Guatemala Engineering Service Project

Frank Keller


My STEP signature project consisted of a semester long research course during Spring 2016 and concluded with an 8day trip to Guatemala in early May 2016. The project was through my scholars group, The Humanitarian Engineering Scholars (HES), and was done in collaboration with the nongovernmental service organization (NGO) Mayan Families. During spring semester, Mayan Families tasked me and group of my fellow scholars with coming up with an alternative septic system solution. The course consisted of research into the project and the trip consisted of further research and final presentation to Mayan Families. Also during the trip, I helped teach STEM lessons to preschools in the area, built cook stoves for families in need, and explored the country of Guatemala.

My Transformation Experience 

During my project I realized just how different the world is in comparison to the small town Ohio I grew up with. I experienced poverty and hardship growing up. But nowhere near what I saw in Guatemala. I thought growing up only being able to eat Ramen was bad. Turns out I was lucky to have food. I loved school growing up but coming to college I felt like I was at a disadvantage because I came from a small country school. In Guatemala I would probably have stopped my education after middle school or maybe not have gotten one at all. It’s not a competition to see who has it worse. But my trip to Guatemala put a lot of things in perspective. It made me realize how grateful I am for what I have and have been able to experience.

I would say the true transformation I experienced though, was I fully realized what I want to do with the rest of my life. Growing up I loved volunteering, helping others anyway I could, and always trying to help those less fortunate than me. This drive to help others is why I joined the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars group here at OSU. I wanted to get a degree in Engineering and I wanted to use that degree to help others. On paper that sounds all good but how was I actually going to do that and would I stick with it? This project was my first step in participating in actual humanitarian engineering and making a difference. Going to Guatemala I had an idea of what I wanted to get from this trip. All of my experiences in Guatemala were far more moving and transformative than I could have hoped for. I realized when I was coming back from Guatemala, I would go back one day and I would do as much as I could to help the wonderful people I met.

Key Aspects

I met a lot of wonderful and thoughtful people on my trip to Guatemala that helped create my transformative experience. One person who was truly inspiration to me was our tour guide throughout the trip, Alisa Bryce. She was a 24-year-old from Britain who had pretty much spent most of her life traveling the world. She spoke Spanish and was hired by Mayan Families to work with all the groups who worked with them and came to Guatemala. Throughout the trip I got to talk to her quite a bit and learned a lot about her life and experiences growing up. She was born in Hong Kong when it was still under British control, she went to school in Indonesia for a few years, she lived in Memphis, TN for a few years, and is now traveling Central America as a professional dancer. She also shared a lot of her work experiences that she experienced while working for Mayan Families. She helped me learn a great deal about Guatemala, it’s people and culture, and really made the trip a great one. I think if I didn’t have such a passionate and knowledgeable tour guide for the trip, I don’t think the trip would have been as great or memorable.


Alisa and I on my last night in Guatemala. My group mate Ricky Renner in the back. 

Alisa was just one of many people I met during my trip to Guatemala that made it such a a great experience. Mayan Families employed a lot of diverse and interesting people that we got to meet throughout our trip. Some were from America, some Britain, and a lot were locals. On our Saturday of the trip we didn’t have any work planned so we hired a local tour guide named Henry who took us across Lake Attitlan and up Indian Face Mountain, a local mountain peak near the village of San Pedro. The trip to and up Indian Mountain is a story that would take me a few pages to tell alone. In short, when I stood at the top of Indian Face Mountain, I got to see the greatest view I have ever seen in my life and it really made me appreciate the beauty of Guatemala. Henry was also able to buy us the greatest coffee in world from the local area for us to take home. I took it home and gave it to my dad as a gift and he said he’s never tasted coffee as good as it. Guatemala had so much to offer from its landscape, its culture, and its people and all of it made my project a transformative experience.

There is one experience from my project that has stuck with me more than any other experience was because of a small Guatemalan boy named Pablo. It was on either the second or third day of the trip, my group went to the Mayan Families workplace and there they ran a preschool. At this preschool we taught two classes a STEM lesson using popsicle catapults. I was helping a young Guatemalan boy build this catapult. I was using hand gestures and very bad Spanish to try to explain how he was supposed to build the catapult. He was having fun though and was excited when I showed him how to launch the pom poms we gave the children as ammunition. After the group was getting to leave for our next adventure, I realized I never got the young boy’s name. I asked him and he told me Pablo with one of the goofiest smiles I’ve ever seen. I said my goodbyes to Pablo not realizing it wouldn’t be the last time I would see him. We went to the Mayan Families carpentry school where they showed us how to assemble cook stoves. These cook stoves are given to families who are sponsored by donors and they help the families greatly. They provide a chimney which filters out smoke and reduces the amount of firewood needed for cooking by 70%. So the Mayan Families workers load us and the supplies up into some trucks and we go to different villages to build cook stoves. The village my mini group went to was called Las Vegas and it was government built housing for families displaced by a landslide from a nearby village. We pulled up to one of the concrete houses and there I see Pablo standing in the doorway of the house we were going to install a cook stove in.  He ran up to me and hugged me so I like to think he remembered me from the preschool. We talked to his mom and they told us where they wanted the cook stove. They decided we would build it at the back of the house so we set about building. We built it without any trouble and the family was extremely grateful. It was during the building of the cook stove that the most important part of this experience happened. To the left of where we were working I noticed a sink full of nasty, green looking, and awful smelling water. I didn’t think anything of it when I first saw it. Later Pablo went up to the sink, filled up a big bowl with the gross water, and drank it all. He went back to playing and everything was normal. I just stood there for a couple minutes going over in my head what I just witnessed.


Las Vegas, Guatemala. Pablo’s house is the gray one top right. 


It was at that moment of seeing Pablo drink that unhygienic water where I realized that I was going to dedicate my life to trying to help those in need like Pablo. I made a commitment that day to do as much humanitarian engineering work as I could for the rest of my life. We left the village of Las Vegas and I saw Pablo for the last time. I realized when I got back to the US, I never took a picture with Pablo. The only thing I have to remember him by is a bracelet he gave me; a bracelet I haven’t taken off since he gave it to me. But his memory has been driving me in my academic and career goals. The plan currently is to graduate with my degree in Civil Engineering, obtain a job in the construction industry and then hopefully one day start my own NGO to help those like Pablo.


The entire Humanitarian Engineering Scholars group at Mayan Families HQ in Panajachel, Guatemala. 

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