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The Journey Home

The words tumble out as Saul Flores describes a trip he made to the small rural community of Atencingo, Mexico, last spring. He leans forward in his seat, struggling to paint a picture with words, a picture of stark contrasts, of breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking poverty.

When words fail, he relies on the photographs he took on the trip, vivid portraits of the town and its children.

One photo, taken inside an aging elementary school, shows the dark outline of two hands raised to answer a teacher’s question, set against tattered gold curtains covering a window.

Students study in the dark since the school can’t afford electricity.

“I was shocked to see the conditions under which these students live every day,” Flores says. “It was eye-opening.”

Now, Flores has decided to turn his eyes – and his feet – to the task of helping the children of Atencingo.

This summer the NC State junior will walk and hitchhike from Ecuador, where he is participating in a university-sponsored service program, to his home in Charlotte, a journey of more than 4,000 miles. Along the way he’ll take photos of the people and towns of the region, and raise money by selling prints and sponsorships on his blog.

Combining art and finance fits in perfectly with his studies at NC State, where he’s earning degrees in both graphic design and business management.

Lost Parents, Broken Lives

Flores’ desire to help the students of Atencingo isn’t the only reason for the trek, which will lead him through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

“I hope to raise awareness of the beauty of these Latin American countries as well as the struggles that the people face,” he says.

He also wants to call attention to “the walk of the immigrants,” the long and perilous journey that many Latin Americans make to reach the U.S. border and the chance for a better life.

Unfortunately, the end of the walk doesn’t always mean the end of struggles and sacrifices on either side of the border. Many of the children in Atencingo are being raised by grandparents or godparents, Flores says, having lost their parents to jobs in the United States.

“It’s really difficult to see these kids speak to you of their parents with such hope and optimism. They speak of their parents like they left the day before, when in reality they’ve been gone eight or nine years,” he says. “It’s disheartening to see how many lives continue to be broken throughout Atencingo.”

Flores visited the town with a team of Caldwell Fellows, members of a scholarship program that brings together young people who share a passion for learning, growing and serving others. Team members spent four days helping in the classroom, cleaning and repairing the campus, and sharing meals with the students.

It was hard to say goodbye, Flores says. But now he knows he will return.

“This town is so rich and so beautiful, it’s only ethical that we try to help them out, that we try to provide opportunities for their children,” he says. “We must help them to hope, help them to dream.”