Anne Dwyer with Guatemalan children whose house she built.

By Sue Ann Rybak

Eighteen-year-old Pete Shields, of Chestnut Hill, initially said he was “on the fence” about whether he wanted to participate again in the Teenagers Inc. service project in Guatemala from July 3 to 12. He needed to save money for college, and it was the busiest week of the summer at his job at Top of the Hill Market.

Since 2008, Teenagers Inc., a non-for-profit teen organization in Chestnut Hill, has been traveling to God’s Child Project in Antigua, Guatemala, to build homes for poverty-stricken families. Most families live in small huts that consist of lamina, reeds and a dirt floor.

But, ultimately it was the expression on the mother’s face, when Shields and other volunteers from Teenagers Inc. presented her family with their newly constructed home during last year’s service project that was the deciding factor.

“The smile on her face is nothing you can ever experience in your life,” said Shields, who coaches little league in his spare time. “It’s unreal. I’ll never forget seeing that look on her face.”

This is the fourth year Marianne Dwyer, director of Teenagers Inc., organized the service project. She said teenagers all cringe when they hear that they can’t use phones, hair dryers or other electrical devises.

Dwyer said the service project offers teenagers a chance to “get away from all the electronics that limit them from seeing the world as a beautiful place.”

She said it gives them the opportunity to focus in on who they are and whom they are helping.

“It’s a life-changing experience,” Dwyer said.

Arianna Neromiliotis, 30, a lifelong resident of Mt. Airy, agreed. This will be Neromiliotis’ third time chaperoning the trip. Neromiliotis, a founding member of Teenagers Inc., said the trip “transforms” many teenagers.

She recalled a young teenager on her first trip to Guatemala. Neromiliotis, a preschool teacher, said the sophomore high school student was a “typical teenager” who often complained that he didn’t want to do something. When they arrived in Antigua, he was assigned to her team.

“On the first day of building houses he said, ‘Oh, God, it’s hard I can’t do it,’” Neromiliotis said. “I said, you’re gonna have to do it. I can’t do it alone. I know it’s hot. We just have to work through it.”

And he did.

Neromiliotis said at the end of the first day the teen said, “That was the hardest day of work I ever did in my life.”

But, he changed on the second day.

“On day two, we worked through the rain and extreme heat, and he became someone different,” Neromiliotis said. “ I saw him change right before my eyes into someone eager and willing to work and help people.”

Neromiliotis said she is always amazed when she sees a teenager take a step towards adulthood.

“They get it because it’s tangible,” Neromiliotis said. “They understand why we do this. They accepted the challenge.

“It’s a great life lesson that not every teenager or adult gets to have. My hope is that the motivation always stays with them. And the ability to see that you did something awesome will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

Nineteen-year-old Michael and Brendan Dwyer, of Chestnut Hill said the experience made them appreciate what they have.

“The kids live so simply compared with the United States,” Michael said. “They smile and are happy with simple things.”

Michael’s twin brother, Brendan, elaborated, noting that “the kids down there have nothing at all,”

He said at the work sites the teenagers hand out simple toys like a jump rope.

“Their faces just light up with happiness with these little gifts that we are so accustomed to,” Michael said. “I personally left with a lot more than I came with to Guatemala. It made me realize how blessed I am.”

Besides building houses while in Antigua, the twins also worked in a malnutrition center. Brendan said he couldn’t believe how severely underweight the children were.

“There was one baby who was 6 years old whose legs weren’t strong enough to walk,” he said. “One thing that really had an impact on me was the kids. It was awesome to give them a chance for a better life.”

It was an eye-opening experience for 16-year-old Brennan O’Donnell of Flourtown.

“I knew poverty existed there, but I wasn’t fully aware of the situation,” O’Donnell said. “Everyday at the building site they gave us a snack – we usually gave it away because we realized how much more they needed it.”

This will be 18-year-old Autumn Temple’s third trip to Guatemala.

Temple, of Mt. Airy, said Americans tend to “live in a bubble.”

She said that before the trip she was “really naïve about what was going on in the world,” adding that it was a “very humbling experience.”

“It’s a whole different world over there,” Temple said. “They have less but they are so happy.”

Temple said building the houses is exhausting. Everything is done by hand from digging a foundation, sawing wood, carrying water and mixing cement. Temple said her friends teased her when they heard she built houses. At 5’4 and 109 lbs, she’s not exactly the person you might want on your team building houses.

“Everyone is so willing to help you,” Temple said.

She recalled making cement and mixing it with rocks and dirt by hand.

“I am really small, and carrying cement was really hard for me,” Temple said. “I stopped for a moment and this little girl who couldn’t have been more than 6 years old ran over and grabbed the tin buckets that were filled to the brim with cement.

The picture is seared into Temple’s memory: a 6-year-old little girl with wavy hair wearing a pink plain dress and flip flops running over to help her. But it was the image of her tiny hands clenching the tin bucket as she attempted to carry the cement that she carries in her heart – a little girl so determined to help build a better future for her family and friends, one step at a time.

Teenagers Inc. is in desperate need of supplies for its service project. The supplies can be dropped off at 105 Bethlehem Pike (across from the Chestnut Hill East Train Station).

The following items are needed: school supplies (notebooks, crayons, pens, pencils, markers, glue, backpacks, pencil sharpeners, scissors), art supplies (crayons, watercolor paints, yarn, crochet needles), small bottles of shampoo, conditioner, soap, lotion, combs, razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, medicine (band-aids, stethoscopes, syringes, Tylenol, vitamins), diapers (1-12months), wipes, bottles, rash lotion, children’s and women’s clothing, shoes, rain jackets, boots and ponchos.

For more information call Marianne Dwyer at 215-242-4976 or email her at director@Teensincphilly.org.