What, Where and How
When my youngest daughter returned from summer camp in 2012, she suddenly had a desire to go on a mission trip. The idea intrigued me, but I had no idea where to start. What kind of service could we do? Where would we go? How do you even start to plan such a trip?
When the girls were in junior high we went on a family vacation in Egypt, I quickly realized that cultural differences can sometimes be overwhelming. As prepared as I thought I was, the leisurely stroll through the market in Cairo turned into stares and pushiness from the locals. I never felt unsafe, but possibly a bit violated. So planning a trip solo with my teenage daughters was going to require careful consideration.
I had a friend who has been doing service trips since graduation. Medical missions, water missions, Habitat and building projects, you name it, she’s done it. She had no hesitation in recommending a trip to Guatemala to volunteer in orphanages. She immediately put me in touch with Leceta, who it turns out is well known among the adoption community for her work in Guatemala. She had raised two adopted children, and was making regular trips to Guatemala with her Guatemalan-born daughter as a volunteer and children’s rights activist. After meeting her, I felt comfortable with the idea.
As luck would have it, Leceta was in the early stages of organizing a team of moms and teens. She was working with Orphan Resources International (ORI) during this period of time, and the team would be working at Fundaninos, a school and orphanage outside Guatemala City.
As the team was developing, we were sharing with each other a bit about ourselves in group emails. We were excited and also nervous to be travelling with these strangers. ORI provided us with manuals, which outlined what to expect while we were there, how to prepare and pack for the trip, some basic Spanish phrases, and some cultural differences we needed to be aware of. We were as prepared as we could be for such an adventure.
We flew into Guatemala City, and we were greeted by Leceta immediately after walking out of the airport. She had so thoroughly prepared us, we even had a few dollars for the airport workers who wanted to carry our bags to the bus. Such a small gesture meant so much to these hard workers. When we got on the bus it was dark and we were tired from the long travel day. We quickly departed the airport for Antigua, less than an hour away. We were provided with water bottles and some of the best banana bread I have ever had…conveniently, I was able to buy this again, just a few doors from the hotel.
It was during this bus trip that we were also introduced to a remarkable young man. He had grown up in an orphanage in Guatemala and was volunteering with Leceta in leading the team over the next ten days to develop his English. His story has had a huge impact on myself and my girls, but that is a story deserving another post.
The first part of our trip was pre-service and did not involve ORI. The intention was that we would see the beauty in Guatemala and its people, not just the sadness of the children living in an orphanage. This was the wish of Leceta’s daughter, Kahleah, who is very proud of her birth nation. And Guatemala did not disappoint!
We spent a couple of days in Antigua, a quaint little village of cobblestone streets, markets, churches and some great restaurants. Then a trip to Lake Atlitan and the village of Panajachel, where the Mayan women were selling their textiles in the streets. Our trip also included a visit to Centro de Capaciticion or trade school in Santa Cruz, a traditional Mayan village on the lake. This part of the trip was a great way for us to get to know the rest of the team, a group I will forever feel a deep connection with. Although it was leisurely, we were surrounded by the culture and beauty of the country, allowing us to see both the good and bad of this beautiful place.
Once we departed the beautiful Lake Aitlitan, we had a long twisty bus ride back to Guatemala City. Once we arrived at our mission home, we were in the hands of ORI and our air conditioned bus was traded in for an old school bus. The school bus was ideal for us to bring the children of the orphanage on outings. Several times over the next week we piled in, with children on our laps, the open windows providing a natural air conditioning.
After the long travel day on twisty roads, the damp smelling, cramped rooms with bugs in the shower meant for some cranky moments on that first night. I hoped that a good night’s sleep and meeting the children the next day would turn it all around.
We had some adjusting to do with plumbing…sanitation is not well developed in Guatemala…so nothing extra like toilet paper could be discarded down the toilets. And the hot water for your shower would be provided by an electrical contraption in the shower. If you happened to touch this while wet, you quickly learned how it became known as the “widow-maker”.
The next day we moved into the main home, and the rooms were quite comfortable. My girls and I had a room with three beds, two of which were bunk beds. We had our own bathroom, and the rooms all surrounded an open air living space, which would be the spot for our nightly team meetings.
After a lovely breakfast prepared by the staff in the mission home, we all prepared our own packed lunch, which would be our daily practice. After a traffic-filled ride in the school bus, we arrived at Fundaninos.
The home was nestled in a semi-rural area, surrounded by a wall armed with barbed wire. Sort of gave you the feeling you were entering a prison. We learned that this was for the children’s safety, and also to protect them from trying to escape back to their less than ideal home situation. Driving onto the property you could see the buildings and playground equipment, also a large field and grassy area that was great for future soccer games.
Once the team got off the bus, the magic happened. Many of the children were thrilled to see some new faces, but many of the older children were hesitant to join in, knowing that we were only here for a short time. The orphanage did not get a lot of teens visiting with service groups, so this team was proving to be popular with the younger children. Our team also had a couple of younger teens, Oliver and Abby, both adopted from Guatemala as babies to families in the US.
Fundaninos consisted of a school on the premises, a baby house, a girls house, a boys house and the kitchen and dining house. They were also in the early stages of building a volunteer house, for teams to stay on site.
The school was very clean and seemed to provide a positive environment for teaching. There are 4 classrooms for about 60 children. We had a couple of teachers on our team, so they were able to chat with the teaching staff, and exchange ideas. The teens also helped out with the younger children in the classroom.
The team had planned numerous outings with the children. A lot of thought and work went into these outings (as you can imagine the responsibility of taking that many children off the premises). Leceta’s daughter, Kahleah, was the mastermind behind this, and she wanted to include all the children in age appropriate activities. The team had fundraised for these activities before we arrived, but many of the activities were inexpensive relative to North American standards.
Our first outing was to a go-karting track. Although the children knew little English, language never proved to be an issue. The smiles on the faces of everyone told the story each and every day. The facility for the go-karting was clean, well organized. I remember watching my oldest daughter go by on a cart with a young boy, they were both having such fun.
The next trip was a trip to the mall and a movie. We took the children to the food court as a special treat, then all headed to the theatre. The mall and the theatre were all modern and much the same as a mall in a North American city. And although the movie was in Spanish, Despicable Me was not hard to follow with our limited Spanish!
The trip to the zoo was for the youngest group, and this was a fun day. We brought a few of the staff, as these children didn’t understand any English, and keeping them together proved to be a challenge. We all ate our packed lunches together in the park before heading back, and many of the children fell asleep in the arms of the caregivers and team on the bus ride home.
The big outing was a trip to a theme park, Irtra. The bus was full that day, as all but the youngest joined us, as well as some teachers and staff. Excitement level was high on the bus, and after a long drive through the traffic ridden Guatemala City, we finally arrived. The team purchased the tickets for everyone, and this even included lunch. Despite a little rain, the day was successful. I’m sure we slept like babies that night!
Each night after supper, the team gathered to talk about the day. This was a practice Leceta felt was important for the team members. So everyone could talk about what happened that day, how they felt and share experiences and emotions. It was definitely a bonding experience. There was always a range of emotions shared.
On our last day, ORI hosted a chicken barbeque for the team and the orphanage. This was all cooked outside, on a huge grill. It was a fun way to spend the last day with the children. There were some tears shed that day.
After we left the mission home, most of the team shared one last day together in Antigua. A bit of decompression before heading back to our lives back home. A few stayed longer, experiencing Guatemala in other ways. One of the moms went to a remote village to stay with a family and take Spanish lessons. There is a lot to see and do in Guatemala. My girls and I would return soon on another service trip. You can read about that experience here…