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A Life Changing Guatemalan Experience || Features

default article imageSpring break is one of the most exciting and adventurous weeks for college students out of the whole year. Students use this time to take a break from reality by relaxing with friends and family. A small group of three faculty members, four students and I had a different idea in mind when planning our break. We decided to step out of our comfort zone and make a commitment to serving the unprivileged living in Guatemala. This experience has now changed my perspective of life and will impact my future actions forever.   

Chris Hirschler, Ph.D., department chair of the Health and Physical Education department, traveled to Guatemala with students in Guatemala Public Health to work with A Better Life Foundation to help several Guatemalan families in Xela and women residing a domestic violence shelter. 

“This faculty-led, international travel course involves service-learning – we learn about issues in the classroom and then we engage with the community in a meaningful way. Graduates of the class have gone on medical school, PT doctoral programs, and MPH degrees and other impressive academic and career achievements, and the memories they carry, of the   heartfelt connections they made in Guatemala, are very near the surface,” Hirschler said.

This was the ninth year Professor Hirschler traveled with a group of students to Guatemala with a vision of creating a better life for Guatemalan families living in extreme poverty. In preparation for this service-learning experience, Hirschler assigned several readings addressing a number of different ongoing issues that the country is facing. Through the readings, we learned about violence against women, differences in healthcare systems, extreme poverty, and the history of the country. These articles gave me a good sense of the Guatemalan culture before arrival that helped me to adapt more quickly.   

While in Guatemala, part of our work consisted of teaching health lessons to women who are victims of domestic violence. The educational lessons we prepared were taught at the women’s shelter Nuevos Horizontes in a city called Quetzaltenango, commonly referred to as Xela (Shea-la).   

Women who have experienced any kind of violent abuse are sent by court law to stay in the facility until the conditions at their home are proven to be safe. When I first arrived to Nuevos Horizontes the facility did not look how I expected it to. Although the women are living in the shelter for their own safety, it can be compared to living in a jail. There was barbed wire surrounding the entire complex and not nearly enough room for activity. The lesson plans our class decided to teach included, self-defense, dance, paint therapy, healthy meal preparation, and healthy coping techniques.

Eva Apuzzio, a sophomore music industry student, and Elizabeth Gill, a freshman marine biology student, were the two students who decided to do their lesson on healthy meal preparation. While observing the lesson and talking with the creator of the organization A Better Life Guatemala, Archie Escobar, who is a long-time resident of Xela, and our translator for the trip, he mentioned the dreadful reality these women face. “The women are only provided with not so healthy foods like a lot of tortillas and beans. They never get the opportunity to eat meat,” said Escobar. My first thought process after hearing Archie’s comments was, how are the women going to maintain a healthy diet with such a small variety of food to choose from?   

      With that in mind, Eva and Elizabeth decided to teach them how to make meatballs. Later on during the lesson one of the women living in the shelter stated that, “It was her first time ever eating spaghetti and meatballs.” As the lesson went on it was revealed that it was a first for almost all the women in the shelter. By the end of the day, I had endured so many amazing feelings. Watching the women smile from trying meatballs for the first time and loving them was awesome.  

While in Guatemala, we also constructed bunk beds for families living in poverty. For every family that got a bunk bed, we also installed a Tiva water filtration system into their home. You never truly appreciate what you have until you experience what it is like to be deprived of everything, even the most basic human needs for survival. Yes, the readings prepared me for the trip, but nothing compared to physically seeing, smelling, and feeling what the living conditions for some families consists of. It opens your eyes to a new reality, a reality most of us here at Monmouth University are never exposed to.  

One of the major issues in Guatemala is scarcity of clean water, something so easily taken for granted in the United States. Tiva Water has the potential to change lives. Providing a way to clean water, at no cost, takes a huge financial burden off the families back. This means the extra Quetzals, Guatemalan currency, would not have to be spent on filtered water. That extra money can go towards more food or even over a period of time, a better education.

Alexa LaVere, a senior health studies student said, “Not only does this mean clean water but it means healthier living.” One of the most memorable moments of the trip occurred while the group was providing a bunk bed and water filtration for a woman named Rosa.

Rosa’s home was a very emotional part of the trip. She was living in a home that had dirt floors, no windows or lights. “There are times when I want to run away,” said Rosa. She explained how her children are the only reason she stays.   

Since the group was extremely touched and moved by Rosa we decided to spend some of the fundraising money we acquired to buy her fresh groceries, a kitchen table set of chairs, new bed sheets and reusable lights. Some of us have even taken it upon ourselves to reach out and help provide for her once a month.

We are currently trying to work with Archie to send money to Rosa so she can continue to live a little more comfortable than before. By doing this we hope to continue to have a positive impact on Rosas life. Providing her with monthly donations can help contribute to several things she struggles to obtain daily. With the money Rosa will be able to place some of her children in school if she pleases. This would be huge for Rosa and her family considering she has never been able offer that for her children before. Sophomore Eva Apuzzio added, “Making Rosa happy makes me happy, and I cannot wait to continue to provide for her.”  

Coming into this course I knew the worst part of the experience would be having to leave the work and people behind and continuing with my life here in the United States. My decision to help Rosa has thrown that misconception away and now Rosa will forever remain a part of my life. It is extremely rewarding to know that even after the trip has ended, I am still able to create a better life for someone in need. 

Not only did this trip better the lives of several local Guatemalans, but it also changed our lives. It made me reconsider how I want to go about pursuing my career goals. I have always known that I love to travel; it is in my nature to explore new cultures.

After visiting Guatemala, I have concluded that my calling is not only to travel the world, but to do so with the intent of making someone else's life better. Ekaterina Bronshteyn, an adjunct instructor of music and theatre arts, made an impactful speech towards the end of our stay. Something she stated that stuck out to me was, “It doesn't make sense to me how it is 2019 and there is still so much economic inequality.”

Her words are true and made my decision become even clearer. As I continue to live my life, it is important for me to know I did everything I could to make this world a better place.  

By the end of our stay, I became truly inspired by Nuevos Horizontes and the people of Guatemala. By this I mean inspired to become fluent in Spanish. Freshman Elizabeth Gill made a comment, “Not being able to speak the language makes things so much more difficult.”

This made me think about how the one thing I wish I could have changed coming into this experience is learning Spanish. The language barrier made conversation extremely tough. Every day we spent at the shelter I thought to myself, “If only you were able to hold a conversation with the women.” I would have been able to connect with them on a more personal level. Now I have become motivated to never be in that position again. I want to become fluent in Spanish.  

I highly recommend this course and experience to any student who is wishing to create change. Collaborating with A Better Life Guatemala was not like any other service-learning class. Jeffrey Wilhelms, a lecturer of sociology at Rutgers, described exactly what makes this trip stand out from any other service work trip.

He stated, it is because of “the immediate impact we made.” We were able to see the effects of our work as soon as we were finished.

Providing water filtrations for families who struggle to obtain clean water decreases their chances of getting a parasite instantly. Seeing the children jump into their new bunk beds with the biggest smiles, knowing they no longer have to sleep on a dirt floor was heartwarming.

I helped contribute to changing the lives of five Guatemalan families, making them significantly better. This trip will hold a spot in my heart for the rest of my life.