CLEARFIELD – It was the most humbling meal of Aimee Matheson's life. Pizza by candlelight with a family of five in a one-room shack with no plumbing, no electricity and adobe walls that were beginning to crumble.
The family had never seen pizza before, accustomed as they were to a simple diet of tortillas with beans and any vegetables they could grow in the tiny patchwork garden outside their back door.
So you can imagine the Guatemalan family's delight when 17-year-old Aimee said that she and her friends were going to build them a new house with two spacious rooms, running water, brightly-painted walls and electricity so they could make as many pizzas as they liked.
A few weeks later, when the house was finished, "they couldn't stop smiling and told me it was their dream home," recalls Aimee. "Having this tiny new house changed their lives, but that isn't all. It also changed mine."
Right now, while most of her Clearfield High School classmates are adjusting to calculus and chemistry again after a two-week winter break, Aimee and 45 other teens are in Guatemala, putting the finishing touches on a new daycare center for impoverished kids.
They left the day after Christmas with Aimee's dad, Dwayne Matheson, a construction contractor, and they'll return Jan. 9 – just in time to start planning next year's Guatemala volunteer project.
It's been an annual tradition for Aimee and her father for the past four years, ever since they were first touched by the need in Guatemala while vacationing there.
"You just feel like crying when you see how poor the people are," says Aimee, who wanted to tell her story in Free Lunch in the hope of inspiring others to contribute to her project. "It's sad to see children living in such horrible conditions, and it's even sadder to realize you can't help them all. But you can make a huge difference in a few families' lives."
While every year her father coordinates shipping construction materials to Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala, Aimee concentrates on fund-raising with classmates who share her vision of lifting families out of poverty.
This year, the teens raised $13,658 – enough to build a daycare center for 50 children who were previously left alone while their mothers earned $2 a day washing clothes, making tortillas or selling Popsicles to tourists.
"When I first started going to Guatemala, we found a little daycare started by a woman because her neighbor had locked her children in at home while she worked and there was a fire," says Aimee. "The kids couldn't get out and died. It was shocking to learn this is a common problem. Women either have to leave their kids to roam the streets or lock them in their houses."
Aimee and her dad decided to build the neighborhood a larger daycare center, so that more children would have a protected place to play every day.
"They deserve a bright, safe place to learn," she says, "where they can get one good meal a day and learn some basic reading and math skills. Once they're 10, they usually go to work with their parents. But wouldn't it be wonderful if these kids could aspire to something better because they have an education?"
As a straight-A student and student-body officer who runs cross-country, plays the French horn and speaks fluent Spanish, Aimee Matheson knows that she could have a promising career someday as a doctor, a lawyer or something else with an income containing lots of zeroes.
But her heart lies elsewhere.
"Helping people who desperately need it is too much a part of my life now," she says, "so when I graduate, I want to go into humanitarian work. We have it so lucky here in the United States. Going to Guatemala makes me appreciate everything I have so much more."
More information can be found at projectguatemala2010.webs.com.
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