Guatemala was much more than I expected. My first two weeks in Antiqua were fantastic. There is so much rich history and culture there. I took two weeks of Spanish classes and toured ruins, churches, coffee plantations and Mayan villages. My home stay was great – large typical middle class Guatemalan family. The accommodations were more “rustic” than I expected. I didn’t realize how low the standard of living is for a typical family there. I ate a lifetime supply of frijoles, rice and tortillas! School went really well. You learn so quickly when you’re immersed in the language 24 hours a day. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that there were many women my age at the school travelling alone! There was never a problem finding someone to go exploring or for coffee with. I think that like myself, the women are not just interested in seeing the sights. Studying at the school and doing a home stay gives you a first-hand opportunity to see how the people actually live: what they cook, where they shop for groceries (mostly fresh food at markets) how they clean house, do their laundry, how they raise their children . . . So rewarding!
The orphanage was another story . . . .
It was more of a state home where children were taken by the government because they were being abused (sexually or violently) or neglected or they were living on the streets and were picked up and taken in. Some had been turned over by parents who knew they simply could not take care of them. There was a high percentage of special needs kids due to the stigma that still surrounds it and the cost of caring for them. The sad thing though was that very few of the children were actually adoptable because they still had parents (who may or may not visit ever) leaving them set up to live in the orphanage for the rest of their lives.
I worked in the room with the toddlers and babies. I did a head count one morning . . . There was one woman who worked there and me looking after 18 toddlers (up to about age 4) and 11 babies in cribs. It was insanity! I felt shell shocked the first day or two – the three and four year olds would sit and pick lice out of the hair of the one and two year olds.
My contact at the organization told me “Don’t judge, just remember that they are doing the best they can with what they have” So sad, because what they have is so little. Nowhere near enough people (volunteers are sooo important) not enough supplies or equipment, not enough time to give any of the kids the attention that they need. The flip side is that the kids are warm, fed and relatively safe.
I had a lot to process when I got home and I’m still working on it to a certain extent. I did not move any mountains or even make any lasting changes but I have to believe that while I was there I made at least a temporary difference. One more baby was held when they got a bottle instead of just propping it in their crib, one more toddler got a hug, one more child got just a little attention or even had their diaper changed a little sooner than they would have.
I came home with a deep feeling of gratitude for all the little things that we take for granted here: warm homes, drinkable water, a bubble bath! Maybe that’s what I was supposed to learn from this experience. In the future I plan to take more Spanish classes and get my TOEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification so that when I go back I will be able to potentially make a lasting difference in some of their lives.
Marla MacMillan is a long time member of Fabulous@50 member. Generous not only with her time, she is always quick to volunteer with several organizations in the Edmonton area. Over the last few years she has made some incredible choices to improve her life. Going to Guatemala was just one of them.