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posted: Wed, Oct 1st, 2014
First grade teacher Kelli White visits a school in Guatemala

Changing lives in Guatemala

The direct flight from Newark to Guatemala City, Guatemala lasted a touch under four hours. From there, it was an hour to the hotel in Antigua and another 20 minutes in the back of a pickup truck to the village. First grade teacher Kelli White had done her homework and had been prepped on what to expect.

Or so she thought.

What she found in that small town of Santa Maria de Jesus would change her forever.

Ms. White and 24 other volunteers were on a mission for From House To Homes, a Mount Tabor based organization that works to improve health care, education, and living conditions in the Guatemalan highlands. As a member of a team of a half dozen, she helped build a home for a family of seven. The concrete block structure measures 13 feet by 9 feet and has a concrete floor, a locking door, a window, and a corrugated metal roof. It doesn’t sound like much, but to understand what a gift this truly is you have to understand what daily existence is like in Santa Maria.

Santa Maria de Jesus

Life is hard in the poor rural village that sits in the shadow of Volcán de Agua, a towering volcano that has been hibernating for 500 years. Yet despite their circumstances, the people of Santa Maria are happy and thankful. It's a paradox that simultaneously challenges our first world sensibilities and gives high praise to the benefits of a simpler way of life. 

Every day here is a struggle to survive, to acquire the basic necessities of life. Most homes are made from corn stalks, some incorporating salvaged wood or metal. They’re more akin to huts than what we’d consider houses, something you’d see on “Survivor” or re-runs of “Gilligan’s Island.” They have bare dirt floors and thatched roofs that provide slight protection against the elements.

There's no electricity or indoor plumbing; clean water is carried up in buckets or jugs from a well in the center of town. Many children work side by side with their parents in the corn or coffee fields to help the family scrape by. School is a luxury and privilege afforded to just a few. 

This is life not just for residents of Santa Maria or rural Guatemala, but for many of the people in the developing countries of South America. A house that can withstand the whims of Mother Nature, with a door that can protect what’s yours, with a real floor that stays dry… That simple thing is a godsend.

The experience        

The construction of the home for the Patan-Alcalon family took good old-fashioned hard work. Mixing and troweling mortar, moving cement blocks into position. Layer after layer. Hour upon hour. Two Guatemalans served as the lead builders and unofficial (and with mixed success) translators. 

Most of the experience, though, transcended the need for spoken language. Playing with the Alcalon kids and their friends, sharing meals with the family, and throwing candy to smiling village children in the morning from the back of a pickup truck on route to the work site are interactions that connect without words.

The volunteers showed their generosity and caring in so many other ways. They bought bags of items to give to the Alcalon family and villagers such as clothes, pillows, blankets, toys, chairs, rice, and pots and pans. The kids received markers, crayons, and notebooks. A visit to the local school provided much needed basics such as pencils and paper.

Every day the team members would stop at the local bakery and market to buy bread and food for the Alcalons. And at lunchtime, it was ice cream from the local ice cream vendor for as many people as they could find, young and old alike.

“These people have so little and yet are so happy,” said Ms. White. “They were so grateful for even the smallest things we gave them.”

As you might expect from an educator who has devoted her life to children, the most poignant moments of the adventure came while interacting with the Alcalon kids, particularly the youngest ones. Ms. White taught them a few words of English and how to write their names. Then there were those long afternoons blowing bubbles, throwing Frisbees, playing soccer, and jumping rope. 

“A favorite lunchtime game for the two younger kids was standing on a dirt hill and jumping off into my arms,” said Ms. White. “They would squeal with delight as they flew through the air.” 

The Alcalons – and entire Santa Maria community – had thrown open their arms for Ms. White and the rest of the team, and they were quickly embraced as part of the family. 

A lasting impact                           

When construction on the house was completed and the trip came to a close, the Alcalon family was presented with the key to its new home. There were hugs, and tears of gratitude and sadness as new friends said their goodbyes.

Ms. White wakes up each day with a completely different view of life and the world we live in thanks to those nine days in the Guatemalan highlands and the people of Santa Maria de Jesus. The From House To Homes team had changed the lives of seven Guatemalans and in doing so had changed their own. For everyone involved it was a lesson in appreciating what you have in the world. It was a reminder of our innate instinct to help one another, the importance of family and community in our lives, and the benefit that even the tiniest gesture can provide for people in need.

“I truly feel blessed to have had this experience,” Ms. White said. “These were the happiest and kindest people I’ve ever met and I think about the family all the time. When I talk about this trip I just breakdown and cry. At night, I wonder if they’re OK, if the kids are sick, if the house is helping them. You become so attached.”

Santa Maria de Jesus will no doubt see Kelli White again. Maybe next summer or the summer after. Giving is, after all, a gift itself.

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