A week in guatemala: service and the power of a simple meal

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Buck-I-SERV: Costa Rica

This past Spring Break I traveled with sixteen OSU students and one faculty member to Costa Rica through a collaboration with Buck-I-SERV and the Outdoor Adventure Center. We engaged in various meaningful acts of service including painting the exterior of a local school and restoring a greenhouse to full function in order to provide fresh produce for the students’ lunches. While in Costa Rica, we also participated in a variety of high adventure outdoor activities including backpacking, white water rafting, caving, cliff jumping, rappelling a waterfall, swimming, and surfing.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Even months after the trip, I can honestly say that this experience in Costa Rica continues to impact my understanding of myself and my view of the world. First, this trip continually made me step outside of my comfort zone in the best ways possible. To explain, before this trip, I was fairly familiar and comfortable in all my life plans and experiences, having served in other areas of the United States on a variety of service trips through my church and through Buck-I-SERV.  However, in each previous trip I knew at least one person going on the trip with me.  Going to Costa Rica, I did not know a single person in my group and this would also be my first international trip, which was a huge deal for someone who has spent their entire life in Columbus, Ohio.  As you can see, this trip truly challenged me to go outside my comfort zone socially, physically and mentally.  Being totally among strangers forced me to reach out more in friendship with students living and working alongside me. Because of this trip, I want to continue to seek out service that exercises endurance and perseverance as this one did, both physically and mentally. I want to continue to continue to seek adventure and the unknown.  Costa Rica was exquisite and exotic, even if far away and a little scary at first. I feel that this trip has transformed me into a braver person.  In addition, this trip has taught me that service can happen anywhere and anytime.  Before this trip I had largely only engaged in preplanned, organized service events, but after this trip I now plan on stopping and opening my eyes to how I can make the world around me a bit nicer.

The Costa Rican people also completely altered my view on life. Over and over again, my fellow Buckeyes and I would remark about how much happier everyone in Costa Rica seems to be despite having so much less. This optimism is reflected in the popular phrase “pura vida” or “pure life” –  a phrase that basically means that life is good and everything is alright. What an amazing and inspiring mantra to live by anywhere!  Life IS good, despite all the worry and stress that attach themselves to our minds here in our frantic and fast-paced way of life.  If we all just shut off our cell phones and electronics, breathed in the fresh air, gazed at the incredible skies that are everywhere in the world, and let this phrase soak in, we would be far more at peace, and hopefully, pass this peace and joy to others as was done to me by the Costa Rican people.  This phrase and way of life has stuck with me since then, inspiring me to be more positive, focusing only on the good all around, and to try to live a simpler life.

What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed and how did those affect you?

During this trip I stepped outside of my comfort zone socially, physically, and mentally. Socially, I tend to take a while to open up to other people. However, with this being such a short trip, I pushed myself to engage and talk to every person in our group each day. Moreover, even though I felt uncomfortable, I forced myself to use the various Spanish words and phrases I learned in high school in conversation with Costa Ricans. I stumbled and used improper conjugation, but the people I spoke to seemed to appreciate the effort. These interactions made me more attentive to and appreciative of all my patients in the hospital who speak multiple languages, being far more cognizant of the importance of hand gestures and expressions to help convey meaning. In addition, I was nervous about undergoing the various high-intensity outdoor activities, particularly white water rafting, cliff jumping, and waterfall rappelling. We always had the option to say no to an activity, but I am proud to say that I participated in every one.

As I mentioned above, during the trip I realized the significance of service being able to be both planned and spontaneous. We happened to experience the latter in a beautiful way.  To describe, on one particular day we had decided to head to a market one mile down the beach.  When a trip leader noticed that there seemed to be a fair amount of trash along the way, we all quickly agreed that we should clean up the beach that we had spent the whole afternoon enjoying. It was completely spur-of-the-moment and I think that this is a main reason why it has stuck with me so long after. As one can see, service comes in many forms. It can happen anywhere and anytime, planned or unplanned. I know that I want to widen my eyes to my surroundings at all times and actively seek out opportunities to truly leave each place better than it was before.

Additionally, as I mentioned before, almost every Costa Rican person that I had encountered seemed perfectly content with life, unusually cordial, and more at peace than an average American I have come into contact with on the street. Their happiness with having so little has inspired me to live more simply by getting rid of all those clothes and items I do not need – and be happy with what I do have. Moreover, their optimism and joyous faces have taught me how truly noticeable and contagious a positive attitude and smile are. I plan to try to be a more positive person now. I want to bring others the joy that they have brought me.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? 

For a long-time now I considered participating in some type of international service organization after college such as the Peace Corps or Nurses without Borders. I have always been passionate about service, which is one of the major reasons I chose an international service trip for my STEP Signature Project.  While I had gone on many week-long service trips throughout high school, it was with people I knew and to Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Before I went on this trip, I had been debating that a more long-term international service trip may be too much.  To explain, I was worried that being so far from home may be too far out of my comfort zone. After having experienced this trip though, I now am enormously eager and excited to apply to these organizations. I appeased and overcame some of my fears.  I know that these types of organizations would be far away, and a longer commitment than a week-long service trip; however, this longer spell would allow for more time to stretch my endurance, perseverance, work-ethic, and stamina farther than I have ever stretched them.

In addition, a lengthier stay in a foreign country would grant me enough time to explore a new culture and people, to truly delve deeply and more fully into it and them by surrounding myself in it.  If I choose not to stay abroad someday, I will bring back much valuable learning and wisdom, I am sure.  As a future nurse, I believe that nurses should strive to learn about the various cultures of our patient population so as to provide optimal care, as well as to connect in a way that only experience can bestow.  To describe, I feel an impetus to develop a foundation of cultural knowledge of others while I am young and have less obligations.  To explain, this is to examine closely a subculture that heavily populates the U.S., to learn its customs, traditions, sayings, inspirations, habits, and even language(s) in order to call upon these, in a patient’s hour of need, to come to their healing and comforting aid.  If I were to live in a foreign country and were injured or sick enough to require hospital care, I would hope that others had done the same.