This past March, I joined ten of my peers in a Buck-I-SERV trip to Antigua, Guatemala where we spent a week working with a local service organization, Constru Casa to expand and improve the living spaces of two local families. Constru Casa is a non-profit organization whose mission is to serve impoverished citizens of Guatemala by providing “basic housing, support programs, and community development projects relating to health and education.” As volunteers, we assisted professional masons in laying the foundation and constructing walls for additional rooms on the families’ homes. In our free time in the evenings, we explored the city and experienced a new culture first-hand.
What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?
My entire life, I have wanted to explore foreign countries, immersing myself in their cultures, meeting new people, and tasting unique cuisines. I constantly dreamed of leaving Ohio for European tours and African safaris. My first opportunity to travel abroad occurred last March with my Buck-I-SERV trip to Guatemala. Though Guatemala may not have fit my glamorous expectations for world travel, I was excited for the new experience. I was aware, to some extent, of the poverty with which many countries in Central and South America, such as Guatemala are riddled. I believed my experiences with various types of service in the US prepared me for the types of issues I would encounter in Antigua. I was mistaken though, and the level of poverty in Guatemala was far beyond what I had envisioned. I distinctly remember driving through the Guatemalan country-side on our 3 hour drive to Lake Atitlan and trying to estimate the number of shacks we passed. Shocked by the sheer amount of poor neighborhoods we drove past, I could not even wrap my head around how many people in the country, let alone the areas we drove through, were touched by poverty. I wanted to help all of the families who were living in these inadequate homes. I felt discouraged by the fact that we could only help two families in our time there.
Personally, it was challenging to put into perspective just how privileged I am to live in such a prosperous country until I witnessed extreme poverty firsthand. Seeing just a small fraction of the world’s poverty forced me to confront the harsh reality that there are thousands of people worldwide who will never be able to afford a nice home, a full education, a car, and other luxuries that are readily available in American culture. I still hope to travel the world, but I feel now that I have a responsibility as a global citizen to seek out ways in which to use my skills and resources to share the fortune I have been so lucky to have in my life. I know it’s impossible to rid the world of poverty in my lifetime and I understand that there is a fine line between “voluntourism” and meaningful international service. However, I cannot in good conscience go about life doing nothing to combat global poverty. Organizations like Constru Casa, whose service is sustainable, effective, and flexible for outside volunteers can make that happen
What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
While working on the houses with Constru Casa, it was easy to be discouraged by the difficult, slow, and tedious manual labor, especially after realizing that this hard work would only result in a couple additional rooms. I felt that my work was only a small drop in a huge bucket. I tried not to lose sight of our mission, but the importance of my service was difficult to envision with so little progress made. However, a number of smaller interactions with people in Guatemala revealed to me just how valuable my time there was. For instance, once when I was walking through the neighborhood, a local woman recognized me as a volunteer for Constru Casa and communicated to me how desperate she was for the organization to assist her family and expand their homes as well. She was impressed by the work done by the organization and apparently, it was a well-known service group in the area.
Our presence was especially appreciated by the children of the families we were serving. They were thrilled to spend time with us and did not hesitate to find small tasks that helped us get our work done more efficiently. On our breaks, we would take the kids to a nearby grocery store to buy them snacks or play music and dance with them. I like to think that our work with the kids meant a great deal to them, not only because of their improved living space, but because we were able to bridge the gap between cultures. Despite a language barrier, a large age difference, and obvious cultural differences we were all able to connect and enjoy our time together, regardless of how exhausted we were from the difficult manual labor. Their enthusiasm motivated me to work harder so that I could depart from them, knowing I did all I could to give them the most comfortable home possible.
Perhaps the most meaningful connection I made, in retrospect, was that with the mother of the family with which I spent my time. Claudia was a single mother raising two children and watching several nieces and nephews as well. Always smiling, she greeted us every morning, then disappeared into the house to clean, do her children’s laundry, or prepare lemonade for us. Every one of her actions was intended to benefit someone other than herself, but she never complained or asked for recognition. However, I did not fully comprehend the magnitude of her altruism until I received the tragic news of Claudia’s death just a few short weeks after our visit. It became apparent that during our time in Guatemala, Claudia was in constant pain as the result of what was most likely pancreatic cancer. I looked back for clues pointing to her suffering, but not once did she need to lie down or stop working. I could only recall one instance where she asked for an Advil. In the meantime, I complained about the heat or physical exertion, having no awareness of her condition. Claudia’s dedication to caring for others is a quality I hope to one day emulate in my future career as an Occupational Therapist, as a future mother, and in my future experiences in serving others.
Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? Discuss why this change or development matters and/or relates to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans.
I felt that my participation in Constru Casa’s mission played a key role in making my experience as influential as it was. In all honesty, I envisioned my first time traveling abroad being on a luxurious vacation, touring popular sites in Europe. However, I know now that an experience such as this would have imparted little information regarding the true nature of a different culture. This is not to say that participating in popular tourist activities is wrong or a waste of time, but I personally felt that my days spent working with Constru Casa in the suburbs of Antigua revealed more of Guatemala’s culture than any other days. This is because I was able to experience and participate in the familial environment adopted by many of Guatemala’s citizens. There is a spirit of compassion and care in Guatemala that is very different from anything I have ever witnessed in America. Families spend more time together, people are proud of their nationality, and religious faith unites many native Guatemalans. In the less wealthy neighborhoods in particular, I was reminded of how valuable time spent away from TVs, social media, and video games can be. I left the country motivated to eliminate these negative influences from my life in favor of more personal face-to-face interactions with my peers.
More importantly, my growing awareness of the impact of poverty worldwide will now influence several decisions in my life. A heightened knowledge of what poverty actually looks like will affect my political opinions when choosing between candidates who may or may not plan to implement changes that will benefit less privileged populations. As a future Occupational Therapist, I may choose to work in locations that are more accessible to people who cannot afford expensive therapies. I can seek out opportunities to volunteer my services to these populations as well. When planning future trips abroad, I can research effective service organizations nearby and attempt to get involved. In any case, this trip invoked a sense of responsibility to give back everything I have been given in this life in the hopes of one day seeing drastic changes in the rates of poverty worldwide.
As a first-time world traveler, my high expectations for cultural exploration were exceeded. Antigua is not necessarily a city frequented by tourists and world travelers the way that European cities might be. I had not met anyone who had traveled there to tell me what to expect. I felt that this worked in my favor, however, because I was able to enter my journey with few expectations and I could form my own opinions on the city, without any preexisting biases. As a result, Antigua became my own little treasure that few others got to share with me. I was immensely impressed by the vivacity of the city, with its colored buildings and gorgeous landscape. I could spend my afternoon in the quiet suburbs in a friendly neighborhood environment and experience the nightlife in the downtown area all in one day. I was able to spend a relaxing day at Lake Atitlan, but also worked long days to serve a local family. I felt equally selfish and selfless. I got the best of both worlds, and could not have asked for more for my first journey outside of the US. Had it been planned differently, I may not have received such a holistic image of Guatemala’s culture.