Service + Volunteers = Immersion

I was having a Domino’s pizza party with Guatemalan children and nuns from around the world, at a home for children that are physically or cognitively disabled.

It was the holiday season, which in Guatemala, means that every square inch of every surface is decorated for Christmas. In the corner, there was a modest tree decorated with small hand-made ornaments that had photos of the children and that had been created earlier in the week, as a project brought in by my fellow volunteers. The children had loved to make the crafts, to see their photos printed out, and then throughout the week, begged to go to the tree to find themselves and their friends. Each child got 1-2 small presents for the holidays and the anticipation of Christmas day was palpable. The pizza party came as a thank you to the volunteers who donated their time over the holiday season, and as a holiday treat for the children. Many of the kids couldn’t eat solid foods, so we blended their pizza up into a pizza smoothie, which definitely gave me pause, as to why some chic restaurant in New York had not considered this possible menu item yet.

This may not have been the most elaborate holiday of my life, but it is the one I will always remember. The nuns said prayers for us, the kids danced to Taylor Swift as she blasted out “Blank Space” from an old second-hand boombox from 1990, and despite not feeling like a sentimentalist, my eyes were wet the entire last day, of my time in Guatemala. As a proud backpacker, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life traveling, but the memories that are most personal are always the ones made on volunteer trips with CCS. Whizzing through the streets of a Ghanian village to get to a famed kente cloth weaver’s home before he stepped out to the market, visiting dusty homes and bringing comfort to abuelas and abuelos in Lima, Peru, where I was always received with kisses and called a “hija,” (daughter), and going on a medina walk with some young adults to practice conversational English in Morocco, are just the beginning of my memories.

In short, we hear volunteers tell us over and over again, that with service to the local community, comes an authenticity and learning curve that a tourist could never anticipate. After all, when was the last time you read “Cultural Guatemalan Domino’s Pizza Party on Christmas Eve with Nuns and Children” as a possible activity for tourists in Guatemala City?

Below are a sample of some of these moments that happened just this month with on a Cross-Cultural Solutions program:

The volunteers had the opportunity to participate in the Independence Day celebrations at the school where they've been serving, working with kids from the area of the local dump. On the 14th of September, there was a celebration at school. They spent the morning getting ready to perform traditional Mayan dances for their parents, and dressing up in traditional clothes (which volunteers got to wear as well!). Afterwards, they had a homecoming court with two representatives from each class. These students got up and shared their dreams for their lives in Guatemala. Not only were we appreciative of how inclusive the kids were in their day, but we learned about culture and history in a hands on manner that few get to experience.
-Hayden, Guatemala

This week, volunteers engaged in one of our Cultural Learning Activities in which we learned more about the history of how the Shining Path came to be in Lima, Peru. We had the opportunity to meet with the Director of a Human Rights NGO and his team to understand the impact of these terrible events, that are still felt in the communities that volunteers work in today. By the end of the hearing him speak you could hear a pin-drop, as everyone was on the edge of their seat listening intently.
-Nick, Peru

After a fulfilling morning of lending our hearts and hands at ourpartner organizations, we come back to the Home Base tired, but excited, and ready to rejuvenate with the amazing food that our in-country staff has prepared for us. Some days, we even learn how to cook it ourselves. Today's lesson? Traditional Moroccan pastry called, "msmn." Our Assistant Director, Khadija, takes time away from her busy day to get her hands dirty and show us how to make this delicious treat, commonly eaten for breakfast. With our bellies full and happy, we head over to the afternoon activity, Arabic script learning, with our very own Director, Mohamed.
-Emma, Morocco

This volunteer had the chance to teach his class about math and found himself learning about the education system in Ghana from a first-hand perspective that a visitor to a school on a cultural tour would never have gotten. Between this and cultural dance demonstrations held at the Home-Base and kente cloth weaving lessons, volunteers are exploring Ghanian culture and making lasting relationships with locals in a way that can’t be found in a guidebook.
-Melissa, Ghana

I could have done my trip a million different ways, backpacking, hostels by the beach, you name it. But with CCS I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself. The staff became friends, the other volunteers became family, and that look on that orphan's face as he asked you to play--well, that gave me the clarity that most look a lifetime to find. That gave me purpose. Here you’ll find a photo taken at the Home-Base of the dedicated staff and our volunteers taking a break to joke around and play hacky-sack, and while this may seem like an inconsequential moment in a day, it’s profound as it breaks down barriers and allows for open communication.
-Tevis, Costa Rica

These small moments won’t be found in any guidebook, but we’re certain that you’ll find service with CCS to be the recipe for an experience you won’t soon forget.

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