By Kathryn G. Menu
Greeted with flowers, fire dancers, a marimba band and a chorus singing their nation’s national anthem “Meda Dau Doka” or “God Bless Fiji,” Fijian Ambassador Winston Thompson and his wife, Queenie, visited the Bridgehampton School on Tuesday morning to celebrate one student’s effort to shine a spotlight on the global warming crisis and build closer ties between the school and the tropical nation.
Bridgehampton junior Ben McLaughlin, 17, has spent the better part of this spring building a solar-powered portable classroom out of a shipping container. Named the BULA-1, after the Fijian greeting that translates to “welcome,” “cheers” or “good health,” McLaughlin designed the technology classroom himself, outfitting it with 12, solar-powered computers, chairs and desk space.
According to McLaughlin’s father, John, in total, the classroom cost between $14,000 and $15,000, which was raised through private donations, the labor provided by his son and other students at the Bridgehampton School.
This summer, the classroom will be shipped to the Bukama Village School, which is located on Yasawa, one of the outer island chains in Fiji.
Last summer McLaughlin conceived the idea, with the help of Bridgehampton School principal Jack Pryor, not only to provide the Bukama school, a school with few resources, a state-of-the-art classroom able to sustain itself through solar power, but also to increase awareness about the real-life, current effects global warming is having on island nations like Fiji.
Many island nations in the Pacific, noted McLaughlin in an interview earlier this spring, are literally washing away, but communities are also finding their fresh water tables polluted with salt water as sea levels slowly, and surely, continue to rise.
An ultimate goal is to have Bridgehampton School students and those from the Bukama Village School communicate through satellite video, getting to know each other, but also enabling them to study the global warming crisis together.
Ambassador Thompson said he became aware of the project about six months ago by McLaughlin, the 17-year-old emailing the Ambassador again six weeks ago in the hopes of getting him to visit Bridgehampton and see what students at the school had accomplished.
“It’s a wonderful project,” he said, shortly after he and Queenie, who clutched a colorful bouquet of peonies given to her by young students, signed the container — something every student at the Bridgehampton School will do before it begins its two-week journey to Yasawa.
Pryor announced that the school’s latest initiative involves filling the classroom with pens, pencils, binders, notebooks and everything the students at Bukama Village School may need, but not have, in striving for education.
“We have so much here and these students have so little,” said Pryor to the ambassador, his wife, and the entire Bridgehampton School community.
“The whole school got involved,” said McLaughlin. “It was fantastic to see how may people could get involved in a project like this.”
McLaughlin will be joined by five other students and two teachers, who sometime in the next three months, according to John, will travel to Yasawa to introduce the classroom to students at the Bukama Village School and begin to forge a relationship between the two communities.
Addressing the crowd, Ambassador Thompson called his trip to the East End “a journey well worth taking.”
Speaking in front of the classroom, on which students’ painted “BULA!” in red and yellow, next to an image of the Earth, showing Bridgehampton, New York and Yasawa, Fiji on opposite ends of the world, Ambassador Thompson noted thanks to McLaughlin’s work, the communities are not that far away from each other anymore.
“This is the distance that separates us physically, but this project brings us closer together,” he said.
“We will become connected to Bridgehampton in a way not possible alone,” Ambassador Thompson later added, noting he hopes this kind of initiative is one that spreads across the world, uniting different cultures.
That is, in fact, the hope of McLaughlin, his father, and Pryor, who announced this week that a small film is being made about the construction of the classroom and will be sent to schools across New York State and around the United States in the hopes of inspiring similar projects.
“Hopefully those schools can see the whole process, have the plans and material lists in place, and build their own, sending them to Haiti and other areas of need,” said John on Wednesday morning.
The hope is also that Bridgehampton School will complete another project next year, he added, however it may be geared towards healthcare rather than education although no firm plans have yet be finalized.
“The beauty is this only costs between $14,000 to $15,000 and the technology we have to work with is incredible,” said John. “It’s amazing what we can accomplish.”