Laura Kutner knew almost nothing about Guatemala when she arrived there on a Peace Corps assignment.

"It was a sensory shift — different smells, different food," she says. "Physically, the country is just stunning: the beach, the mountains, the colors from the indigenous textiles and fruits. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life."

But life there wasn't perfect. In the rural mountain village of Granados, heaps of plastic trash littered the roadsides. And the elementary school was badly overcrowded.

Kutner, class of '06, solved both problems.

By brain-storming, team-building and muscle-flexing, the former Gaucho rallied the villagers to help her build more classrooms — out of their very own trash. Today Granados has cleaner streets and two big new schoolrooms whose walls are made from more than 6,000 soda bottles and other plastic garbage. The town has something else, too: community pride.

A native of Portland, Ore., Kutner spent her childhood perusing atlases maps and globes, envisioning other cultures. When it came time for college, she chose UCSB for its student diversity.

"I enjoy getting to know people from all different kinds of backgrounds," Kutner, 26, said in an interview from Guatemala. "I thought of college as an opportunity to break out of my box."

An Introduction to Anthropology course, taught by Outstanding Faculty Award winner Dr. David Crawford, tapped into her curiosity for far-away places. "I fell in love with anthropology," she says, "learning about how people all over the world live their lives, and not just from a sociological perspective but cultural and historical."

During her senior year, she volunteered in Biloxi, Miss., repairing roofs ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and found the experience profoundly rewarding.

"It was hot and I was sweaty and I had cuts," she says. "But it was wonderful being able to do something hands-on to help someone, and seeing how grateful people were, and how happy you can make them. I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life."

After graduating with a double major in Anthropology and Spanish, and an Academic Excellence Award, she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Guatemala. Her assignment: to help educate school children in life skills like self-esteem, leadership and HIV-prevention.

But there weren't enough classrooms for all the village children, and though a frame and roof had been built for two new rooms, the town had run out of funds to finish them.

"I was hanging out during recess with some students near the metal frame and noticed that my bottle of Diet Coke was the exact width of the metal frame," Kutner says. She had heard about an organization called Pura Vida that teaches communities to sort their trash and use the plastic waste as "eco-blocks" for constructing buildings.

So she proposed the idea in Granados and got the teachers, parents and students on board. Less expensive than traditional cement block, the project would also rid the streets of litter — but they would all have to work together. And work hard.

They collected inorganic trash from garbage piles, gutters and even neighboring towns, then stuffed all the plastic bottles with more trash: candy wrappers, potato chip bags, toy flags. Each student had to have 20 bottles stuffed by the end of the year.
In order to make the bottles solid, and to provide insulation, "the trash has to be really compacted," Kutner says. "We definitely got lots of blisters. But it's amazing how much plastic trash one person generates."
The bottles were then sandwiched between sheets of chicken wire, and villagers from age 5 up stuffed more trash in the spaces between each bottle. They sifted sand to make cement, and threw the gray glop onto the wall with their hands.         

"It was hot and you were dirty," Kutner says, "but the students put the trash on and had a trash fashion show. They made it so much fun."
OK, it wasn't ALL fun. "We had some setbacks," admits Kutner, whose project was stymied by a schoolwide outbreak of swine flu and a government economic downturn. "There were certainly times when I'd think, 'Is this actually going to work?' But I refused to give up. I definitely am an optimist."

Her optimism paid off in October of last year, when the students moved their desks into 1,400 square feet of brightly painted classrooms. The former atlas-ponderer was thrilled to see maps on the walls. But the best part? "Seeing the community take ownership of the project and really, really feel proud of themselves," Kutner says. "They're just so happy. The principal and I almost got teary eyed."

When her Peace Corps assignment ends in the fall, Kutner plans to work toward a master’s degree in international studies and environmental management. "Education is one of the most important things that you can invest in," she says. "If you help people learn, then those people can further help themselves."

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