Karen Story went to Guatemala to find out more about her adopted niece and nephew’s background. What she found was a cadre of NGO’s with Seattle roots fighting poverty.
Eight years ago my sister adopted a baby boy from Guatemala. Two years later she brought home a little girl. Their desperately poor mothers couldn’t afford to feed them, and made the heart-wrenching decision to give them up for adoption.
I couldn’t stop thinking about those mothers.
I also longed to learn about my niece and nephew’s birth culture. So I began studying Spanish in earnest and looking for short-term volunteer opportunities in Guatemala.
I discovered that there are hundreds of grass roots non-profits at work in this Central-American country. It was pretty hard to choose just one. So in the end I chose three: two to visit and one to work with for a week.
My first stop was Agua Escondida, a small town off the tourist circuit, twelve-hundred precipitous feet above Lake Atitlan, a crystal-blue caldera ringed by A-shaped volcanoes.
Seven years ago, Kirkland residents Will and Diane Boegel used their life savings to found Opal House on a 70-acre coffee and avocado farm here.
The Boegel’s goal is to help this impoverished community however they can. Will, a podiatric surgeon, volunteers at a nearby hospital and performs free foot and leg surgeries on disabled children. They hire local workers and pay a good wage, injecting much-needed jobs and money into the struggling local economy.
They also started a Montessori school. On the morning I visited, a dozen adorable preschoolers were quietly focused on individual activities. Later, the kids helped prepare a nutritious snack. When it was time to go home, the children piled into the Boegel’s “school bus,” a small yellow rickshaw called a tuk tuk.
Will invited me to come along. Bouncing through town with those happy children was one of the highlights of my trip.
In the afternoon I attended a weekly after-school group for preteen girls. Run by Diane Boegel and Jakelyn, a local woman, the group discusses things that aren’t traditionally talked about in Guatemalan homes or schools, like menstruation. The girls were shy at first, but soon the questions came in a torrent. Diane and Jakelyn hope to reduce the likelihood of teen pregnancy and inspire the girls to stay in school.
Too soon, it was time to say goodbye. The Boegels drove me down the mountain and I boarded a small boat for the half-hour ride across the lake to San Pedro, where I would spend a week volunteering with an organization called Rising Minds.
Started in 2006 by an American named Courtney Cronin, Rising Minds provides volunteers and advice to small, locally-run businesses and cooperatives.
Their homestay program gives travelers a chance to live immersed in Mayan culture, while generating income for the host families.
For eight days I lived in the town of San Juan la Laguna with Lucas and Maria Bizarro and six of their eight children. The cement-block, tin-roof house was filled with the sounds of Tz’utujil, the family’s Mayan dialect. Three times a day I’d hear the clap-clap of the women making tortillas, and smell the smoke from the wood cook stove. Meals served at a low counter were a chance to ask and answer myriad questions, bridging the culture gap.
My volunteer task was to identify ways to increase the availability and consumption of vegetables in two rural, low-income villages. Guatemala has one of the highest childhood malnutrition rates in the Western Hemisphere.
To get to the villages I’d spend an hour winding up the mountain on a standing-room-only “chicken bus,” colorfully-decorated old school busses converted to local transportation. I walked dirt trails through coffee and corn fields to interview health and day care workers and local women.
I learned that many women would grow vegetables if they had seeds. But seeds cost money. Because the only seeds available locally are hybrid, there is no point in harvesting seeds to plant the next year, and so the women have forgotten how.
I suggested that Rising Minds provide heirloom seeds and teach the women how to save seeds from the plants they grow, providing a sustainable source of free seeds and vegetables.
I spent the last two days of my trip visiting Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH), a home for orphaned and abandoned children about two hours west of Guatemala City. NPH has strong ties to Seattle with its International Leadership Institute and a Bellevue office.
I had come to visit two children. My parents sponsor Pedro, age 10. My sister sponsors 15-year-old Mynor. I went to school with Pedro and helped him with his homework. I visited Mynor’s carpentry class. I stayed in a comfortable visitor house, and ate meals in the dining hall.
The boys seemed well-cared for and happy, and I often found myself thinking that if it weren’t for NPH, they would probably be living on the street.
I arrived in Guatemala wondering if I could do anything useful in such a short time. I left feeling that I had made small contributions that could help improve the lives of many people. But more importantly, I had learned first-hand about three organizations with ties back home that are making a real difference.
I realized that, in the end, voluntourism is as much about what we learn and bring back home as it is about what we accomplish while we’re there.