By: Justin Horne
Story originally published for the Star & Lamp of Pi Kappa Phi – Summer 2019
From the very start of The Ability Experience over 40 years ago, construction and increased access to needed amenities has been a core feature. From those original play units designed by Thomas Sayre in collaboration with Durward Owen, The Ability Experience has worked to leverage the manpower of the fraternity with the fundraising capability of a national organization to tangibly impact the lives of people with disabilities across the country.
But in 2018, we moved beyond the country: The Ability Experience went to Guatemala. Spurred by a desire to make an impact in a country lacking many of the disability support networks that Americans benefit from, 20 men traveled to Santiago Atitlán in central South America to make a difference.
The inaugural trip in 2018 was the first construction experience abroad. The team spent a week working with a local clinic, and laying the foundation that will form the future clinic. Sabit Nasir from the Kappa Omicron Chapter at Connecticut said that “Ability Camp Guatemala was an experience-and-a-half. Seeing the happiness everyone had, despite lacking even simple necessities, made me reflect on my own life and what was and was not important.”
And how did The Ability Experience land 2,500 miles away from where it started? By the vision of Pi Alpha Dean Sheorn (Journey of Hope north route, 1994.) In February of 2016, he and his church group went down to volunteer and meet with ADISA, the Association of Parents and Friends of People with Disabilities. ADISA’s mission is to “Assist, defend and further the rights of people with disabilities.” After his time there, Dean felt that there was still work to be done, and immediately thought of his experience with The Ability Experience, and that it might be a good fit for the organization.
ADISA was created in 1998 by Francisco and Maria Figueroa after the birth of their third child, Nila. She was born with hydrocephalus, a brain condition in which excess water causes an enlarged head. Much like now, the city of Santiago Atitlán did not have a social or governmental network that helped support people with disabilities, or the challenge that they faced.
Rather than just accept that, the Figueroas began calling through their own parent network, and ultimately organized a support system for children with disabilities. Initially, ADISA worked with three families; now, that number is past 1,000 children.
Today, ADISA functions as an umbrella organization, now supporting various ventures under its guidance. The Ability Experience has made an impact on two of those, a school serving children with disabilities, and an artisan workshop where people with primarily physical disabilities craft goods and art to sell. This year’s expanded two-team trip split their time evenly.
The first group spent a week improving and expanding the artisan workshop. The second group built a wheelchair ramp from the first to the second floor of the school.
These unique opportunities help define the exceptional experiences afforded to members of Pi Kappa Phi. For over four decades, The Ability Experience has pioneered service as a form of brotherhood for the greater good, while simultaneously developing brothers into leaders. This is exemplified in the oft-repeated line, “Sometimes, you have to travel the world to see the opportunities in your own back yard.” It’s our hope that these experiences in Central America will spark the desire for more shared experiences at home in these brothers chapters and their communities. The Ability Experience is proud to have focused heavily on the importance of physical accessibility in the United States, even before the government mandated equal access through the ADA. Guatemala serves as a reminder for the crucial importance of accessible spaces, and the challenge the lack thereof has on the people who need them.
In just two years, Pi Kappa Phi has expanded its international presence to two teams of brothers spending weeks abroad enabling increased access and growing as servant leaders. Growing to two teams enabled the organization to complete more projects than anticipated while making a lasting, tangible difference in the lives of people who don’t typically receive that sort of outside support. As said by Basil Lyberg, “We’re proud to be able to contribute and support our mission while making a new partnership with ADISA, and look forward to seeing what we can achieve together in future service trips.”