We Built A School (And I Have Proof!)

We built a school!

Here’s a glimpse:


I just got back from Guatemala a few weeks ago to see the school and have been putting together the story & photos over the past few days and as I’m going over the images & stories, it still blows my mind that we actually built a school.

However, there’s a lot more to the story than just the visit – let’s start from the beginning.

How It All Started

Almost exactly a year ago, I got an email from Rachele at PoP. Now, I get quite a few inquiries, and I ignore most of them as they’re usually trying to pitch some terrible product to me or get me to run some unedited link bait, but this one caught my eye. They wanted to talk about building a school. In fact, they wanted to build 100 of them.

At the time we started talking, PoP was about 3 years old and had built ~50 schools, and wanted to build 100 by the end of the year. About double what they had built throughout their entire existence. They wanted me to help in some small way.


Like I said, it piqued my interest.

What’s Impossible?

After I ran my first ever marathon, I decided that was enough. No need to run anymore. I had done it. It wasn’t impossible. Boom. Next challenge please.

Then Rachele asked me about running an ultra.

I dismissed it at first: No need to do that – way too long and not nearly enough fun.

But then a funny thing happened: the idea wouldn’t go away.

When I do things, I usually find that I don’t have a very logical reason for doing them. Usually, the reason ends up being, “It got in my head and wouldn’t go away.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to sleep very well until I just went ahead and did it.

Rachele’s attitude & excitement about PoP was infectious and, as I thought about it for a couple weeks and ran through the idea with PoP, I got excited. I was going to do the ultra.

As for the fundraising part of the picture, I remember feeling pretty confident that we could pull off $10,000. But $25,000? That’s a lot of money.

I’m not sure we can do it…

I was talking to someone (I don’t quite remember who) who said, “Sure, you could probably raise the 10k, and you might not hit 25k, but why not push for it anyways?”

Why not indeed? $25k it was.

The Ultra

I was sitting in a coffee shop in Portland with Nicky last year, going back & forth about filling out my registration information for the ultra marathon I was thinking about signing up for.

After the registration timed out a couple times, I finally re-entered my info and clicked the “register” button.

This is real….

What am I getting myself into?

Well, you better start running…

Over the next few months, I ran a lot. Not fast, mind you, but I ran. A couple more marathons, a few halfs, and just a lot of long, boring runs on Saturday mornings all by myself.

At the same time, we ran a few posts, made a video and you guys gave. A lot.

Little by little, it added up to quite a bit and, right around Christmas, bam. It hit 25k and kept going. In fact, when all was said & done, we finished up a little over $25,000 ($26,496 to be exact).

Note: One thing I learned about fundraising is that, in most of these campaigns, there’s usually one flagship donor who contributes 30-50% of the overall pot. What’s interesting (and pretty cool) about our fundraising is that all of our donations were small amounts. I think the largest individual amount was around 1k, but the majority of donations were $25-$100 each. While, next time, I should probably be more aware and try to get a major donor on board, I think it’s very, very cool and very telling of the community here that so many people decided to donate and be a part of the project even if they couldn’t give a huge amount. If that was you, thank you so, so much.

Welcome To Guatemala

After a few months of back-and-forth logistical planning with Rachele, it was decided – we were going to visit the school.

Note: I was pushing hard to be able to mix some concrete, put up some rebar or at least do some painting as part of the build, but PoP’s community guidelines include having people from the community itself help with the build in order to improve community buy-in, not only to the school, but also to the on-going commitment to education. Selfishly, I was a little bit bummed (I can mix some serious concrete), but still happy to be a part of the school in some small way.

Regardless, we were headed to Guatemala. Time to get excited.



The Vitals

After the logistics were laid out, we found out that the school dedicated to us was in Las Palmas village in the Boca Costa region of Guatemala. Here’s a little breakdown about the community itself

  • The village was founded in 1985, originally as an army post to house the soldiers who lead nighttime patrols through the area during the civil war. The name was taken from the large quantity of palm trees that grow in the area.
  • Village population: 750 people (110 families)
  • Ethnicity and language: Ki’che’ (Mayan Language)
  • Many of the villagers are day laborers who grow coffee and bananas.
  • Las Palmas is a very enthusiastic community with an attentive school director.
  • There is a very high level of poverty and need in the community. It was a challenge for them to contribute 20%.

As for our specific build, here’s some of the specs on the building itself.

Las Palmas Preschool and Primary School: Dedicated to the Friends & Family of Joel Runyon & Impossible HQ:

  • Las Palmas is PoP school #103.
  • PoP first scouted the village on 1/14/2011
  • We first engaged the community by asking them to form a Promise Committee on 8/15/2012. (I love this, because that was exactly one week after we launched your campaign. While you were bringing people together here, the Las Palmas community was bringing together the committee that would partner with us. You can read more about Promise Committees here
  • The school was using a number of temporary classrooms, some of wood and others of mud brick (adobe). With your support the community built three permanent classrooms to house students.
  • Number of students in whole school: 160. Projected number of students served: 93
  • We broke ground on the school December 5th and after 86 days of construction the classrooms were completed March 1st.


The Visit

We jumped in the car bright and early for a long drive. 3-4 hours in the car each way. Let’s do this.

The first few hours were solid as we made our way through winding Guatemalan highways, but the last hour was a different story entirely, made up of dirt roads which turned to mud as the rain started to come down. We spent our time slipping and sliding over the terrain at a max of 10-15 mph.


After 30-45 minutes of close calls and tire-spinning where we almost asked ourselves, “Are we gonna have to get out and push?”, we finally arrived.

This is what people have to go just to get to the villages. Let’s just say they’re not quite “local” suburbs.

The Old Temporary Classrooms

TO give you an idea of the classrooms that the kids were learning in BEFORE we built the school, you can check out a few of the “pre-build” photos below. It’s a pretty sobering look.

Existing classrooms at the school of Las Palmas, Guatemala

A temporary classroom made of sheet metal and wood in Las Palmas, Guatemala


Interior of a temporary classroom in Las Palmas, Guatemala

Interior of the temporary classroom in Las Palmas, Guatemala

The School

So we built a school. I have proof. Here it is. I could blather on and on about it but, in this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

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DSC00330 (1480x1110)

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Some Special Features Of Our Impossible School

As we walked around the school, the region director told us about a few special features of the new builds that we got to see in action (thanks to the extra rain that gracing us with it’s presence).

Noise-Reducing Roofing

The roofing of the PoP school has a special surface. As you walk from the old classrooms to the new ones, you can literally hear the difference.

Instead of roaring when it rains, this roofing material mutes the sound of the rain. It might sound like a small thing but, when you’re in a classroom trying to learn and pay attention in a place where it rains on a daily basis, this really makes a huge difference.

Monsoon-Proof Gutter System

Gutters seem like a basic thing. However, a lot of the old schools didn’t have them. As a result, when the rain came, it looked like this:


The water would pile up wherever it ran off the roof, and flood onto the school sidewalk and even into the school on occasion.

However, the PoP build put a simple fix in place: gutters. As straightforward as this sounds, these gutters now carry the water to the side of the building. I’m not sure if it’s technically “monsoon-proof”, but they made a HUGE difference.


No water on the sidewalks. No water in the classrooms. Technology!

Big & Bright Windows

In a lot of the smaller villages, electricity is still a luxury. They have it and they’re wired, but it doesn’t always work. It’s not always a huge deal during the day as we’ve got that big yellow thing in the sky, but it does mean that the indoor classrooms are dependent on ambient lighting.

Many of the old classrooms were dark and had few windows. If it was sunny it wasn’t too big of a deal but if it was overcast or rainy, the classrooms would get quite dark. With no electricity, that makes for a poor learning environment.

In the PoP build there are windows – BIG windows that let in a lot more light than the older builds. So, even if it is cloudy and stormy outside, and the luz had “se fue” (what they say when the electricity goes out), you could still see and learn easily in the classroom.


A Word On Charity

I (like almost everyone in the more developed countries) have it pretty good. I get to work when and where I want and find new ways to push my limits and find out what I’m capable of. On top of that, I don’t have to worry about small things like getting a basic education or finding clean water. I’m not a millionaire but I have it pretty good. You probably do too.

Note: For a sobering reality check, take a quick look at this site to see how good you’ve got it: http://www.globalrichlist.com/

Giving is a great exercise as it teaches you an attitude of generosity over scarcity. However, it’s not always the greatest for recipients as sometimes people take gifts for granted and don’t always buy into the “ownership” factor.

That’s why I partnered with PoP. It would be almost impossible to pull off something like this on my own, but PoP’s mission to create opportunities with sustainable models and ongoing community programs is one of the things that I love about them. They’re not just there to build a school and leave; they’re there to build a school to help change the community.

In more blunt terms (and at the risk of sounding cheesy): it’s not just about a bunch of white people coming in and giving some poor Guatemalans a school. It’s really about creating opportunities for other people do something they’ve never done – to do the impossible. That’s what this project was about.


The 2013 Impossible School in all of it’s rainy glory

Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

If you donated, shared or even tweeted anything about the campaign, thank you so much.

Any & All Contributors

If you contributed to the campaign, no matter how big or how small, thank you so much. It couldn’t have happened without you.

Elaine – thanks so much for your over-the-top contributions & coming along with me to Guatemala to see the school & PoP’s work. I appreciate it more than I can put into words.

PoP Fam

Thank you to Melanie, Scott, Vicky, Jesse, Oscar, and the rest of the in-country PoP team for hosting us and showing us the great work they’re up to in Guatemala. Special thanks to Melanie and Oscar for making the 3 hour each way off-road trek with me through middle-of-nowhere Guatemala to go and see our school in Las Palmas. Thanks for letting me be a part of PoP in a small way. Thank you so much.

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While I did have to pose for the usual impossible photo (of course), I’ve gotten a ton of emails from readers asking for an “impossible” picture of me smiling. Well, I couldn’t really help myself here :). Thanks again.

impossible school

Again. Thank you so much for your help. This is the coolest thing I’ve (we’ve) done so far. I can’t wait for what’s next. 


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  1. says

    Got goosebumps reading this Joel. I haven’t been to Guatemala but I’ve been to Costa Rica and Colombia and there are many areas in need in this region. We were planning to visit Nicaragua in January but you have me thinking that maybe we need to detour down your way…

  2. says


    Congratulations and well done! Building the school will definitely be valuable for the local community in Guatemala but it’s also inspiring to others who read your blog. And it’s a good chapter in your own story too!


  3. Frank says

    As I regularly engage in social projects, this still leaves me in awe.
    I am a private tuition teacher and in my opinion education is the one of the biggest assests, besides willpower and endurance, one can have.
    If you are interested I’ll shoot you an e-Mail about another project, which I am involved in, that is about planting over 1 billion, yes billion, trees.
    Awesome project.
    I really love your website, it has showed me that impossible is only set by other people and I can do what ever the f*ck I want if I put my mind to it!

  4. davidd says

    Even if you were to never accomplish anything more with B.I.T., this makes it all worthwhile! Well done!

  5. robert says

    this is great man, just great. i am glad cause people like you live in this world. you give us hope for better world. thank you, from all my heart. and god says thank you to you!

  6. says

    Wow, what a man you are? How come you are entirely different from the rich american flock? Man, you are with a purpose and that is amazing. Whats more amazing is that making the impossible possible. You motivate me a lot. You are a very good soul and will head to the peak (already you are) very soon. I do not have any words as I am busy browsing your list of impossible List. Long live and make your service more and more and more. I love you very much.

  7. Darin Ramsey says

    I’m pretty sure you can cross “change one person’s life for the better” off your list now, Joel. Awesome work, by everyone involved.

  8. Sara says

    WOW! What an accomplishment…You are such an inspiration. LOVE YOUR BLOG.Keep up the great work..=)/S

  9. says

    Kudos for the job!!! This is indeed very inspirational. Well done!

    I also must tip my hat to this one:

    “But then a funny thing happened: the idea wouldn’t go away. When I do things, I usually find that I don’t have a very logical reason for doing them. Usually, the reason ends up being, “It got in my head and wouldn’t go away.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to sleep very well until I just went ahead and did it.”


  10. nancy says

    Congratulations, an outstanding acheivement, well done Joel and to all involved. A very positive story to start my day…thanks for sharing and inspiring.

  11. says

    Hey Joel,

    This is really great. I like that you did impossible things to improve yourself, and then you set out on an impossible mission to help others. Most people just talk about helping out only after they get insanely rich.

    My favorite part is that you built a freaking school! Not just gave away money or food, but a freaking school that will really help the Guatemalans help themselves and do impossible stuff too :)

    I’m really a big believer of killing excuses and helping yourself and killing excuses, but someone building a freakin’ school for you sure helps a lot!

    Maybe you should teach an impossible class there!

  12. says

    Right on, man. It’s good to see a project like that come to fruition. So, the donations built that entire building? That’s like 3 classrooms, right?


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