By Kathryn G. Menu
The final phase of a two-year passion project for Bridgehampton School senior Ben McLaughlin takes flight this week. That’s when a crew will descend on the Bridgehampton School parking lot to remove Bula-1, the storage container McLaughlin transformed into a classroom for the Bukama Village School on one of the outer islands of Fiji.
The storage container, filled to capacity with crates of school supplies, will be shipped to the island of Yasawa. Memorial Day weekend, McLaughlin and a team of Bridgehampton School students and teachers will meet the container in Fiji, where they will equip the classroom with solar panels to power 12-computers to be outfitted in the portable classroom.
For the children of the Bukama Village School, it will be the first opportunity of their young lives to use a computer. More importantly, the school supplies collected by the Bridgehampton School community through donations by local businesses and neighboring school districts will give the Bukama Village School basic resources it has been lacking for years.
McLaughlin will be joined in Fiji by Bridgehampton Principal Jack Pryor and teacher Carrie McDermott, as well as students Genevieve Kotz, Jessica Perez and Zave Brodie.
“It feels incredible to get to this point,” said McLaughlin on Monday. “We have all of these schools out here with all of the resources in the world and a lot of kids who just don’t get what they have. There, in Fiji, you have this group of kids who don’t have anything. To be able to offer them computers, a classroom, it feels really good and makes me really want to think about looking into a more non-profit approach to the work I want to do.”
“Bula is an example of what can happen when we provide opportunities for critical thinking and independence to our students,” said Bridgehampton Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre. “Teaching students that they can accomplish their goals, aspirations, and realize their dreams is what education is all about. Working together to permit students to work on a project such as this, within the curriculum, and to put in the time and effort to see it to fruition is a life lesson for all involved.”
Project Bula began two years ago when McLaughlin went to Pryor with the idea of a summer project that could highlight his engineering skills and technical expertise for college applications.
“No one is going to hire you to sit in a room and take the SAT,” said Pryor. “There are a number of ways to measure intellect and the United States has never really embraced that there are so many facets to how people learn and where they excel. This was a project we began to show colleges what Ben is capable of. He is a problem solver, and this is an experience he will never forget.”
At the outset, McLaughlin remembered learning about a school in Fiji from his father, John.
“He had been to the island a few years ago and said there was this specific school where the kids were so energetic and happy to learn, but the resources were not there,” remembered McLaughlin.
McLaughlin conceived the idea that he could not only provide the Bukama Village School with a state-of-the-art classroom able to sustain itself through solar power, but also to increase awareness about the real-life effects global warming is having on island nations like Fiji.
Yasawa, like many low lying islands, is on the frontline of climate change which has manifested itself with fresh water wells polluted by salt water as sea levels rise. Changes in aquaculture have made it more difficult to fish.
Outside of providing the Bukama Village School with critical educational resources, McLaughlin hopes Project Bula will ultimately result in students at Bridgehampton and Yasawa communicating via satellite video, and learning about the global warming crisis together.
What began as a summer project, quickly morphed into one that would take the better part of two years, as McLaughlin encountered serious engineering problems in his original concept. He had to work with industry leaders in green technology to find a way to power the portable classroom with solar panels.
The 18-year-old also had to negotiate with the Fijian government to find a way to get the classroom to Yasawa, which did not have a dock capable of bringing in the large vessels traditionally used to transport shipping containers. McLaughlin eventually found a firm that ships barges to the outer islands of Fiji, and contracted with that company to get the classroom to the Bukama Village School.
“It feels pretty amazing that we are finally here,” said McLaughlin, who has been accepted to a number of colleges, but is also considering taking a year off to continue work in the non-profit sector. He said he hopes, as he moves on, that other students at Bridgehampton and in other schools take on similar initiatives.
“I want to pass the torch on,” he said. “There are a lot of communities without proper health care, and doctors who are willing to travel all over the world to help with their only payment a stipend to get them to where they are going and cover the costs of medical expenses. What if we built them a doctor’s office in a storage container? It’s amazing what you can do with these things.”