Locals help in Panama

  • Carl Von Mertens of Peterborough lays out some rafters for the roof of a new community center he designed and helped to build in Bocas del Toro, Panama, earlier this month. —Courtesy photo

  • Peter Von Mertens of Lincoln, Massachusetts, works on the Bocas del Toro community center project.  —Courtesy photo

  • Louise and Sarah Sandback of Hancock lay down floorboards. —Courtesy photo

  • Carl and Peter Von Mertens take a trip to Cristobal, Panama, during their most recent visit to the country to work on a community center. The two took some time to visit the site of the community center in Cristobal, which they also helped to build. —Courtesy photo

  • Carl Von Mertens, center, with the crew that helped to put together the Bocas del Toro community center.  Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/14/2018 6:04:56 PM

Last week, Carl Von Mertens returned from a week in Bocas del Toro in Panama – a tourist spot known for its great surfing.

Von Mertens, along with some other residents of Peterborough and Hancock, weren’t there as a tourists though. They had a more philanthropic purpose.

“There’s a lot of young people and a lot of poor people that really need some help in that area,” said Von Mertens in an interview Tuesday with the Ledger-Transcript.

Von Mertens, a Peterborough resident, and his brother, Peter Von Mertens, have been traveling to other countries for eight years, to work on constructing new schools or community centers for the often impoverished local population. For the last several years, they’ve joined Give and Surf, a Panama nonprofit that assists in building schools and other infrastructure in support of the local indigenous population. 

“The idea is you give them some time, and they’ll take you surfing,” explained Von Mertens. 

Von Mertens himself doesn’t take advantage of that benefit, he said wryly. “I’m too old for that,” he said, though Give and Surf offers a free lesson for beginner surfers.

Instead, it’s an opportunity for him to practice his own love of building and woodworking. Von Mertens taught for years at the Dublin School as a math, physics and woodworking teacher. 

“I love to build things and I always have,” he said.

And he’s put that experience to good use in Panama. On his most recent trip, he was part of a group of volunteers that was building a community center in Bocas del Toro, right on the beach. It’s a bit bigger than the community center he built last year on Isla Cristobal, another community in the same area of Panama. Von Mertens designed both buildings, as well as helping to get them built.

“One of the things I enjoy about it is working with the local population,” said Von Mertens. “There are very few jobs there, and many of them are very poor, it’s an amazing existence they have to live in. Most don’t speak English, but you’re able to develop this great relationship with them, without ever really having a conversation.”

Sarah Sandback of Hancock, who has also been involved with the same building projects with Give and Surf for the past three years, said this is the biggest project they’ve tackled so far – this community center is twice the size of the one they built last year.

“I have to admit, I thought this is the year we don’t get it done,” said Sandback in an interview Wednesday. “But when I walked down there the last day, I couldn’t believe it – they had windows and doors on the thing.”

The work is done at a blistering pace, said Von Mertens – the crew comes in with a foundation laid down, and builds from the floor up in just eight days.

In previous years, the group has worked on a similar community center – one with two rooms instead of the four-room center they built this year – on Isla Cristobal. The year before, they built a teacher’s house behind a school on Solarte Island, where the teacher had previously had to come in every day by boat.

“They’d never had a consistent week of school, because the teacher couldn’t always make it in because of the weather,” said Sandback. 

Sandback’s daughter, Louise Sandback, also joined her for the first time this year, she said, in preparation for a three-month internship she’ll be doing with Give and Surf.

Working with her daughter was one of the highlights of the trip, for her, she said.

“As a parent, opening your child up to an experience like that, and to see them soak it up and love it, is great,” said Sandback. 


Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT. 

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