Students Serve Others in Guatemala

March 13, 2014

Exchanging warm showers for dirt-caked bodies, clean work gloves for blistered hands and comfortable living for a week in a developing country, students at the University of Mount Union traded in Spring Break at the beach to serve others.

As part of Dr. Steve Kramer’s Social Responsibility and Personal Well-Being course, 12 students traveled to Guatemala March 1-8 to build houses for those in need. Through the foundation Organization for the Development of the Indigenous Maya (ODIM), the group raised enough money to pay for the construction and labor costs of two houses.

Volunteer Coordinator for ODIM Joel Enright first met the Mount Union group at the airport in Guatemala City, ready to tackle a week of service.

“Working with the students of Mount Union was a wonderful experience,” Enright said. “Each one came to Guatemala with enthusiasm to learn and work, and also were really open and accepting to the differences between the U.S. and Guatemalan culture.”

The work was much more challenging than the students expected. Their endurance was put to the test as they dug three-foot holes and cut cinder blocks with machetes, used pickaxes to create trenches and mixed and poured cement, all while under the hot Guatemalan sun. However, the experience was also much more rewarding than the students anticipated.

“The work was difficult and tiring, but our students had a great attitude and work ethic,” Kramer said. “It was obvious that they gained much from the experience in addition to giving much.”

More important than building houses, the group built relationships. Special bonds were formed not only with each other, but with the children, families and workers in Guatemala as well.

“They all made the effort to interact and befriend the people they worked with [in Guatemala]. By the end of the week, they were even said to be considered ‘family members’ by the mother of one of the houses they helped to build,” Enright said.

The Mount Union group grew especially close to the mother/daughter duo of Paulina and Camilla, who brought smiles to the students’ faces and tears to their eyes as they expressed their gratitude for help on building their future home. Paulina stated that while she had nothing to give, she was praying to God for blessings for the students and their families. Along with their thanks, the family worked persistently alongside the crew each day.

“The people we got to work for and with were very humble and hardworking at all times; I feel that is a great characteristic to have in life,” junior Joshua Scott said.

Time not at the construction site was spent learning about Mayan culture and exploring Guatemala. The students had an opportunity to visit the Mayan Ruins of Iximche, a women’s weaving cooperative and a coffee farm, where they each got to sip on a cup of coffee while enjoying the breathtaking view of nearby mountains.

Another highlight of the week was listening to the unique sounds of a Mayan performance group, who continues to fight to keep their culture alive through music. One member stated that while they formed their group 13 years ago, they became musicians at birth, when they first cried.

“ODIM helped to provide a variety of interesting experiences that enabled us to see different aspects of their culture in operation,” Kramer said.

Senior Rachel Smith stated that she wished they could bring the attitudes of the Guatemalan people back to the United States.

“There was not a frown in sight when we were there. Even though they do not have much, they appreciate what they do have and live with a smile on their face. I wish that people in the U.S. were like the Guatemalans and did not take everything they have for granted,” Smith said.

When asked to describe the trip in one word, students chose empathy, exhilarating, emotional and life-changing.

 “In one week, I made great friends that feel like family now because I was able to step out of my comfort zone,” said Scott. “I challenge Mount Union’s campus to step out of their comfort zone for change.”

The students arrived home with sun-tanned faces, full hearts, new friends and appreciation for the Guatemalan culture and beautiful perspective of the Mayan people.

“I think they will remember this experience for a long time,” Kramer said. “Guatemala and the Mayan Indians will long have a special place in their hearts.”

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