Students perform community-focused service work in Guatemala

By Sarah Guariglia

We have been in having a great time in Joya De Las Flores. This is my third time in Guatemala with the Albert Schweitzer Institute and this town is as wonderful as I remember it.

This delegation consists of 2 Occupational Therapy students and 3 Physical Therapy students and Quinnipiac professors. We have been working on our masters capstone project. We created a boot camp exercise program for children with disabilities, in which they pair with a teen in the community to complete these exercises. We are investigating if this type of program and social interaction will improve the inclusion of children with disabilities in the community of Joya de las Flores. We have been holding focus groups with caregivers, volunteers and teachers in addition to the boot camp exercises.

After a semester of preparing it’s wild to think it’s almost over! It has been beautiful to see the volunteers assisting the children. The first day the  volunteers appeared uncomfortable but throughout the week have become more comfortable and confident in their ability to work with children with disabilities. We are all confident in the ability of the volunteers to continue the program after we leave and have a significant impact in the lives of these children.

By Amanda Walters

Greetings from Guatemala!

This is my first time in Guatemala and I am so happy to be here. I am here for my capstone project, which Sarah described in a previous post. I am the only person in the group that has not been to Guatemala previously. At first I was very nervous to come but I have heard many good things from other people in my group about their experiences here in the past.

I really enjoy being here and am very comfortable. I am staying with two other girls and we love our host family. They have made us feel very comfortable and have made us feel like a part of their family. On Sunday we went to Antigua to shop. It was so beautiful and we all enjoyed ourselves. On Tuesday we went to see Mayan Ruins. It was interesting and fun to see the ruins and see a part of this culture and country.

We have done our boot camp twice so far and it has gone very well. I really enjoy working with the children here. It is so interesting and nice to see the volunteers interacting with the participants of the boot camp who have physical disabilities. Coming to Guatemala made me realize everything that we take for granted in the U.S.

This week has been such a good experience and I am so glad that I choose this as my capstone project. I hope that I can return to this town in the future to see the progress that is made in our boot camp program. I would recommend a trip to Guatemala with the Albert Schweitzer Institute to everyone!

By Kristen Cunningham

After a semester of hard work and planning it was finally time to depart for Guatemala. We had finally come up with an idea for our capstone project that we felt would really benefit the disabled population and their families in Joya de las Flores. It was now time to put that work to the test and see what we could do. Going into it, we had no idea if it was going to work as we had hoped, especially after we arrived in Joya de las Flores and they hit us with the news that there would be be 3 times as many children participating in our program as we had anticipated or planned. But that didn’t stop us!

The first day was focused on conducting the focus groups with the volunteers and caregivers, as well as training the volunteers for the boot camp. The focus groups are intended to assess the attitudes of the community toward people with disabilities. From day one, we could tell we were handed a wonderful group of volunteers. They all caught on so fast.

DSC_0952After training the volunteers the next step was to pair each volunteer with a child with disabilities. On the first day of boot camp, we worked very closely with the volunteers teaching them ways to interact with the children, as well as performing appropriate exercises for each  child. We could tell the volunteers were a little nervous, but that didn’t last long. It was great to see how quickly the volunteers caught on, even with the language barrier. As the week went on, we stepped back more and more allowing the volunteers to become more comfortable with the children. By the third and final day of boot camp we were beyond impressed with the way the volunteers were interacting with the children, and felt confident in their ability to continue this program after we left. We truly were handed a group of volunteers who were natural therapists.

After the completion of the program we held two more focus groups with the volunteers and caregivers. At this time we are unaware of the results of the caregiver focus groups, but there was a clear positive emotional response at the completion of the program. Even when we thought the volunteers couldn’t surprise us or impress us any more than they already had, listening to them during the final focus group was incredible. They are future leaders of the community and they are all amazing with huge hearts.

Based on our experience we feel this project made a big difference in the community of Joya de las Flores. We were able to benefit the lives of the children with disabilities by giving them a place to come and interact with other children and people of the community. We also had a big impact on the caregivers of the children with disabilities by allowing them to take a break from caring for their child with disabilities. It is a huge burden here to have a child with disabilities when you are forced to care for other children, work and take care of the home all at the same time. Many people here believe that when they have a child with disabilities it’s a curse and often times that child is forced to be hidden in the home. To be able to advance social inclusion of people with disabilities in the community of Joya de las Flores was the biggest goal of this project. All in all, we feel we’ve opened the minds of the people in the community towards people with disabilities.

By Ellen Lepore

The first week in Guatemala has been an incredible learning experience. This is my fourth trip to Central America and second time to Guatemala, and this country continues to amaze me. The culture is so rich with the indigenous Mayan culture still present in many of the rural communities. During our time in Joya de las Flores we stayed with host families. Three members of our group stayed with the community leader, Ana while Marianna and myself stayed with another leader named Fulgencio.

Each time I stay with a host family, I am completely blown away by the generosity of the host families. In addition, staying with host families is an incredible interchange of learning for the family and the students.

DSC_0068Marianna and I really enjoyed our time staying with Fulgencio. His family included nine girls, four boys (between the ages of less than one year to 23 years old), grandmother, grandfather, dog, chickens… it was a very busy household, not to mention the cousins, aunts, and uncles that frequently visited. With all of these mouths to feed it was very humbling when the family insisted on giving Marianna and myself the first plate at every meal with the best pieces of chicken and the two best seats at the table. This family did not have a lot to offer in terms of materials, and did not even have running water, but they gave us all that they could in our short time there.

Some of the most memorable experiences in the host family included time spent at the kitchen table learning various things about Guatemala with Fulgencio over broken Spanish, sweet bread and instant coffee. We learned about the various regions of Guatemala, and the various indigenous languages, including Cakchiquel which is the language of Joya de las Flores. We learned the Cakchiquel word for “thank you”, “matioche”. We talked about music, and our families in the U.S., holidays, even economics. Fulgencio worked as a farmer in a moderately sized garden behind his house, where he grew herbs, flowers, limes, and many other fruits and vegetables.

Although we were only living with this family for one week, we felt completely at home. In the morning we would greet the grandmother with “seker ma” which means “good morning” in Cakchiquel and when we came back after a long day of working on our project and home visits to patients, the children would greet us with smiles and hugs. Followed by a dinner of chicken, tomato sauce, rice, beans and tortillas and stay up at night playing games and dancing salsa, listening to Mark Anthony’s “vivir la vida”, and looking at family photos.

On the final day the community put on a “despidita” for our group, which is a cultural way of saying thank you and goodbye. For the despidita reception our host families offered for us to wear the traditional Mayan clothing which consisted of a “huipil”, the beautiful hand made shirt, and a “corte” or skirt that is tied together with a fabric belt.

It was a really great opportunity for us to learn by being completely immersed in the Guatemalan culture while also providing education for the people of the community through teaching a few English phrases and providing education and support through our project.

By Marianna DiMaggio

“Travel is so interesting, intriguing, and inviting because it gives us something new every day. It challenges us.  It calls us.  it shows us new places, people, and cultures.  It beckons us to come with it to new lands and unfamiliar retreats.”

This weekend we began the next leg of our journey once our capstone project was complete and we had a bittersweet celebration with out host families, volunteers and members of the communities in Joya de las Flores, Guatemala. As three of us got ready to continue on for another week we said goodbye to half of our group as they safely returned to the United States.

The purpose of the second half of our time spend in Guatemala is geared towards traveling to various places and communities to help plan sustainable activities for the Alternative Spring Break delegation in March 2014.  We will mostly be meeting and talking with leaders and community members in Cobán, Guatemala in a community Poso Seco (which translates to “dry well”). Before heading to Cobán we took time on Saturday to travel to the nearby region of Panajachel, one of the many areas surrounding Lake Atitlán. Here we visited an Non-Governmental Organization called the Mayan Family Foundation.

We met with the director who explained to us their holistic mission and vision which encompasses four main necessities of: healing, shelter, food, and education.  She continued to provide a break down of the programs run by the organizations some of which were the following: welding and carpentry classes, sewing classes, mother and baby programs, activities for preschoolers, mentoring high school students, installing stoves, installing water filters, building houses in the area, donating beds to families, providing food to families, elderly care, education to work, and a medical clinic.  She also shared stories with us of how they had impacted the lives of some families in the area and it was clear that the work they do is truly admirable. While we were talking there were volunteers hard at work to distribute school supplies to struggling families with younger children. We were told that it would be an all day event and they would focus on older children later in the day.

One of the main reasons we went to the Mayan Family Foundation was because there was to visit the small medical clinic located inside. The clinic lacks a consistent staff, but is run by nurses, doctors and therapists who travel from all over the world to volunteer for periods of time.  There was one case we were specifically interested in because all three of us are physical therapy students and were supposed to follow up with a man, Carlos, who one of our professors had met with earlier this past summer during his travels to Panajachel.

DSC_0144Carlos unfortunately suffered from a spinal cord injury.  While working he accidentally cut a wire with his machete and electricity traveled through his body, sending him falling from a tree and  leading to fractures in his spine.  Our professor was able to get leg braces for Carlos which he sent down with us to be fitted in order to help him walk again.  We met Carlos and you could tell right away he had suffered a great deal but remained positive and his spirits were soaring after a recent paragliding trip he participated in. With slight modifications we were able to fit the braces and get Carlos to stand.

We were invited to Carlos’ home to deliver the braces and he showed us his new work of stitching intricate designs into pillow cases by hand.  During the visit we were fortunate to be accompanied by a local self taught therapist, Otto, who has maintained steady contact and a relationship with Quinnipiac students and professors over the years.  Collaborating with Otto allowed us to talk to Carlos about future possibilities of becoming involved in adapted sports in the area such as tennis and basketball.

It was an eye opening experience working with Carlos and all of the children the past week in Joya de las Flores. We all got back so much more than we could have ever imagined working with these people. These experiences humble and challenge you.  They make you want to be a better therapist and person.  They push you while revealing skills, qualities, and capabilities you would have otherwise never have known you had in you.

After the wonderful day in Panajachel, we returned to Guatemala City for dinner with a Quinnipiac alumnus, who goes by Goldy.  Following graduation Goldy joined the Peace Corps and was placed in Guatemala.  After the completion of his two years of serving the communities of Guatemala he decided to stay and continue his work with an organization called Hug it Forward.  The dinner was the perfect way to end the weekend and reflect on our week in Joya as we shared stories and opinions of the struggles and rewards of working in global development, promoting sustainable projects, educating communities and engaging change in the world.

By Kristen Cunningham, Marianna DiMaggio and Ellen Lepore 

We started out the second leg of our journey in the dry lands of Guatemala City and 3 1/2 hours later arrived in the luscious, green, mountainous region of Coban, Alta Verapaz. Over lunch in the city of Coban, Constantino taught us a little about the history of the area. The area itself is known for it’s minerals, such as: petroleum, silver and nickel. It is also home of many African Palm Oil trees which are used for cooking and perfumes.

What may seem like a profitable resource of the region has come to cause problems. For instance, the abundance of African Palm Oil trees has taken over the farm land for corn; in turn increasing the price of corn, making it harder for some people to buy the necessary staple for making tortillas to feed their families. Coban is also known for supplying most of the energy needed for Guatemala City through hydroelectricity.

Pozo Seco is a small village in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala, about an hour drive outside of the city of Coban. Pozo Seco translates to “dry well” related to the continuous depletion of oil from the region. When we arrived to the village of Pozo Seco we were mesmerized by the back drop of sunset over the mountains. Once settled, we immediately attended a meeting with the committee members of the village. The committee included both men and women of the community who spoke a mix of Spanish and the indigenous language of Q’eqchi.

It was a surreal experience as we met under the moon and stars, with flashlights in hand, as words were translated from Q’eqchi to Spanish to English and vice versa. Each member of the committee was in disbelief that we actually came to visit their community. This skepticism stems from a 36 year Civil War that just recently ended in 1996. It was largely a genocide of the indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala. It left families displaced, and as a result, people of indigenous communities such as this one have a hard time trusting people from outside of their community.

The committee expressed their three greatest needs in order of priority: 1) computers for the high school, 2) roof repairs, 3) ideas for their 25 acres of open land such as cattle. Through further discussion we agreed that their first need could not be met without first addressing the condition and structure of the school building. The infrastructure of the existing school building is rotting, has no windows and has many holes in the roof. Currently this is not an appropriate environment for the safety of children and the sustainability of computers. Through discussion with the school board, we agreed on the necessity of a more sustainable building before computers are a viable possibility.

Living with host families in this community opened our eyes to a whole new level of poverty than any of us had previously experienced. The three of us were split up into two neighboring homes, each with nine or more kids. Instantly it was clear that the children had never seen “gringos” before. It was an immediate assumption in both homes that we had a lot of money and donations to give because we were from the United States. This lead to some unsettling dinner time conversations with the host families. We were continuously asked to send money and help because they are “very poor.” It’s difficult to be asked for donations when giving donations isn’t going to solve the problems of poverty. The goal of Albert Schweitzer Institute trips is not to give handouts but rather to work WITH the community and empower them while developing sustainable projects.

This was a very challenging week for us emotionally and physically to see the enormous need of this community. The raw look of hopelessness and desperation in the eyes of the people showed their lack of basic needs, such as food, shelter, safety and belonging. Although this may seem to be overwhelming, further discussion among our group members allowed us to see some possibilities of  working together with this community. Building a trusting relationship with the people will be the first step towards future development in Pozo Seco.

“Muchas Thank You” – Constantino

By Ellen Lepore 

After returning to the United States, I continue to think about my most recent experience in Guatemala. It is always very difficult to return from a trip like this and respond when people ask how the trip was. It is not sufficient to only say “it was good.” I am making it my goal after this trip to do it justice and attempt to put into words how this trip actually was. Although I have been to Central America before this trip has truly changed me.

I am humbled by my 16 days in Guatemala. I went from my comfortable life in the U.S. to feeling like a celebrity in Joya de las Flores where the people will bend over backwards to give us everything they have, to being confronted head on by the harsh realities and hopelessness of a severely impoverished  Pozo Seco. It is very apparent in Joya de las Flores that our continued loyalty to their community has created an impact.

After multiple projects and the development of trusting relationships there has been visible progress made since I visited two years ago. The progress is not necessarily a direct result the projects that we have done (painting a school, building a pavilion, or giving therapy to disabled people), but the true progress is in the morale and self worth that these projects create within the community. The community leader was able to build a new bathroom in her house as a result of the money earned from taking students into her home while on one of these trips. She and her family take great pride in that new bathroom with running water and a heated shower.

The second week in Pozo Seco, was much more challenging for me. This community that has an incredible amount of need. On past trips I have observed poverty and taken notice with my eyes, but this experience was different. Not only did I observe poverty through the falling apart roofs, children with bloated bellies from malnutrition, lack of running water and the consumption of salt at the end of a meal to satisfy hunger cravings, but I had people telling me to me face how poor they are. My host father told me to “send help” because they are poor and he does not have the money to send his children to school. We had multiple young people in the community writing letters to us asking for monetary donations.

Given these unsettling events, I am left with many questions running through my mind; What do we do? Do we just send money as they request? Are students or people who are used to living comfortably in the U.S. ready to visit a place like Pozo Seco? Where do we start?

In hind sight, I realize that development in a community like this will take time. We need to be patient and work WITH the people of this community. I have also learned through my experience that the most important way to make a positive impact on any person or group of people is to change their way of thinking. If there is a way to change the mindset of people in these impoverished communities from one of hopelessness and desperation to one of self worth and possibility, major changes can be made. Empowering people through trusting relationships, guiding conversations, and continued support will lead to the greatest success.

During our time in Guatemala, we met people of one particular organization that does just that through empowering women. It is called Abriendo Oportunidades, “creating opportunities.” They work with young women between the ages of eight and 14 from rural Mayan communities to teach them skills that allow them to be more independent. The skills taught include managing their own finances, methods of birth control, involving them in sports and combating domestic violence. To combat domestic violence, a group of girls with their mentors go into homes and confront the abusers by explaining directly to them that abuse is unacceptable, even though it is a cultural norm in Guatemala. This organization is currently present in 50 rural Guatemalan communities and is growing.

Overall, Guatemala was an incredible learning experience and I feel very blessed to have gotten the opportunity to learn from the many incredible people that I met along the way.  It is a beautiful country that continues to fascinate and amaze me.

Categories: Albert Schweitzer Institute

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