Aug 4, 2015

Destination: Guatemala; Task: Service; Most Affected: Me!

I know the joy that comes from helping others, it's something I've experienced many times. I've also received help many times in my life and I know the difference it can make. It's easy to forget these facts in the everyday things of life and it can be easy to miss opportunities.

I recently had an experience that reminded me of the value of serving others. While this was a big experience it reminded me that the benefits can come from even small acts. I hope that my brief account of this experience will help all of us remember the importance of serving others. It doesn't have to be done in a faraway place. Nor does it have to be a large act. You can serve your employees, your manger, your family, your friends and even people you don't know - the benefits will come to everyone when you do.

After reading my account of this trip please take my challenge seriously. Then please share experiences that you have had with the rest of us!

My Trip to Guatemala

One of the rooms we cemented
I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Guatemala with my wife and daughter. We were there for nearly 3 weeks, most of which was participating with a group from Youthlinc - a nonprofit, nondenominational, service organization in Utah. The three of us spent the last few days of our trip visiting some beautiful areas of the country.

Youthlinc partnered with an in country nonprofit organization named People for Guatemala. They helped to organize the work that we did and supported the selection of the village where we served. The village was Las Escobitas and the people there were wonderful!

First here are the details of the mechanics:

Our group from Youthlinc included 41 people. There were two team leaders, 7 mentors, and 32 youth. Multiple of the youth had been on Youthlinc trips before and they were student leaders referred to as "alums". None of the youth had been to Guatemala with Youthlinc.

Here is a list of some of what we accomplished (I'm sure that I'm missing some key items here):

  • We mixed and poured cement in about 20 homes (in bedrooms, kitchens or both)
  • We installed about 20 Chapina Stoves
  • We painted both the inside and outside of the village school house
  • We installed a playground at the school (designed by Ken from People for Guatemala)
  • We taught interested members of the village to sew on (mostly) donated sewing machines
  • We taught interested members of the village to cut hair
  • Each of the youth taught English lessons to the students at the school
  • Lessons were taught on human relations, alcohol and smoking concerns and basic business skills
  • We held a health fair where healthy skills and other health lessons were taught
The school house we painted and where the youth taught
While all of that is great it only scratches the surface of why I was so moved and am unable to really put into words the significance and importance of the trip. I'll try to convey some of that below.

Youthlinc strives to create lifelong humanitarians. This starts by requiring all of the youth who participate in a foreign trip to complete 80 hours of local service in their communities prior to going on their service trip. I watched my daughter do this service over several months in preparation for our trip. "Voluntour" is a term I had not heard prior to getting involved in Youthlinc. It refers to people or groups that supplement a tourist trip with some service. Youthlinc most definitely does not do this. While my wife, daughter and I did extend our trip with some tourist activities, the service part of the trip was hard work focused on serving the people of Guatemala.

Another key point that Youthlinc focuses on is that you can get much better results when you help someone who is working to help themselves rather than just doing for those in need. This is implemented by requiring people who receive assistance to cover part of the costs themselves. Each home that received a cement floor or a Chapina stove earned part of the costs of those improvements, but then had the rest donated. Youthlinc has found that when they approach helping people this way the long term results are much better and people’s lives are really changed. This requirement was not only done for the improvements to people’s homes but also by the community overall for the improvements to the school. 

One of the first great results of the trip was forming a great relationship with the team. We had a fantastic team. Everyone was there to serve and worked very hard. I must say that this was hard work for us, a bunch of people from Utah - but much of the work we did was done alongside those we were helping, and it was everyday life for them (you can interpret that as we were pretty soft compared to the villagers we were working with!).

I guess I'm a little old fashioned, but I personally found it very hard to watch some of the young women that were on the team mixing the cement with shovels and hoes and carrying it in 5 gallon buckets. But there was no stopping them - they were there to work, and they did work!

We started our service with an opening ceremony where we tried to introduce ourselves to the village and they shared a little about themselves with us. They expressed many times how grateful they were that we had come to serve and work with them to improve their village and their lives. But the most moving part of that ceremony was when the leader of the village said - we are all the same, it is just our language that is different. There were some of us that spoke passable to even good Spanish, and we also had some translators that were helping us - but by the end of the two weeks we were communicating on many other levels, and deep relationships had been formed between many of the team members and the people from the village.

After that first morning of getting introduced to each other we started working hard that afternoon. We broke into three groups and started on different tasks. One group started to paint the school house. Another group started to teach sewing lessons. My group headed out to lay cement in a families kitchen. As we arrived and received some instructions on how to mix the cement. I had memories of doing similar work in my youth with my dad and grandpa. I suspect I was more in the way than helpful when I was younger. I honestly hope that I was more helpful than in the way in Guatemala!

After that we really didn't stop much for the next two weeks. While Youthlinc is not a religious organization the village did ask that we not come to work on Sundays. So each Sunday we experienced a little be of Guatemala and worked together as a team to prepare for the upcoming work week.

We didn't have the modern comforts that I am used to, even in our "hotel". I also found that I was pretty tired by the end of the day and was able to get to sleep much faster than I usually do at home. By the end of our time working I had earned a pretty bad back ache. I imagine it was a combination of hoeing, shoveling, carrying cement and sleeping on a pretty poor quality bed. I say that knowing that the villagers that were working right alongside me likely did more hoeing, shoveling and carrying while sleeping on what was likely not as nice of a bed, and none of them were complaining!

I believe that while it was the most physically challenging, the activity I most enjoyed was doing the cementing. I know that part of it was the memories that it brought back to me of childhood activities with my family. But I also really enjoyed that we worked side by side with the people that we were helping.
A home in the village with a pile of gravel for the cement

To bring things to an end we had an afternoon of closing ceremonies. This was a difficult time for everyone. While the leader of the village shared his feelings of language being the only thing that made us different during the opening ceremonies we found that even with that gap we had grown very close to one another. It didn't really feel that we were different now! We all knew that we might not see each other again and that was very hard. Many of the people from the village told us that they would see us in heaven. They were so humble and also so happy. We were somewhat tired, many a little homesick, but all very sad to be leaving this great experience behind us.

I realize that words cannot really express the feelings that I had, and now three weeks later some of them are hard to bring back to full recognition. I hope that sharing this with others will help keep this alive for me and cause others to consider what they can do to serve other people. I'm sure that all of us have done some acts of service for others - try to remember the joy that brought to you.

My Challenge

I close with a challenge to everyone who reads this. Even if you do it for the "selfish" reason of bringing joy to your life know that you will also bring joy and help to others - if you follow through. Watch for opportunities to serve others. Make it personal, find someone, close or far, who you can help. Do something, big or small, to help someone else. And do it often. I believe that keeping it personal will bring the most benefit to you. 

It is possible to provide help in other ways. Consider following one of the links at the top of my story and donating to these organizations to help their causes. Or find an organization close to your home, or that focuses on an issue that you are passionate about. Many of these organizations are able to make great things happen when they have enough support. 

I know that you will feel the joy of this service and others will benefit from it. It will make your life, your community and the world a better place!

Please remember to share your experiences and let others know of the experiences you have. We'll all be better for that!

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