Juan Magalhaes (center) with a group of school children in White River, South Africa. Magalhaes was there to build a kitchen for the 800 students. (Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes)

BRUNSWICK — For two years, Juan Magalhaes went to sleep in one world and woke up in another.

Raised in a poor village in Brazil with parents who had sixth-grade educations, he was a promising student. He earned a full ride to a prestigious American-run high school, and says a three-hour bus ride from his home transported him to a world of opportunity.

Now a 21-year-old sophomore with a full ride to Bowdoin College, Magalhaes has defied seemingly impossible socio-economic odds to get to where he is now. Driven by a love of public service, he is determined to help other children get the same opportunities that his education afforded him.

He believes it is important to get kids excited about going to school, whether through feeding kids lunch in  Africa or building a soccer field in Thailand, Magalhaes has made it his mission to help the world’s children, even if he can only take a few baby steps at a time.

Before Bowdoin, Magalhaes received a full scholarship to Cate School in California, after emailing several boarding schools across the country, determined that he would not spend another two years in Brazil. It was during his time at Cate that he took a trip to White River, South Africa to help build classrooms.

“I got back and realized there was so much that can still be done,” he said. He reached out to school officials to see what else he could do to help.

Juan Magalhaes, a soccer player at Bowdoin College, plays with a student in White River, South Africa during some downtime. Magalhaes was there to build a kitchen for the school.
(Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes)

The school’s kitchen, which served meals to 800 hungry children every day, was really just a tent, he discovered. For many of the children, school lunch was their only meal of the day.

So, Magalhaes started the “Don’t Forget about Africa” project and raised $10,000. In the summer of 2017, he flew to South Africa with a group of volunteers and built a kitchen in just 11 days, which some told him was impossible.

“Anyone can do it, but everyone always thinks someone else will,” he said.

When Magalhaes went to Thailand for Spring break last year, he stumbled on the Ban Klong Sai school in Phang Na. The school was in shambles, with peeling paint, damaged roofs and walls, and a soccer field that was virtually unusable.

Enrollment rates were and are declining as more and more children left school to work in the fields to cultivate crops for rubber production, he said.

He thought back to his own school days when he cried if he was too sick to go to school — he loved learning, loved playing soccer after school and wanted to be there as much as possible.

“These kids had nothing to be excited about” at school, he said.

Juan Magalhaes plays with students in South Africa during the construction of a new kitchen for their school. His next mission is to help repair a school in Thailand. (Courtesy of Juan Magalhaes)

Then came “The Change,” Magalhaes’ new mission to repaint and repair the school and rebuild the soccer field over with five other students and three hires from the local village over Bowdoin’s winter break. They leave Jan. 1, 2019.

Their fundraising goal is $5,000, $1,450 of which was raised as of Monday morning.

Magalhaes is not expecting the enrollment to increase overnight, or even within the first few months.

But looking at the bigger picture, if he can get one student to encourage a friend to go to school, and if that friend grows up to teach his kids the value of education, “then we’ve already made a difference,” he said. “It’s a small change for a big impact.”

Magalhaes believes “Education can help you form new values but it can also show you your own value,” and that needs to be instilled in kids because they are the ones who will change the world, he said.

Magalhaes already has a project in mind for later in 2019, but for now, he is laser-focused on getting to Thailand, even if it means planning with his group into the wee hours of the morning, knowing he has to get up for work at 5 a.m.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said, “but I’m very grateful.”

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