This is the fourth part of a series about the Gill St. Bernard’s School unit, a travel and experiential learning program that the school founded in the early 1970s.
Last spring, nine students and two teachers embarked on a two-week GSB unit trip to Sumpango, Guatemala. During their time there, they assisted professional builders and helped to construct homes for residents. The students understood from the outset that the trip would entail hard work, everything from carrying cinderblocks to mixing cement, and helping to dig foundations. What they did not know was how much they would enjoy the experience.
Nyla Mulcahy ’17 has no second thoughts about her choice to go to Guatemala, saying “A lot of people may think it’s hard traveling to a country like Guatemala for the unit—you couldn’t drink the water and the work was hard—but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” She adds, “A trip like that changes how you look at life. You see how happy the people are and, you have the chance to help them. There’s no better feeling.”
Mulcahy and the others in the group assisted in constructing two cinder-block houses in Sumpango, a southern town with about 39,000 residents. This excursion marked Gill’s third to Guatemala, and the seventh home that the students have built with the organization From Houses to Homes. In addition to constructing 1,092 dwellings, From Houses to Homes also provides much needed medical care and education.
The Gill group stayed in a hotel in Antigua, and spent the first few mornings volunteering at a local grammar school, where they also donated arts and craft supplies. Five days were devoted to helping to build homes, but the students also had time to tour the chocolate factory ChocoMuseo, visit a nearby coffee plantation and hike up the Pacaya Volcano at 8,000-feet above sea level.
Even though he had no prior carpentry experience, Evan Storch ’17 had no trouble digging in. “We mixed the cement by hand, stacked bricks and cinder blocks, and on the last day, painted the house,” he says. When the construction was complete, the family receiving the new home was given the keys, a ceremony that Storch says touched the volunteers and the whole village. “Everyone was tearing up – the family was speechless, as were all of us,” says Storch.
On the trip, Storch found that his foundation in Spanish served him well: “I took Spanish for three years at Gill, and all my work paid off because I could communicate with most people there.”
So is a background in Spanish a prerequisite for traveling to Guatemala? Not at all, says Brittany Casser, a Gill world languages teacher who co-chaperoned the unit. She adds, “Nyla Mulcahy never studied Spanish, but even with the language barrier, she was a powerful force. On the last day, she had the idea to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out in the village. She was the only one who didn’t speak any Spanish, but it didn’t stop her. She was fearless. She simply asked, ‘What can we do to make their day better?’”

On this service trip, Casser was pleased to see all of the students give their best. “As a teacher, when you see your kids 100-percent involved and engaged, it’s gratifying,” she says. “The work week was demanding, physically, and the conditions were difficult. Our students got to experience something outside their comfort zone. They were all so motivated and dedicated to build that house. When the workers said, ‘Move 100 cinder blocks,’ our students did it without hesitation in 80-degree heat. They never complained, but got the job done quietly and efficiently.”
Casser also takes heart in the fact that these students could have picked any other unit, and they selected one focused on helping others. “They left this family with a home to keep them safe and warm,” she says. “Many in Guatemala are living in shacks or areas destroyed by the weather. To leave this family with something substantial after five days of work is incredible.”
Reflecting the school’s motto, "The World is Our Classroom," the Spring Unit offers experiential learning opportunities locally, throughout the US, and internationally. Held each May, the two-week program encourages students to explore projects outside of the school’s regular academic curriculum. Although the programs vary from year to year in response to student interests and world events, every program has key factors in common.
For more than 40 years, the Spring Unit enables students to expand their knowledge and skills by applying them in new ways and through new experiences. Whether regionally or internationally, students discover connections to new environments and between their own lives and the lives of others. An essential part of GSB’s curriculum, the Spring Unit challenges students to think critically, to offer the best of themselves, and to cooperate with others in learning and doing. The Unit celebrates the educated imagination and the capacity in each person to see endless possibilities in the shared world.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.