Our "It's What We Do" series offers portraits of NYSUT educators who give back to their communities and across the world.
Peter White has been parting clouds on flights to Nicaragua for 32 years, logging 65 trips working to improve the lives of others.
A retired member of United Teachers of Northport, White has led students and teachers to this Central American country set between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, where they have brought about much change. He worked first as a teacher overseeing Students for 60,000, a club at Northport High School dedicated to supporting the needy near and far.
Over many decades, outreach became a part of White’s inner workings. So, when he retired from teaching in 2005, he started a sister group — Friends of Students for 60,000. White has continued to visit Nicaragua with student alumni, retired colleagues and doctors wanting to make global change.
Sometimes, that change begins with a bag of rice. Or a roof. Or clean drinking water.
White’s recently published book, Stretching Minds: Teaching in the light of creative altruism, is a collection of stories about the outreach work in Nicaragua, and some local and U.S. projects as well. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go toward continued outreach.
White credits his former union colleague Dick Streb with teaching him the value of on-site study. As a young educator, White took a class from Northport on Long Island to West Virginia for a coal miners' strike. In 1990, he took the first trip to Nicaragua, joining Streb.
“I was teaching social studies for 20 years at this point, and I had no idea how impoverished two-thirds of the world is,” he said.
“Kids learned so much from this learning methodology, having direct contact with others, experiential learning. So many real and important opportunities out of the classroom,” he said. “I would like teachers, administrators and especially beginning teachers to know of these possibilities.”
In Nicaragua, the New York students did not understand why the people there were so poor, yet they worked so hard. The students learned about exploitation.
“Teachers made $40 a month back then,” White said. “...The kids were so upset about the poverty. It was like a jolt.”
After a trip to Nicaragua was announced in NYSUT’s news magazine, 20 teachers joined the journey to visit schools, paint murals, build a porch on a school to provide shade, and distribute 40 suitcases worth of supplies. Several more teacher trips — and creative student fundraising projects — followed in the ensuing years.
Students learn about real economics and decision-making while working alongside teachers on the trip. They help build homes, visit schools and teach prepared lessons, or handle supplies and visit families.
“We have a representative there, Conchita, a community organizer, and she has a list of families who are homeless that she recommends,” White said. The original liaison was the Maryknoll Sisters, a missionary order.
Years ago, a student the group met in Nicaragua came to study in Northport and live with a local family. Now he lives back in Nicaragua, works with Students for 60,000 as a representative, and mows a 12-acre park bought by these volunteers, which includes two baseball fields and a soccer field.
White continues to build community. On trips with Friends of Students for 60,000, participants usually build two 20 by 20 houses, digging foundations, mixing cement and carting materials. Local supervisors are hired to oversee the project, White said.
The groups also fund latrines.
“If we fund 30 latrines, and the families can pay half of the cost, then we can get 15 more,” he said.
All donations are used for the projects in Nicaragua, he said. Travelers all pay their own way. They bring school supplies and sports supplies on each trip. White said that the groups have raised between $100,000 and $150,000 a year for the projects.
During the pandemic, with no access to travel, White said the Friends of Students for 60,000 raised money and purchased $6,000 worth of food to donate to food centers on Long Island.
“You can’t solve the problems of the world, but you can pick one part of the world and really make some progress,” White said.