By Matthew Preusch, The Oregonian
Working as a Peace Corps volunteer, Lincoln High School graduate Laura Kutner (fifth from the right in a black shirt) directed the construction of a school building in Guatemala using discarded plastic bottles. In Guatemala, Laura Kutner noticed, plastic trash was everywhere.
And in the rural Guatemalan community where Kutner was until recently a Peace Corps volunteer, there were classrooms without walls.
Kutner, a 2002 graduate of Portland’s Lincoln High School, saw a solution to both problems. Thanks to her, the village of Granados in central Guatemala now has two new school rooms whose walls are made from discarded plastic soda bottles and other litter.
Kutner, 25, came up with the idea and saw the project through. And in so doing, she learned plenty — too much, really — about plastic and a fair amount about building community.
“First of all, there is so much plastic. Everything is packaged in plastic,” said Kutner, who was in Portland last week during a break from her work in Guatemala, where she remains assigned, but to a new location and job. “I got so sick of plastic.”
Who can blame her? She rallied the agricultural community of 900 people and surrounding mountain villages to collect more than 4,000 used plastic drink bottles from ditches, gutters and trash piles.
Students, volunteers and school staff then stuffed the bottles with plastic bags: potato chip packaging and grocery sacks. As many as 250 were crammed into each bottle using hands and sticks: this to contain plastic trash while adding heft to the bottle structure taking shape.
“We all got blisters from stuffing,” Kutner said.
Stacked side by side and row atop row, bound with chicken wire and coated with a cement-sand mix, these became the building blocks for walls that now enclose two small classrooms for Granados’ elementary school students.
“For me and for the community, seeing these two classrooms standing is truly a dream come true,” Kutner said.
Kutner applied to the Peace Corps while a senior at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she graduated in 2006 with a degree in anthropology and Spanish.
Helping others came naturally. Kutner, whose mother was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1970s, was active in Lincoln High’s service club and other charitable endeavors.
Her father, Douglas Kutner, a Portland psychologist, remembers driving her as a child to Hat Point on the edge of Hells Canyon in the far northeastern corner of Oregon, the Seven Devils range in the distance.
“She said, ‘It’s really hard to look at all this beauty when you know how much suffering there is in the world,'” he recalled. “She was 9.”
Kutner is now based in San Miguel Dueñas, one of 128 Peace Corps volunteers from the Portland area, which ranks 11th among the nation’s metro areas for producing volunteers. Oregon ranks fifth among states per capita for Peace Corps volunteers.
When Kutner arrived at her posting in Granados in April 2007 to teach life skills to children, a metal frame and roof was all there was to the roughly 1,300-square-foot school annex building. The village government didn’t have the money to finish the project.
The elementary school’s principal told her they needed the space, and could she help find a way to finish the school?
Kutner got the idea to use bottles from a Guatemalan group called Pura Vida, which was using bottle-filled “eco-blocks” for community construction projects.
“A bottle project had never been done with metal before, always out of wood, but I figured why not look into it,” she said.
The project ended up costing about $3,000, Kutner said. It was finished with the help of local businesses that donated materials and labor; the goodwill organization Hug it Forward, who sent five volunteers to Granados; and Peace Corps volunteer Rebecca Wike of Washington, who succeeded Kutner in Granados.
In the fall, the gray walls were painted a vivid orange. Welders were still finishing the windows during the inauguration Oct. 26. This month, students will begin using the classrooms.
“I think one of the biggest things I learned is to not just have faith in yourself, but to have faith in other people,” Kutner said. “The end result of what we were able to accomplish was way greater than I ever imagined.”
While it got new classrooms, the community also got a new awareness of the litter all around it.
Kutner remembers being on a bus and for the first time hearing a mother tell her child not to throw an empty bottle out the window, a common practice. Another resident has begun collecting cans and hauling them into the capital, four hours away, to collect the deposit.
And though she got the project started, it was the local community that saw it through, Kutner said.
“With development work, you have to find a real balance. It has to be something the community really wants or needs, but they also have to be able to do it themselves,” Kutner said. “Otherwise it’s not sustainable.”
Kutner, whose name adorns a wall plaque at a new library in Granados she also helped build, has eight more months in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. After that, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in international studies and environmental management, perhaps at the University of Washington so she can be closer to her family, before continuing with a career abroad.
“I miss my family,” she said. “But I feel like I come alive when I do this kind of work.”