During spring break of my junior year I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Guatemala and serve with Constru Casa for a week through Buck I SERV (BIS.) My STEP experience incorporated the themes of leadership and community service in an international setting. We partnered with a local organization called Constru Casa which is similar to Habitat for Humanity in their belief that everyone deserves access to safe and decent housing. They are devoted to improving the quality of life of impoverished Guatemalans whose poverty rate is at more than 50% (compared to America’s 14.5 %.) They also believe that future homeowners should take an active role in acquiring their home. The families pay a subsidized down payment and are well educated on the responsibilities of maintaining their homes once Constru Casa leaves. The two homes our group worked on while in Guatemala were for two families with young children. The children attended a special school where the principal took notice of their housing situation and recommended their families to Constru Casa. Our BIS group of 7 was split among working on the two houses. My small group worked on building an additional room for a family of 5 who was currently living out of a one room cement block house. We helped level the ground for the addition, dig trenches for the foundation, transport over one thousand cement blocks, mix concrete and cement and build about 3/4 of the wall in our week of service. As one of the two trip leaders I also helped coordinate our evening activities after our service and our day of exploration on Friday. I enjoyed learning more about Guatemalan culture by exploring the city and participating in religious festivals and eating traditional cuisine. I also had the unique opportunity put my Spanish skills to use as a translator for my group. Our host family, the family we worked for and the mason from Constru Casa did not speak English and it was challenging and rewarding to practice communicating with them to accomplish our goals.
I have always known there was extreme poverty in the world but I had never witnessed such poverty first-hand. I had never walked into a small compound with dirt floors, tin roofs and cement block walls that housed an extended family of over 15. I would have never guessed that people living in this situation would be so full of joy, love and passion. It was easy for me to assume that individuals living in this level of poverty would be dejected but that was the exact opposite of what I found with the family we worked for during our week of service. Our host family made money by cooking food and serving it throughout the neighborhood. Their compound was passed down from their parents to four siblings who each claimed one corner of the compound. The homes are one room with a standalone bathroom and shared outdoor kitchen area. The compound was crowded but bustling with energy and laughter. The cousins were always running around and playing and the family had many dogs and cats that came and go. Although we were there to serve them, the family always went out of their way to bring us home-cooked snacks like guacamole, fresh fruit and grilled corn. Our family brought our group to tears on the final day when they prepared a large traditional Guatemalan meal for us using the tables, tablecloth and glass plates they only brought out for their Christmas celebration. The families selflessness, gratitude and hospitality moved me and has stuck with me to this day. The young children were always eager to help us with our work and would offer to help mix cement and carry the bricks even though they were extremely heavy. The family we worked with welcomed us into their lives and was so grateful for the small amount of work we were doing. I felt guilty that we couldn’t stay longer and we couldn’t do more but the mother of the family told us how appreciative she was for everything we did no matter how long we stayed. One of the biggest takeaways I had from this experience is that happiness does not have a price tag. If the family we served could rejoice in our week of service and a simple cement-block addition to their home, I too can learn to find happiness in more places.
My week in Guatemala was filled with challenging manual labor and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fully contribute to the work being done. My group members always encouraged me to try my hardest and supported me fully. We balanced the workload well, managed our time well by taking breaks at different times and relied on each other to complete our tasks efficiently. I was pushed out of my comfort zone by working in an environment totally foreign to me with people I had never met. By the end of the trip I was nowhere near a master home builder but I gained insight on how everyone can be helpful and how invaluable teamwork is. In the short amount of time I spent in Guatemala I grew confident in asking for help, developed my teamwork skills and became more educated on the lives of the impoverished.
In addition to our work during the day, another important aspect of our trip was our daily reflections. Our small group would go around every day and share our highs and lows, our personal revelations and plans for how we would apply what we learned moving forward. As a leader, I was worried about how reflections would go. I felt a lot of pressure to make our reflections meaningful and to promote healthy dialogue. I was very pleased with how organic our conversations were at the end of each day. Everyone in my group was comfortable with sharing and we were always eager to discuss our experiences. Prior to departing on our trip, my co-leader and I hosted three meetings where we educated our group on the community we were working in and discussed some of our fears, hopes and goals for our trip. This trip education allowed us to be well informed before we landed in Guatemala and helped lay the groundwork for a meaningful week of service.
Upon returning to Columbus I vowed to participate in more Buck-I-SERV trips but also get involved with other service opportunities addressing poverty within my own community. I started volunteering at Columbus Metropolitan Public Library’s MLK Branch where I tutor math and science and worked with the Department of Social Change to lead activities with the students focusing on science, art and literacy. Through my experience with this program at the libraries I became more in tune to the needs of my own neighborhood and how I could apply my passion for service I gained through my first Buck I SERV experience to individuals whom share my zip code.
My experience in Guatemala was truly eye-opening as someone who aspires to achieve a career in medicine. The opportunity to better understand poverty on a global scale further encouraged me to pursue a career in primary care medicine. I hope that in my career as a physician I will have the ability to travel frequently and donate my services to communities like the one I worked with during BIS. I better recognize the wide-spread consequences of poverty which include lack of access to healthcare, poor quality of education and increased risk of mental illness and exposure to crime. My experience has also opened my eyes to things that poverty does not hold absolute control over. Poverty does not always have to equate to sadness and hopelessness. The children I worked with in Guatemala were some of the most joyful and grateful children I have ever met in my life. Every day when we finished our work, the children would teach us hand games and walk us to our bus. They loved taking pictures on our phones and looking at pictures of our families at home. When we left, we gave them small mementos like headbands and bracelets. I left knowing that the addition to their home was just a small step in improving the quality of their lives. I can only hope their condition will continue to improve through their education and connection with Constru Casa.