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Feedback from Guatemala

Below you can read what former EXIS volunteers in Guatemala says about their stays there.

I am so incredibly thankful and I am happy I made the trip. I got to experience the life in a different culture, and I got to test myself. One can do more than one thinks.

Karolina made her dream to work as a volunteer abroad come true. Four weeks she taught english in a little town school, 2000 mtrs above sea level in the mountains of Guatemala.

– Karonlina

Two Canadian girls tell us of their experiences in a small village, where they took part in a vaccination programme:

We took part in a vaccination campaign in a small village close to Antigua.
The campaign was arranged by the Medical Health Clinic in the village and was repeated at regular intervals. We were to take some of the work load from two of the Guatemalan nurses, who went from house to house in the village. The nurses gave the children vaccinations, while we completed the health reports and gave information about cholera. We also distributed general information material about health and hygiene. The work took a couple of weeks. Our being there meant that there was more time to speak to the inhabitants of the village. The quality of the treatment was also increased. In some cases the mothers objected to their children being vaccinated. It was then necessary to explain how important the vaccinations were, and the children’s right to a good health.

The increased contact with the people meant that the medical health campaign produced better results than previously obtained. The campaign was a big success, and it was a great experience to take part in it. We have obtained a really good idea of the activities in the area of medical health and, at the same time; have obtained unique knowledge of the way of life in the small Guatemalan villages.

– Two Canadian girls

… about a morning at a centre for single mothers.

I worked at a centre for children with various problems – Centro de Bienestar Social- and took part in, amongst other things, painting a playroom. There was a nursery school where the parents paid 3 quetzales per month. The children got 3 meals a day. One morning when I was about to start work, a small boy, who had his arm in plaster, was missing. The leaders were surprised that he was not there. They explained that it may have been because the mother did not want his 4 year old brother and 2 year old sister coming to the centre. They asked if I would go with them to the mother’s home and speak to her about it. We went through the poor quarter, where lots of rubbish lay in the street. In the house we found the small boy and his brother and sister. They were very dirty and only half dressed. The little girl had diarrhoea. The mother was not there. We went into the room. On the stamped clay floor there were some old pots and two hard tortillas. There were no furniture only two wooden beds, in which there were some old clothes that served as mattresses. We decided to dress the children and take them with us to the centre. It was a hard job finding some clothes for them. On the way out with the three children, we met their neighbor. He told us that their mother did often not return home before ten o’clock at night. The children were left by themselves all day without anything to eat. Each night he heard the children begin to cry when their mother came home.

Another Canadian girl

Nuestros Ahijados

Yesterday I started to work as a volunteer for the Nuestro Ahijados institution, just outside Antigua, about 20 minutes from Parque Central. The institution is in a little village called San Felipe de Jesus.

I have been set to watch over a lot of small children, and it is just great!! Every child has a sponsor who pays 25 dollars every month, which ensures them education. The children have to come to school every day, if not they will loose their sponsor. These children really are fantastic. Yesterday I helped little Maria de Lourdes Perez Hernandez to write the letter “O”. When we finally finished, she felt we had become friends, and sang “ovales, ovales, ovales” during the rest of the afternoon.

The days are divided after the following schedule. The children come at 14.00 and begin their lessons and homework at 14.15 in a building that still is not completely finished. They sit on plastic chairs and at a table made of four piles of stones covered by a plate.

Even though it can be hard to make them do their homework in the beginning, they usually finish in time to start playing at 15.00. After 15 minutes break they either continue to do homework or can go to classrooms where some teachers try doing some creative teaching. The Guatemalan school system is still very much based on copying, and learning by hart, but the teachers try to change this attitude. Yesterday we tried for example to change some tin cans into music instruments, decorated them with flowers, paper and drawings. It was the last working day for one of the other volunteers, and all the children gathered with their “instruments” and sang a song for him. Quite touching! Especially because these children are smiling and happy all the time, they really love to play. If they don’t play together they find time to give us a hug and sit with us. They always greet us with a hug and kiss, even if we only have been there for two days.

It really is a good thing they have this place, so that they can forget about harsh live for a moment. Today Tina, our excursions guide Jean Pierre and I, drove in a little car with 10 children to some ruins in Antigua. We walked around on the lawn and the girls sat down and put flowers in my hair, and gave Tina a special looking hair-do. Afterwards we took them to a play ground where the children played and we watched them play on a very dangerous looking play thing. (Those things that make you sick of turning round faster and faster). Some of the shoe polish boys I know from the Parque Central joined us in our games.

The children are very obliging, well-mannered, and kind, but it can be exhausting to be with them during three hours. But then I probably will get used to it. At 16.00 the children get a snack, and these days it’s chicken soup, a cracker and of course the daily vitamin pill, which I have to distribute. Some of the children manage to take two and smile at me…I can’t get myself to grumble at them, especially not as it is for their own health. The chicken soup does not look very tasty, some big toes are floating around in the soup, but it is strong and healthy and the children finish each drop of it.

At home they probably don’t get that much every day, and the mere sight of them lying on the lawn afterwards, holding their stomachs, looking up at the sky, singing a song, makes be feel confident that I will be happy working for this institution “Nuestro Ahijados”.

– Joan

El Camino Seguro

A way to go – a hope to pursue

A horrible stench of rottenness hangs heavily in the streets. The heat is stifling. Big swarms of black vultures hover in the air. Observing, ominous and always ready to kill for something to eat. There is a constant noise from the rusty dustcarts. Honking their horns, telling that new cartloads of garbage are coming in. Garbage for the vultures, the dogs, the rats, but also for the thousands of people who live and work in the big refuse dump in Guatemala City, zone 3.

For nine year old Angelina Sofia, her life has been far from filled with high hope about a bright and shiny future. She lives in the outskirts of the enormous piles of garbage with her mother and 12 brothers and sisters in a little dark shed made of cardboard and sheet-metal. When the rainy season sets in and soaks the walls, they crouch together on the soaked mattresses while the flood is threatening to destroy their home.
So far no one in Angelina’s family has received any education. Because of the expenses of going to school in Guatemala, it hasn’t been possible to send either Angelina or her brothers and sisters to school. In stead she has had to go with her mother every day into the piles of garbage to look for food to eat or things to sell. Just like thousands of other children and adults have done now for generations.

Since January 2000, however, Angelina Sofia, along with 44 other children from the dumpster, has been given a chance to pursue the dream of getting an education. Through the project “Camino Seguro” the children have been secured school uniforms, pencils and papers and the possibility to earn points in order to receive for example a pair of new shoes, a schoolbag, a pair of trousers or a jigsaw puzzle.

The families connected to the program also receive a monthly bag of food in order to compensate for the food the children could have contributed with, had they been working with their families in the garbage. They can only receive this food package if they don’t miss out on more than three days at school each month or three days in the afternoon program. The purpose is to motivate not just the individual child but also the family on a whole to take responsibility for their lives. The idea is that they should attend school not for the sake of earning a pair of shoes but for their own sake – the sake of their future. Only this way will they be able to break out of the seemingly endless chains of poverty, which has oppressed these families for generations.
Above the piles of garbage floats the ever energetic and committed Hanley Denning, an American lady in her thirties. When she came to Guatemala three years ago it was as a teacher and a social worker for the program “Nuestros Ahijados”. The program has existed for nearly 10 years and has helped more than 4000 children and young people out of the slum, the abuse and hopelessness through continuous economic and moral support to obtain an education.

On a visit to the dumpster in zone 3, Guatemala City, Hanley couldn’t turn a blind eye to the brutal reality that came towards her. It overthrew her – small children with bare feet, cuts and bruises all over their little bodies, dragging along younger siblings, while looking for something to eat. Mothers – though most often fathers, who stay away from home for weeks, leaving the children without money or food. Young boys and girls who after many years of sexual and/or physical abuse have lost the spark in their eyes and the wish to live and thus try to escape from the misery by sniffing glue.

So this is how the project “Camino Seguro” started. As a non-profit, non-religious aid to the most exposed children in and around the big dumpster in the very heart of Guatemala City.

The idea is that all the children should have a sponsor somewhere in the world. Not only for financial support but also for mutual contact between the child and the sponsor family which could help motivate the dream of getting an education.

The program aims to give general knowledge to the children and has four teachers associated with it. Help with homework, art and sporting activities totally rely on volunteers from all over the world. The program helps children living on the streets in the area and sometimes the place resounds with many children’s happy voices.

– A former participant

A long way to go

Yet the program is young. There are no miracle stories but Hanley doesn’t give up without a fight. Experience has shown that street urchins CAN become doctors, and that orphans of victims of the 37 year long civil war CAN become lawyers and that care, attention and unbiased support CAN help a child out of the hopelessness.

The road is long and full of danger and children like Angelina Sofia will need much more than financial support for the years to come. More or less all the children suffer from one or another kind of mental instability. Despite their childlike bodies, their mind, their eyes, their whole appearance has been marked already by the hard life in one of Guatemala’s biggest slum districts. Therefore it is a struggle to go to school – why go to school if it means that you’ll have to go hungry all week? And how is it possible to do any homework under the sparing light of the street lamps when dad is beating the life out of mum.

The children enrolled in the “CAMINO SEGURO” project, however, have taken the first steps along the narrow but secure path – the path that might lead them out of the slum and the hopelessness – the path that might lead to an education.

– Hanne