SHARON – Josh Berkey got an education by living a week in a tiny home with a thatched roof.
“It was the most memorable moment of my life,’’ said Berkey, a student at Penn State Shenango who’s studying physical therapy.
He, along with another 11 students and two campus administrators, spent a week in Belize last month during Penn State’s spring break. Located on the Atlantic Ocean coast of Central America, Belize has bid welcome in recent years to campus students and administrators who have helped the nation’s citizens.
During the past decade, the Sharon campus has promoted its “Alternative Spring Break’’ program, where students further their education by helping others in distant lands. In recent years it’s been Belize.
Berkey’s experience isn’t unique, said Jammie Clark, director of students affairs for the campus.
“When we come back, it’s common to hear this was a life-changing event,’’ Clark said.
Students and administrators who took the trip gathered earlier this week at the campus to talk of their journey.
Their trip took them to the general area of Lubaantun, a small inland town in southern Belize.
Centuries ago, before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Lubaantun was part of the robust Maya civilization and was a population center in southern Belize. Modern residents of the area live in thatched houses much like the one Berkey stayed in.
An upscale home was one with electricity and running water, Berkey said. But the population had something of greater value.
“The community is their life,’’ he said. “They work as a complete unit.’’
Residents of the area took pride in working on farms shared by all. But adults also had paying jobs.
“They spend four hours on public transportation to get them to and from their work,’’ Berkey said.
Among the ways students helped residents was to help them the daily chores and cyclical needs of running a farm.
Breanna Laverie was a student who helped a village woman produce coconut oil.
It’s a labor-intensive process, the Austintown resident said.
“It takes 15 coconuts to produce one pint of coconut oil,’’ said Laverie, who also is studying physical therapy.
First, workers crack open the coconut, which grow naturally in Belize, with a machete. From there, the fruit’s milky liquid is placed in a bowl with water and the inner shell that has been ground to small flakes. After a couple more processes which condenses the liquid, it’s placed on a stove to boil the mixture into true coconut oil.
“It’s a long process,’’ Laverie said.
After using the oil in the village, coconut oil is now on her regular shopping list.
“I’ve never been into coconut oil,’’ Laverie said. “Now I use it all the time for my hair. It makes it soft.’’
Others helped to create a huge compost heap for fertilizer on area farms. Part of the job required going into the jungle to collect Mucuna, a key ingredient in creating the fertilizer.
The trip wasn’t all work. The group hiked to the source of a river and floated downstream for a couple hours.
Total cost for the trip is a little under $3,200. Students are responsible for around $900 of that expense with the college picking up the remaining tab. There are fund-raising activities.
“We do things like sell ice cream at Buhl Day,’’ Clark said.
It’s up to each Penn State campus to decide if they want to have the program, she added.
Berkey found the trip was more than just a gesture of goodwill. While they aided a population that struggles financially and only has the most meager of life’s resources, he discovered they had far more meaningful.
“Everyone is super-family oriented,’’ he said. “They have nothing. But to them, they have everything.’’