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Coffee beans awaken students at Mountainside school

Caffeine has the power to stimulate change – in Central America and North Van. At Mountainside Secondary, a small group of students meets once a week after school to discuss plans for their international development project.

Caffeine has the power to stimulate change – in Central America and North Van.

At Mountainside Secondary, a small group of students meets once a week after school to discuss plans for their international development project.

These North Vancouver teenagers’ struggles pale in comparison to those of their student counterparts in Central America – this they know.

“Something that I truly value is having a safe place to go to school, and having such a beautiful building to go to school in,” says Grade 12 student Sarah Bates. “The security that we have in North Van and the quality of education that we have readily available to us is amazing.”

Fellow student Patrick Walters nods his head in agreement.

For Walters, who used to live in Mexico, he knows many children there can walk miles on empty stomachs in order to get an education.

“I wake up every morning and I get a ride to school,” says Walters.

The biggest obstacle to his education in North Van, he adds, is motivation.

Fortunately, teachers at Mountainside, as this group of students attests, help them to succeed – and inspire. School vice-principal Lucas King is one such teacher.

Last spring break, King visited with farmers at a fair-trade coffee co-op in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. Upon his return to Mountainside, he told the students of his meaningful experience.

“I said it would be a cool idea for a trip – and they kind of didn’t let me forget that idea,” says King, with a smile.

When September rolled around, the students almost immediately said to King, “Hey, what about Guatemala?”

An after-school club – the Bean Dreamin’ team – was formed and fundraising ideas started brewing.

The team’s target is to fundraise $20,000 between now and March 2019, to cover the cost of travel expenses and building a classroom in Guatemala.

To achieve this goal, the students are selling cups of coffee and coffee beans grown by a small growing co-op in the Central American country.

“What I feel is different from other schools’ (trips) … we decided if we were going to do it we were going to raise money all together as a team,” says King.

That means no student gets left behind. The class trip, which costs $1,800 per student, is not about privilege but rather inclusiveness.

If the team can’t travel together – they will still donate any funds they raise to the Campesino Committee of the Highlands co-op in Guatemala’s Atitlan region.

Founded in 1982, the organization aims to defend the rights of workers on large coffee, sugar and cotton plantations, to recover lands taken from the Mayan communities over the past centuries, and to promote and recover Mayan culture. Approximately 100 communities in 11 Guatemalan provinces belong to the CCDA.

One of the co-op members brought somber stories from Guatemala to Mountainside during a recent visit. The students learned of polluted water used for bathing, and the subsequent rashes.

Then the guest speaker talked about atrocities in his hometown.

“He told us basically there’s a lot of political unrest in that area. People are being assassinated on the farms by a bunch of different groups,” explains Grade 12 student Abigail Pierrot.

Pierrot herself has seen the corruption while travelling in Guatemala.

“We had to bribe the border guard in order for him to let us in the country,” recalls Pierrot. “The military officers tried to take our passports – and we had to give them soda in order for them to leave us alone. There was a lot of people with guns in trees.”

King clarifies that not’s an area of Guatemala the students will be going to. The school is looking at logistics, as they don’t want to send the students to politically unstable areas of the country.

The project the Bean Dreamin’ team landed on involves building a one-room schoolhouse in a little community outside of Lake Atitlán – a body of water in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands. The area is known for its Mayan villages where vendors sell traditional textiles.

The Mountainside students are looking forward to getting their hands dirty in Guatemala and putting in some manual labour to help build the classroom. It will be a rewarding feeling for them to stand back and see the fruits of their labour realized, knowing it started with a plucky group of students at Mountainside.

“There’s so much learning that comes from seeing a project to the end like this,” says King. “How amazing things can happen bit by bit – one bag of coffee at a time.”

The students have been over to Braemar Elementary to sell coffee to the parents and school staff.

The Bean Dreamin’ team has also brought the charitable caffeine to the North Vancouver school board office where employees happily obliged them.

Educational lessons have been woven into the students' mission. Pierrot penned a successful grant application from a private foundation in Vancouver that will match the Mountainside group’s funds up to $7,000, while Bates wrote letters appealing to local business owners to support them.

Both students worked with their English teacher, Jen Macdonald, to help craft the letters, for which the students received course credit.

In her application, Pierrot highlighted the multicultural flavour of Mountainside and what positive effects the project will have on their education and personal development.

“I think it will also be helpful for us to get a cultural experience and open our eyes up to the world,” says Pierrot.

Student Mika Yekrangian says she signed up for the project because she feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility to give back. 

“I feel like there’s so much crap going on in the world that we owe it to these people – the hunger crisis in Yemen, the wars going on in the Middle East," says Yekrangian. "We, as people of privilege, overlook what we’ve been given. It’s human nature to take things for granted."

Asked if there’s a stigma attached to Mountainside – widely known as an alternative school – a resounding “Yes” reverberates in the otherwise empty cafeteria.

“Something that’s really important to us, and that we really noticed, is that a lot of the people … within North Van really have a view that Mountainside kids are bad kids, says Bates. “Or that they’re drug users or super depressed, or just messed up.”

Walters wants people to know that Mountainside is a caring place. With amazing teachers, adds Bates.

“We might have gone through more complicated circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that our school is just a bunch of drug users. We care about international issues, we care about our community – we care about each other,” says Bates.

King says students at Mountainside are doing amazing things every day, showing tremendous resilience in the face of barriers in their lives.

At first, King wasn’t sure if he was going to get an after-school commitment from these students.

“And they have definitely impressed me with their dedication and great ideas,” says King. “It inspires me every day. And even if we fall short of our goal – what we have done already is amazing. It’s a great thing.”

Anyone interested in supporting the students can stop by the Mountainside school office at 3365 Mahon Ave., to buy a bag of freshly roasted, organic coffee beans for $20 a pound. The half-pound bags are cloaked in colourful textile made in Guatemala by a women’s co-op.