Building Hope

Sam Kintop '15 makes his pitch for volunteers to build bottle schools. (Photo provided).

Additional images

Matt Hawkins
February 22, 2016

Bradley alumnus Sam Kintop ’15 discovered a passion for others while in the midst of poverty, wet cement, plastic bottles and garbage. The elementary education graduate spent a November week building schools out of plastic bottles in remote Guatemalan villages.

Kintop traveled with nonprofit Hug It Forward, an organization that builds “bottle schools” in South and Central America. These eco-friendly buildings use thousands of discarded plastic bottles stuffed with garbage instead of bricks. In an impoverished country like Guatemala, bottle schools provide an innovative solution to pollution and sturdy facilities in which children can be educated.

That environment challenged Kintop’s worldview and pushed him toward long-term investment in the lives of less-fortunate people. He found new perspectives on issues such as illegal immigration, poverty and wartime survival.

“I had no idea how powerful the trip would be,” Kintop said. “It made me want to do more to give back. It humbled me and showed me what I took for granted in my life.”

Kintop and his team worked on two schools in small, remote villages where outsiders were rare sights and education was limited. Village children flocked to the Americans, with Kintop seemingly the most popular of the visitors, perhaps a credit to his education degree. His child-friendly demeanor and rudimentary Spanish knowledge bridged cultural and language gaps.

And, as the Americans discovered, simple things like sports, hugs and tourist photographs unexpectedly created cross-cultural bonds.

“I realized that kids, no matter where they’re from, laugh and play in the same ways,” Kintop said. “It was special to connect with these kids on such a personal and natural level even though we just met and spoke different languages.”

Cultures also united over cell phone photos. The simple act of stopping to snap a picture, a common sight in the developed world, captured children’s attention.

Photos especially brought Kintop together with a family whose two young daughters attached themselves to the Bradley alumnus. As the week progressed, the team realized village children never had seen photos of themselves.

To show appreciation for the Guatemalans’ hospitality, the workers found a store in a nearby city where they could print photos as parting gifts for the families.

“I've never seen such pure happiness in two kids over something as simple as a few pictures,” Kintop said. “Those children will cherish those photos and remember the first time they saw people from another country. That’s a unique experience that will change how they see the world, just like it changed the way our group saw the world.”

Kintop returned to the U.S. with a newfound appreciation for the abundance of American life and a desire to devote more of his life to helping others. As he settles into the professional world, life lessons from Guatemala will carry into his classrooms while he ponders future volunteer opportunities.

Future trips with Hug it Forward are on his calendar, plus he’s considering joining the Peace Corps.

“We’re empowering communities and youth by educating generations of kids,” Kintop said. “People always say they want to make a difference in the world, and this is a real chance to make a real difference.”