to Honduras. I read that a group from school would be building a water system in a small village outside of the capital city. That same day I made sure that I was signed up for the trip. I was so passionate about this trip that I was already prepared to pay before I even thought about asking my parents for permission. Once plans were off the ground, I started to get really excited about the trip. As it grew closer, our plans changed and we switched to a trip to Panama for Environmental Brigades. At first I was a little disappointed, but looking back, I couldn’t be any happier.
A freak series of events might have landed me in Panama, but they led to what has been so far the most influential event in my life. My first interaction with the leaders over videochat was truly inspiring. Global Brigades was completely prepared for our trip. Unlike on my trip to Haiti, the people at Global Brigades made a point to educate the people of Panama. The leaders gave us material to study and learn so that we could make the biggest impact when we actually arrived in the community. In all honesty, the leaders at Global Brigades are some of my biggest role models. We would sometimes joke about the way that they were “free-spirited,” but I honestly feel like that is the best way to describe them. When I first met them, I was totally surprised by their maturity and their passion. Jonathan and Tania were absolutely incredible from the start. They made sure that we were well-prepared for the trip. Any time something came up, they were there to work things out. They have a truly outstanding staff at Global Brigades.
My first impression of Panama…life changing. On one of my first days of work, I went to get water and heard music. I walked over and saw four or five locals singing a song in Spanish that I happened to know. I went over and asked them if I could sing with them. This was absolutely magical. We made a connection as I sang the song in English. These are the kinds of events that make volunteering abroad so amazing.
Another great thing about working with Global Brigades was the ability to grow close to those that I was working with. Together, we truly empowered one another, fighting through the work and the sun in order to reach our goals. I have never been so close to a group of people. You only get that kind of relationship from trips like this.
The people at Global Brigades also make a point to make you feel special. They emphasize teamwork and always make you feel at home. One of the best examples of this was when they threw a surprise birthday party for my teammates and me. They had a cake baked in the city and shipped it into our compound. Being in Panama, this was truly a delicacy and it made us feel like we were doing something that was truly making a difference in the world. This little cake was such a big deal to all of us, just like the fresh fruit and cold soda we were lucky to have after a long day’s work. In Panama, we were truly able to appreciate the little things. This is not something that you get to experience often. When you take part in volunteer activities such as working with Global Brigades, you wake up thinking that “this is the way you should be living”. Working with Global Brigades was especially meaningful to me. I got more out of my trip to Panama than I had gotten from all of my past trips combined.
My trip to Panama with Global Brigades helped solidify my plans for a future in humanitarian work. I have decided to double major in Biology and Environmental Studies. From this, I want to be able to continue work with a company like Global Brigades. I thank the whole organization for all that it has done in my life and the lives of those in Panama. The leaders have truly inspired me for my future endeavors.