I awakened with my head pressed firmly against the airplane window with a stale sandwich wrapped in plastic on my lap. I had slept the entire 5-hour red-eye flight from LA to Guatemala City. I opened my eyes to the early morning sun peeking over the mountaintops. Wait, I could not believe it, those were not mountains they were volcanoes.
Eight volunteers all wearing similar tee shirts with the logo “World Traveler – Volunteer - Game Changer” await their driver at the surprisingly small international airport for a city of over 1.7 million. As I gazed through the back seat driver side window, I met an unexpected world. Even at 6:30 a.m. the streets were bustling with people on foot, on bikes, in rusty, close to worn out, vehicles and buses. Oh the buses, hundreds of crazy colorful buses packed with people and bags and boxes. The traffic was busy and sort of hectic, but it seemed to have continuous movement with the help of a variety of loud honking car horns.
We soon arrived at “home base” it seemed safe and clean and the CCS staff members were warm and friendly. “Buenos dais” they would say in a singsong tone. During my stay in Guatemala, I met wonderful people and witnessed a contrast of beauty and despair within the landscape and the inhabitants of this developing country.
On the first day volunteers were placed in one of four locations; a pre-school, an orphanage, a home for elderly women and a school. I was placed with three others at the school. The school was called Guatemaltecos Extraordinarios. A privately funded school for at-risk kids who live in the disparaging area adjacent to the landfill “Zone 3”. The children’s parents sorted thru the refuse for plastic and metal to sell to provide for their families. The school uses a spiritually based 12-step program, which attempts to prevent and/or save kids from drug and alcohol abuse, gang affiliation, domestic violence and other devastating occurrences. Their logo is “Steps to achieve extraordinary lives”.
From the beginning, the language barrier was overwhelming. At first, I felt useless in the classroom, but this pushed me to learn additional Spanish phrases and rack my brain on what I could do to make an impact. Purchasing some toothbrushes and teaching the kids to brush (in Spanish mind you) was what I came up with. It turned out to be a semi-successful endeavor. Thanks to the inspiration of the 4th-grade teacher Patsy, a petite young newlywed, I was able to help with teaching English words, art projects and reading dictation in Spanish.
One special moment that really stands out was when I received support from a darling boy who, with his arm draped over my shoulder, followed along with the reading assignment helping me with my pronunciation. Repeating each word correctly after me. I was so grateful!
While visiting Guatemala, our volunteer group learned about the country’s culture, government, and history. It was devastating to hear the historical facts about the Guatemalan Civil War. During the 36-year war, from 1960 to 1996, approximately 200,000 people were killed or went missing. We were shown a video, depicting the murderous genocide, which troubled me deeply. Hearing about the government corruption and understanding the helplessness and hopeless feelings of the people was sad and depressing.
Volunteering abroad was the most humbling and extraordinary experience of my life. The opportunity to provide service while reaching new heights in my own personal growth was, in my opinion, the most beneficial part of the volunteer experience. I am still continually processing thoughts and experiences of my trip to Guatemala. I find myself thinking and dreaming about Guatemala with its overwhelming contrast of the country’s colorful villages and humble inhabitants to the most unpleasant visions of Zone 3 with its atrocious living conditions, gunmen abounding and dirt and garbage everywhere.
My heart is torn my feeling of helplessness, the huge need that exists, and wanting to join an eternal fight to become a GAME CHANGER in some way. Settling in at home and returning to work I feel so blessed from the experience and the friends I made as well as an appreciation of my family and homeland. I especially appreciate my work at Midtown, where I feel a renewed connection with my patients from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru as well as other countries. We have plenty of work to do at home as well as internationally, take your pick; it is all a worthwhile endeavor.