While I may have travelled to Guatemala alone, I left my Guatemalan family behind when I returned to Arizona. Not only were the staff at Asociacion Ninos del Mundo welcoming and helpful, they also laughed at my mis-conjugated jokes and set an example of compassion in their treatment of the children. On my first day, Director Leonel Aragon explained to me the importance of our work at the school--he told me that all of their students live in poverty, and that many of them experience neglect and physical, verbal, or sexual abuse at home. Thus for six weeks I went back to preschool, except this time I was making breakfast for adorable toddlers, helping to clean the school, and, my favorite, hugging on those kids as much as possible. The children at Ninos del Mundo made all the early mornings and bathroom duty worth it. They helped me with my Spanish and were always smiling, reminding me that happiness is priceless. Some afternoons the older kids came for lunch, and they were extremely curious about the U.S. and also enjoyed hugging.
The mission set me up with a family in Antigua, Guatemala, who rents out rooms in their home. Dona Lucia and her family were very welcoming, I ate every meal with them and they helped me adjust to life in Antigua. They gave me directions, showed me Antigua’s landmarks, and welcomed me into their family, even putting “Bienvenidas Jessi” on my wall before I arrived. It was a fantastic opportunity to be immersed in the language and culture, make local friends, and sample Guatemalan cuisine.
In addition to volunteering at the school, I was researching sustainable agriculture in Guatemala and starting a garden for the school. Director Leonel was very helpful in the setting up of my personal project; he went to buy the seedlings I needed and set up a meeting with an experimental farm for me.
With the mission, Bishop Joe Catrambone and I spent a week in San Luis Peten, where I experienced life in a small town in the jungle. That life included times when town officials would turn off the water randomly and lack of air conditioning, and the family we stayed with were well-off compared to many other citizens in the region. There, as well as in San Juan del Obispo, the need for our mission was painfully clear. There wasn’t a moment in Guatemala that I felt my actions weren’t making a difference. In Guatemala, with the Ninos del Mundo mission, I led an impactful life.
For another two weeks of my trip, I travelled around Guatemala, hitting some of its most beautiful tourist attractions. For that part of my adventure, my older brother came from Arizona so we could explore Guatemala together, as we were born there. We saw the magnificent Tikal and Yaxha ruins, swam in the dazzling blue pools at Semuc Champey, and kayaked to Castillo de San Felipe, a fort built to keep pirates out of Lago de Izobal in the fifteenth century. By the time of my brother’s visit, Antigua had become my second home, so I was ecstatic to show him the historical city. Also, we can now say we climbed an active volcano, Volcan de Pacaya, and roasted s’mores with molten lava.
My trip to Guatemala changed me; it made me more compassionate, gave me a taste of independence (I’m eighteen), and taught me about myself and my dreams for the future. Volunteering in Guatemala opened my eyes to another world and was an unforgettable experience that I would undoubtedly recommend.