In April I took a different kind of vacation. For three weeks I volunteered in El Hato, Guatemala, for Las Manos de Christine. Wow! It was a great experience!
Las Manos offers many types of volunteer opportunities. I think they would have been willing to let me pick my favorite choice, but I offered to work on whatever project needed the most help. That turned out to be a lot of different things!
Project #1: When I arrived, Las Manos was conducting EFL (English as a Foreign Language) assessments of the children in its program. Assessments aren’t glamorous, but they are very important to any teaching program. If there is no improvement, then what’s the point in teaching? Las Manos wants to conduct these assessments annually to ensure that they are accomplishing their primary mission. So for my first few days I talked to a steady stream of English-learners, and this is how I started to get first hand knowledge of what a great bunch of students there are in El Hato. They’re enthusiastic, friendly and cheerful. What a good group of people to spend time with!
Project #2: Las Manos also sponsors and runs the school library. So whenever I had a spare moment, I helped out categorizing their many donated books and organizing the library as needed. Again, this might seem to be a mundane task, but it was made fun by the company of the Salina, the director of Las Manos, and Alejandra, the Las Manos librarian, who both shared in the job. And it was made gratifying because I got a chance to witness just how important the library is to the El Hato students. Near the library there was a constant din from students wanting to come in and use one of the computers, or peruse the books, picking one to borrow. The families of El Hato don’t have a lot of economic resources, so buying books isn’t a big priority in their households. Consequently, that book that each child can borrow is a lifeline to literacy.
Project #3: The more advanced English students in El Hato are participating in a pen pal program with a school in United States. Patrick, the head English teacher at that time, asked for my help in cleaning up the letters. We didn’t want to change their content – we just wanted to make sure that the pen pal in the United States would understand what was being said. Again, this doesn’t sound that exciting, but in reality it was a real eye opener, because it gave me the opportunity to learn about the things that were important in the lives of the El Hato kids. I didn’t read complaints about how little money they had, or about how the water doesn’t always work. But over and over again I read about their love of family and their appreciation of the natural beauty that surrounds them.
Project #4: The El Hato school has a roomful of old, slow, donated desktop computers. Despite their age, these computers are a great resource for the students. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to access the internet from El Hato, but Las Manos has worked with another NGO to install local servers that have a complete copy of Wikipedia, among other knowledge-bases. These servers provide the students with a wealth of information – the next best thing to having the real internet to use in their class projects. Unfortunately, every time the students fired up their web browsers to access this information, the browser went off into never-never-land looking for the real internet. Minutes later, when the browser finally gave up, the students could access the local server. So I painstakingly reconfigured every possible browser so it went directly to the local database. It wasn’t too difficult, but it was a very slow and tedious process given that most of the computers are torturously unresponsive. But now the students can get right to work instead of waiting forever to access their databases.
Project #5: My favorite project was helping out in the preschool. Las Manos established the preschool in El Hato, although it is now taught by Dora, a wonderful teacher from the public school. About 35 children are enrolled – an indicator of how successful the Las Manos preschool project has been. The residents of El Hato have embraced this extra year of education for their children. But unfortunately there is only one teacher for those 35 students! (Admittedly, during my time there only around 25 kids showed up each day. But that’s still a lot of 3- and 4-year-olds for one teacher!) So Dora was very happy to have my help for a couple weeks. During that short time I came to appreciate Dora’s quiet style of teaching, and was also totally impressed by those young students. They are full of joy and a love of learning – and so much better behaved than preschool children in the United States! I was floored when I saw how they handled their responsibilities – for example, cleaning their tables and cups after their morning meal. It was a real joy to be a part of their learning experience.
I would have been totally happy with my trip to Guatemala if all I had done was help out in El Hato. But I also thoroughly enjoyed the sights and sounds of Antigua. This little colonial town is a wonderful tourist destination. The people are friendly and the town is beautiful – a wonderful place to learn Spanish or salsa dancing (or both). And it was no coincidence that I was there during Semana Santa, the premier week of tourism for Antigua. The festivities of Semana Santa are nothing short of incredible. I saw innumerable processions and alfombras, but never lost my sense of awe when I saw one more.
Go to Antigua and volunteer with Las Manos de Christine! It’ll be an unforgettable experience.