By living simply—look where he sleeps—and devoting his life to others, Tab Barker has built seven schoolhouses and three water systems in Nicaragua, and he doesn’t plan on stopping soon.
Every night when he’s Austin, Thomas “Tab” Barker sleeps in a teepee in the backyard of his home. It’s a magical ritual for the founder of Project Schoolhouse, which builds elementary schools and clean water systems in rural Nicaraguan communities.
“Sleeping in a teepee connects you to things you don’t understand, and you don’t understand why you feel connected to them, but it feels good,” says Barker, 40, a native of Wyoming who moved to Austin 12 years ago on a musical whim.
A gypsy soul with an economics degree from Carleton College, Barker studied in Argentina on a Fulbright grant, then taught elementary school English in Costa Rica and spent four years traveling the world, from Central and South America to Europe. During a three-month stay in Spain, he began playing saxophone with a flamenco guitarist and became friends with Javier Del Castillo of Austin.
After leaving Europe, he returned to the US, where he embarked on travels here, including a stop in Austin to visit Del Castillo. Three days after arriving, he decided this was the city for him. He was particularly drawn to the innovative and diverse East Side.
“There’s something about East Austin that I found really attractive,” Barker explains. “Everybody spoke Spanish, and it felt like another country, which is where I had been for the last four years. I had just wandered around the world by myself. The city just turned on, and it felt like a warm embrace.”
Barker rooted himself in the local music scene, but something else was calling as well. He remembered the school at which he taught in Costa Rica, for which he had helped raise money to build a classroom for the kids, who had previously been taught in a shabby house with little more than a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. He began putting his plan for Project Schoolhouse in motion.
It was a tall order, but Barker felt “well-suited” to work on such a project. Settled in Austin, he began living a minimalist lifestyle so that his philanthropic dream could take effect. He bought a home in an eclectic East Austin neighborhood, where he rents out all but the one room he uses as his office. The rent from tenants offsets his monthly living expenses while he sleeps in his teepee. He opened a bookstore, Books Beyond Borders (which he closed in 2011), in an effort to donate tomes to schools in developing countries and, about the same time, his vision for what would become Project Schoolhouse began to take shape.
“I always figured I would go to Nicaragua,” Barker says. “It was the poorest country in the region, and it was near Costa Rica, which was my reference point. In my life, when I’ve made decisions, many of them are just made. If it feels right, I just go with it. Somehow doing work in Nicaragua was the obvious thing to do.”
Since starting Project Schoolhouse in 2004, Barker has built water systems and six schools (he’s working on his seventh), helping the small community of Rio Lindo. On his most recent monthlong trip to the region, Barker went back to Sector Zamora de Cuatro Esquinas, where the rural community inaugurated Escuela Sofia Mendoza, the schoolhouse he completed last year. The hard-to-reach village is only about 150 miles from Managua, but requires a 10-hour journey that includes taking a bus, hiking, and riding a horse to cross an overflowing river.
According to Barker, he typically budgets $33,000 for the school and another $25,000 for the water system, while the rest of the $70,000 budget accounts for transportation, materials, and other costs. Project Schoolhouse is a slim operation, raising money in low-key ways such as with private dinners and donations through its website. It also organizes volunteers for building trips each year.
The key to a successful project is teaching the community to mobilize itself. The water systems installed at four of the seven schools have the capacity to supply water to every home in the community. Barker and his team require the family of each home to provide the project with 40 days’ worth of labor—“they’ll work because they want water”—for the right to tap into the system.
Although Project Schoolhouse has dominated Barker’s life, he says he gets more out of it than he puts in. “It gives me something in my life that there’s no other way to get. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but I feel it every time I see a new school.” For ways to help, visit projectschoolhouse.org.