A TEAM THAT WORKS
BOUND FOR PARAGUAY, HOPING TO HELP
Hartford Courant - Hartford, Conn.
Mar 8, 2008
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Ronald Garcia needed to find lots of yellow fever vaccines. And fast.
Less than three weeks before he was scheduled to lead 130 Kingswood-Oxford School students, faculty and alumni on a service trip to Paraguay for spring break, he had to line up a shot for each traveler. -- The 34-year-old Spanish teacher made several phone calls and fired off e-mails. After some last-minute scrambling - and with help from a student's mother - Garcia got what he needed.
Good thing, he explained, because staying home for this month's planned trip was not an option.
During spring break, the members of his group - known as Team Tobati - will work in a local brick factory.
They also will clear fields of sugar cane and distribute toothbrushes to schoolchildren. They will help construct new classrooms, sidewalks and expand medical facilities in an impoverished South American community.
On Sunday and Monday, 103 students and about 30 faculty members and Kingswood-Oxford alums will embark on a journey of nearly 5,000 miles into the heart of South America, flying 10 hours to Brazil, then two more hours into Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, and then riding a bus for 75 minutes into the town of Tobati. There, they will engage in a 10-day service trip unlike many others involving Connecticut's schools.
Since its start nearly 10 year ago, Team Tobati has evolved from an idea into one of the prep school's signature programs. And Garcia is its driving force.
"He is the Pied Piper, and the kids just go where he goes," said his wife, Denise, a math teacher at Kingswood-Oxford.
A GROWING EFFORT
The son of Paraguayan immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1970s to attend medical school, Garcia was born in Chicago and grew up in South Bend, Ind. Some of his fondest childhood memories were the annual holiday trips to his parents' homeland, which included visits to Tobati, the poor rural village that his mother once called home. In late 1998, with the aid of about 30 students, the young teacher - now in his 11th year at K-O - began a project to raise funds and collect supplies for medical centers and schools for Tobati. The modest project picked up steam.
The following year, with the school's blessing, Garcia and another teacher led 22 students during spring break 1999 for the first trip to Tobati, a town of more than 21,000 people.
That trip involved some volunteer work, and lots of shopping and sightseeing. That would change, as the following year focused more on serving the dozens of neighborhoods and rural communities that make up the Tobati district.
Since those initial excursions, Team Tobati has grown from a once-a-year project culminating in a 10-day trip to a year-round effort that oversees daily donations of educational and medical services to the children and families there, as well as additional trips - for instance, Garcia will lead a group of K-O parents and alumni to Tobati this summer.
The program has also linked regional health institutions such as the UConn Dental School and Harvard Medical School, which send students and professionals to Tobati to help meet the needs of a medically underserved population. It has enabled a local health clinic to quadruple in size, and donated equipment has helped reduce the risks of childbirth and other common medical challenges.
All this growth was unexpected, said Garcia, who also coaches girls' tennis at K-0.
"We didn't foresee it growing as much as it did - it just came about," he said. "It definitely wasn't a big, long-term master plan or anything."
One of the trips biggest attractions - besides the opportunity to do worthwhile work in an exotic environment - is Garcia himself, a youthful, affable figure with a sense of humor who the students trust, identify with and playfully refer to as "Garce."
"Kids just gravitate toward him," said Kingswood-Oxford's Head of School Dennis Bisgaard, who this month will be making his first trip to Tobati.
Students say that the program - which costs about $3,000 per trip, covering travel and the cost of activities and projects - is one they now don't want to miss.
"If I were to graduate without going to Team Tobati, I would have been missing out a lot," said Kaitlyn Dell'Aquila, 17, a Rocky Hill resident who will make her first trip to Paraguay in the next couple of days.
THE MAN BEHIND THE PLAN
Garcia's colleagues and family say that his modesty belies the extent and reach of his efforts.
"He is completely altruistic," said Bisgaard.
His wife of almost seven years said that her husband is driven by a deep sense of purpose passed down from his parents to him and his two siblings. Although the New Britain resident is humble about his work, his classroom - a warm, crowded first-floor space facing the school's senior green - is a shrine to Team Tobati and its deeds.
Photos of former participants hang on the walls. A large Team Tobati banner hangs on one side of the room, along with countless Paraguayan ornaments, maps and posters.
Perhaps most significant are the handful of newspaper clippings that Garcia has collected, framed and hung up in the classroom. All are from publications in Paraguay writing about "Los Americanos."
Chief among the accomplishments of Team Tobati was the completion of the Reinaldo Macchi Education Center and School in 2004.
The school, the program's signature institution in Paraguay, is funded completely by Team Tobati and run by a Kingswood-Oxford graduate and Team Tobati alum.
The facility, currently teaching grades 7 through 10, is an independent school dedicated to providing a high-quality education to 15 talented students in each grade.
Stateside, Team Tobati holds several fundraisers a year to help pay for the operation of the school. Garcia said that running the education center, named for his mother's father, costs about $132,000 annually and that Team Tobati spends thousands more each year on construction projects and supplies, ranging from soccer balls to bricks.
"Growing up, I would spend a couple weeks every year in Paraguay for Christmas and New Year's visiting family, and my parents thought it would be important for me to get to know where they're from," Garcia said.
"So when I started teaching here, I thought it could be a valuable experience for my students to travel to Paraguay like I did and just to see a different part of the world and a different way of living and a different economic state, but also just a different culture." "It's been something very special for me and my family to be able to stay connected with Tobati - to stay connected with Paraguay and also to offer a lot of assistance and to try to help people there," Garcia said.
Abby Kerin, a Kingswood-Oxford Class of 2003 graduate and Team Tobati veteran who now teaches English at the Macchi School, said that the program would not exist without the efforts of Garcia and his family.
"Aside from being the physical link between the students at Kingswood-Oxford and the people of Tobati, he is also the heart and soul behind the Team," she said via e-mail. "He has a way of motivating high school students to spend their spring break working in the blistering heat of the Paraguayan summer, which is no small feat."
The school day had ended on a recent cold afternoon, but for Garcia and a handful of students preparing for the trip, work had just begun.
With about eight students by his side, Garcia headed down into a dark, stuffy basement storage room with bags of donated goods piled up several feet high. For the next few days after school, Garcia and some students packed thousands of items to deliver to Tobati.
One by one, 40-pound pieces of luggage are stacked and readied for the trip.
Each traveler will take two pieces of luggage. One holds his or her gear, while the other will be packed with clothing, shoes, school supplies and computer equipment for distribution.
Garcia and students will go door to door to hand out the gear, building friendships, connections and using the donations of a private school community to improve the lives of people half a world away.
"The team has saved hundreds of lives by providing medicine and doctors for Tobati's most humble residents," Luis Andres Ayala Kunzle, a Tobati community leader, said in an online posting. "The team has also provided new classrooms and computers for our schools. Tobati can never repay the team for its work."
Students who have returned from the trip have come back changed, Denise Garcia said, leading them to pursue careers in public service or explore new fields once they go to college.
"It definitely opens your eyes," said Chris Mulkern, 18, a senior from Windsor Locks. "We live in the Kingswood bubble."
Garcia and the team also hope to expand health services. And Garcia said he wants to build the connection between Kingswood-Oxford and the Macchi School, which in January had three of its students visit the West Hartford school for the first time and attend classes for a couple of weeks.
The motto for Team Tobati is "Todo Es Posible" - Spanish for "everything is possible" - and Garcia said there's no indication that the 10-year-old program will stop growing.
"I would never stop doing it," he said. "There's definitely too many people depending on it."
Contact Fulvio Cativo at email@example.com.