It was the going-away party that changed Chris Ramey's life.
In 2010, Ramey traveled to Kenya to volunteer at a primary school in a township south of Nairobi. More than 90 kids crammed into a classroom built to accommodate half as many students. Ramey taught them algebra, geometry and English. He met their parents. He got to know his fellow teachers. And then, all too soon, it was time to go home.
But first the school's principal ushered Ramey and another short-term volunteer to a gathering at the school, where a massive spread of food waited. Students, teachers and parents greeted the two volunteers, some with gifts, all so generous in their gratitude that Ramey left determined to return some day.
“We were floored,” he said, “because we felt like we hadn't done that much.”
He learned that day that the personal connections made would long outlast any work he did.
The experience inspired Ramey, 33, to start Purple Wagon, a nonprofit that offers service-learning opportunities for high school students.
Until now, Purple Wagon has operated mostly out of (though technically unaffiliated with) Millard West High School, where Ramey taught computer science for the past five years. The organization engineered a summer trip to Kenya in 2012 — returning to the same school where Ramey worked a couple years earlier. This past summer, the group took seven students to India, where they taught English and math to Tibetan children. In between, Purple Wagon connected students with volunteer opportunities around Omaha.
Now, Purple Wagon is hoping to expand its reach across the city. The organization is accepting applications for a summer 2014 trip to northern Thailand, where 16 student volunteers will work with a local village to build a classroom.
“I feel like it changes the volunteer experience when there's manual labor involved,” Ramey said of the new project. “If there's nothing else tangible, there's the fact that you are covered in filth and you are sweating. There is some physical indication of productive work.”
The year ahead is a big one for Ramey. He left teaching earlier this year to take a computer programming job because the flexible schedule gives him more hours to work on Purple Wagon. Over the past month he's been speaking to educators, students and parents about his organization. He meets with other nonprofits to identify needs that student volunteers can fill. In the long run, he sees Purple Wagon as a do-gooder middleman, providing students with enriching, hands-on experiences to broaden their sense of the world and notion of community.
“I see us ultimately as a non-faith-based youth group, like a service-oriented youth group, welcoming of anyone,” Ramey said. “Students come to us from all different backgrounds and all different reasons. I want to cultivate a volunteer community, where that's what we share. We help.”
That call appealed to Kevin McCawley, a Millard West senior who traveled to India with Purple Wagon this summer. It wasn't all work. The group hiked in the mornings and got in some site-seeing. They even went on an impromptu hang gliding adventure, after securing parental approvals through a series of hastily arranged online chats. But the thrust of the trip took them to the Himalayas, where they taught young Buddhist monks, some of whom were just learning to speak English. They prepared lesson plans and daily activities for their classes. They also worked one-on-one with students.
McCawley says his most memorable moment happened on the plane ride home. As he looked out the window to the ground below, he realized how different it was from when the group left Omaha three weeks before. “That was the point when I realized the world had just been revealed to me,” he wrote in an essay about his experience. “I realized the world I live in is so much bigger than just my home or my Midwestern city. I live in a world packed full of life and aspirations, yet also strife. In that moment, I thought to myself, 'I will never look at this world quite the same again.' ”
McCawley heads to college next year. He plans to go to medical school. He now sees himself volunteering for Doctors Without Borders, the international organization that sends health care professionals to developing countries and regions in crisis.
So does Bailey Schollmeyer. An 18-year-old freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Schollmeyer also traveled to India this summer, and while she speaks highly of her days teaching the young monks, an experience earlier in the trip stands out.
Not long after the group arrived in India, the volunteers visited a care facility in New Delhi to spend time with residents there. Schollmeyer entered the room of a man in his 60s who could no longer see or hear. She wasn't sure how to communicate with him at first. After a moment, she sat at the edge of his bed and reached for his hand. Tears welled in his eyes as they sat together, and then in hers, too.
She met another man who welcomed her with enthusiasm. He asked Schollmeyer what she liked to study back home. She told him she loved classic American literature.
“Mark Twain?” he asked.
She told him she loved Mark Twain.
He picked up a book and handed it to her: “The Innocents Abroad.”
The man told Schollmeyer to come back to India and visit again, and that he'll remember her.
* * *
Purple Wagon is now accepting applications for 16 available spots for a summer 2014 trip to Thailand (June 12-30), where student volunteers will assist in building a classroom. The application process is open to high school juniors and seniors.
Applications must be submitted online by Nov. 29. Informational meetings will be held at the Swanson Library, 9101 West Dodge Road, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and the Millard Library, 13214 Westwood Lane, at 1 p.m. Sunday.
More information: purplewagon.org