Volunteering in Guatemala: A Life-changing Experience

by EdventureGirl /
EdventureGirl's picture
Feb 05, 2019 / 0 comments

I looked down on her. Was there any other way to say it? I’m sure that’s how she saw me. Physically, there was no way around it. The top of her head came to my waist, her height the result of a lifetime of poor nutrition. Economically, I, a teen American, would be given more in life than she ever had. I was finishing high school with excellent grades and a good shot at college. She, like so many other Guatemalans, probably hadn’t made it through third grade, and had likely spent her life cooking over a fire or tending fields. I had comfortable shoes, functional (if not new or stylish) clothes, and a computer back home that gave me access to a wealth of information. She wore well-used plastic sandals and a handwoven wrap. And yet, despite the differences in age, class, and culture, this elderly Guatemalan woman smiled widely and took my hand, never judging me. She led me up the highland path to the small concrete complex that was the school.

The children cheered as we entered, ten or more foreigners, invited here by CoEd Guatemala to witness the inauguration of the new school and support a great charity. Today was a party day, and they knew it. For the first time, their school would have books, pencils and paper, teachers who could actually speak their language.

Volunteering in Guatemala: A Life-changing Experience

I walked around the school, marveling. At first, I’d been shocked to hear that 82% of Guatemalan kids don’t make through high school, and that most drop out by third grade. It seemed like a faulty statistic, an exaggeration of fact. But now it was beginning to make sense to me. These children had no materials to learn from. Their teachers used blackboards to jot down the information they knew, but rarely spoke any one of the more than 21 unique Mayan dialects spoken in the highlands of Guatemala. Add to that the fact that their families often couldn’t afford to buy them shoes to go to school, and needed their help working the fields, and I began to wonder how any of them got through at all.

CoEd Guatemala has created an affordable system for Guatemalan families which allows them to “rent” schoolbooks for approximately $1.50 a month. By the end of the year, the schools have saved enough to purchase new materials. The organization sets up sustainable computer, textbook, reading, and scholarship programs throughout Guatemala.

Volunteering in Guatemala: A Life-changing Experience

The children danced and sang, cheering and whooping as the inauguration ceremony played out, their parents smiling on from the sidelines. I joined in with the other volunteers in handing out stickers. A girl, tiny and quite dirty, pushed her way through the crowd to claim some for herself. I grinned, handing her a whole sheet. Eyes wide, she immediately called all of her friends and began to hand out stickers. And my heart broke.

Stickers. They don’t hold much value for most Western children. And yet, to this little girl, they were a treasure. And her first instinct upon receiving that treasure was to share it among those less fortunate than herself.

I’d come to learn, and learn I had. My life, I realized, is a treasure. All the material items I’ve collected are a gift, not a right. You could call it an “aha” moment. I knew then that, just like the little girl, I had to share my gifts. As a world traveler, I come across people in need on a daily basis. As a human being and a world citizen, I feel that I have a responsibility to do what I can to make a change in those lives. The experience at the highland school in Guatemala was a turning point in my life. I went home, started a fundraiser for CoEd Guatemala, and began working to make a change. At the moment, I’m back in Guatemala, learning Spanish and becoming part of a community here as part of the next step towards changing lives.

Volunteering in Guatemala: A Life-changing Experience

As travelers, we have to realize the importance of giving back to the communities we come across on our journeys. Not only does it teach us and help us to grow as world citizens, it also strengthens those communities. Why wouldn’t we share what we have, especially when so many have so little? Why would we hoard up our gifts instead of sharing and teaching others how to improve their situations? We are the ambassadors of our countries. Our behavior while on the road affects how other cultures and nations will think of us as a culture. So to show unity and generosity in small ways while traveling is to take small steps towards connection and understanding on a global scale.

When I left the school in the highlands of Guatemala, the laughter and shouts of excited children following me back down the path, I knew my life had changed forever. I’d never be able to look at my possessions the same way again. Never see world issues and not feel intimately connected to the people involved. And I knew that the children’s lives had changed forever, as well. CoEd Guatemala was giving them the chance to get educations, to take the first steps towards breaking the cycle of poverty. I had given back to the community what I could in time and effort, and they’d given back to me in life lessons and inspiration. It seemed like a good trade to me. One day I hope to be as selfless as the girl with the sticker sheet.

What would you do to support a local charity?



About Hannah Miller: I’m a seventeen year old girl, with a serious case of wanderlust. Over the past few years I’ve traveled to over twenty-four countries, on five different continents, using bikes, buses, trains, planes, and of course, my own two feet. Wherever I go, a video camera and three instruments follow. I’m trying to change the world, one step at a time. By the end of my life I want to have visited every country in the world, and do it all through travel writing. I currently write for a few different travel sites; but this one is meant for my own personal thoughts and experiences. In my opinion, there’s no better school than the big world around us, and no better way to learn about the planet I live on than to see it myself! My greatest fear: to reach the end of my days only to be filled with regret for the adventures I never had. Find me at http://www.edventuregirl.com/



All photos courtesy and copyright Hannah Miller

Note: this article was originally published in 2014 and updated in 2019