Dan Heffron, Jo Wrich and Julie Dodge from the Rotary Club of New Richmond told the story of their club's first (but not last) international mission. Eight members of the New Richmond club constructed bathrooms for an elementary school in Panama. It was the club’s first international service project, and more are planned.
 
Dan Heffron, Jo Wrich and Julie Dodge from the Rotary Club of New Richmond told the story of their club's first (but not last) international mission. Eight members of the New Richmond club constructed bathrooms for an elementary school in Panama. It was the club’s first international service project, and more are planned.

Bahia Roja is on Isla Bastimentos in the Region of Bocas del Toro, Panama. It is a small indigenous community of 100 people inhabited by the Ngobe-Bugle tribe. The village is situated on an island and the crew had to take a boat taxi to work each day. Additionally, all supplies had to come in by boat.

Partnering with local club

The New Richmond club teamed up with El Club Rotario de Bocas del Toro, Panama. This was key to the project's success, as the scope of the project changed from the beginning, which originally was creating a sanitation / hand washing station; it morphed into a full fledged bathroom facility.

Working with local communities and connecting with local clubs is truly key to how Rotary projects work. The local club acted as translators and guides and were wonderful hosts, lining up supply chains and providing hot meals for the crew each day, no small task in 90-degree heat with 120% humidity, as Dan noted.

Scarce supplies

When the group first arrived, they found that the project's tool inventory consisted of just two hammers and saws.

"There were eight of us, so our first task was to order additional tools," said Dan. They purchased more manual tools. Electricity was available but not next to the school. 

The local crew had already poured concrete and framed the structure, which was good because the club had just a week to finish it up. Dan coordinated the supplies needed and arranged payment and delivery. Jo's role was to "keep the pencils sharpened and take lots of photos," while Heather impressed the locals with her Wisconsin girl power.

"They were impressed," Dan said of the local workers. "We were not just some Americans coming down to watch them work."

After a week, the team had installed the sinks and toilets and painted the exterior. Within the month, the project was complete, thanks to the local community members and the local Rotary club.

Backpack distribution day

Each day, the crew would bring items for the students. Before heading out, the club had a packing party to fill eight 40-pound cases with school supplies and hygiene education materials. On backpack distribution day, each student received a backpack of school supplies for their age. The teacher also received a backpack with special supplies just for her. While language was a bit of a barrier, the hugs exchanged said more than enough.

What's next

The next project is in the works.

"We’ll be going back there to do another project and we will reach out," promised Dan. "If anyone wants to join us, they are welcome to come and help."

Water figures heavily into daily life in Panama. Another indigenous community has children walking through a swamp to get to boats to take them to school. The club has investigating building a trail. Dan noted that while it would be a large undertaking, it would be a long lasting and sustainable and falls within Rotary's focus on education.
 
 
 
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