And they're off
Guatemala here we come
The 11 intrepid travelers boarded a plane in Atlanta traveling to Guatemala City, Guatemala, where we will work with children at Safe Passage (Camino Seguro in Spanish). Safe Passage is an educational program that helps children and their parents improve literacy, both Spanish and English, learn marketable skills, and model healthy living.
The families Safe Passage serves all live by, and work in the second largest dump in the world. 'Working' means scavenging for salable or recyclable trash from all over Guatemala City, including medical, biohazard waste, and dangerous chemicals. The dump full of dangers as well including: people are run over by earth movers; workers becoming trapped in land falls; getting cut or hurt by the debris; and catching all sorts of diseases due to the chemicals and noxious waste. In addition, a fire, that began in January, deep within the garbage, continues to burn.
The families here live on an average of $3.00 a day (what we pay for a large latte). Illiteracy and drug use are rampant. Safe Passage and programs like it are literally the only hope these families have.
Earthquakes near the border with Mexico and a growing “narcogang” problem, along with the fact many of the children entering the United States illegally are from Guatemala have put the country in the media lately. One question I am asking is if any of Safe Passage’s kids have made the dangerous trip north.
I’ve been asked if it’s safe for us to go. If it wasn’t, I would not let our folks, let alone my wife, go. We will be staying in the city of Antigua, about 45 minutes away in the mountains. Antigua is a very historic city and gets a lot of its revenue from tourists. It is really quite safe. Every day, a private bus will pick us up and drop us at the door of Safe Passage. We will stay in the school unless we’re on the bus. We will always have a guide (read: guard) with us. Our daughter Stephanie worked there for 4 months and was well protected. So, with a little common sense, we will be fine.
Please pray for our mission team daily. We are: Carley Bailey, Andrew Monroe, William, Charles and Thomas Speaks, Missy Via and Aiken Via-Hamlett, Billy McLemore, Harrison Black and Kari and I.
We’re going to try to send a “blog” to our website each day so check it out regularly. We’ll also have a “show and tell” program later in the summer.
Thanks for your prayers and support.
We made it!
We made it to Guatemala! About half our team (the three Speaks boys, Billy McLemore, Missy and Aiken) got to sit in first class along with getting a first class meal! While the rest of us got thrown a cold turkey sandwich and were crammed in with everyone else. We met our driver, loaded up the van, and made it to Antigua in one piece! We had a chance to walk around and explore a bit, went to the grocery store, and had a wonderful dinner! Great start to a wonderful trip!
Andrew Monroe and William Speaks
We started our morning off with a great buffet breakfast in the hotel courtyard. As we walked around town we were able to see a local marathon for a celebration of the patron Saint of Antigua. Later we attended the Catholic Church service of La Merced. The tall boys thought it was humorous that the congregation starred at us as the fare skinned giants walked down the Isle to receive communion. Also we found it funny that there were old women half our size. The little kids dressed up in their Sunday clothing were to die for. We then went to lunch at the authentic Guatemalan restaurant next door to our hotel. All the food was great! Now the group is taking a little rest before we go explore the big markets around the area.
From all of us!
Charles, Andrew, and Thomas
This morning we watched a movie about the mothers of the children of Safe Passage and the hardships of being a single mother. We received our Safe Passage team shirts and drove into the capital. When we got to Safe Passage, we met the students of the high school class that we will be working with. After, we went to a cemetery that overlooked the dump. The dump was shocking because of all the people that worked in the dump itself and it smelled rather nasty and huge. Then, we headed back to Safe Passage and met with the English program coordinator and the executive director of Safe Passage. We then went to lunch which included rice milk and cinnamon to drink and a rice and vegetable soup with tortillas on the side.
After lunch we went to the Jardin Infantil to play with the little children, which were the 4-6 year olds. After we played with them we listened in on one of their music and movement class where they learned all of the planets in the solar system. Then we played a game where we held one or two of the kids hands and ran, skipped, tip-toed, etc around the room.
After class we went back outside and viewed some of the housing surrounding the school. There was a mix of permanent and temporary housing. It was fascinating to see how beautiful the school was among such harsh conditions. It reminded us of the dump in a way because the harsh dump was surrounded by beautiful landscape. Then we went to where a group of moms that worked at Safe Passage at a place called Cremos. where they make jewelry out of the paper from the dump. They also sew there. They have taught these women how to sew and by the 2015 school year they are planning on having the shirts made by those women. Then we went to meet the 4th graders we will be working with and we learned their names and we played games. Right before we left we went to a fruit stand and had the best pineapple in the world.
Today we were at the little kids classes where we played with the children at recess. It was fun but tiring. We went over colors and numbers. I have adopted two Guatemalan children, but I can't figure out a way to tell my wife.
Harrison B. Black
Snot, spit, and a couple of rough kicks.
Kids are kids whether in Guatemala, Paris, or Montgomery. They want to be loved, they want to have fun, they want to feel some connection with someone who cares about them. That's what we did today. We taught the kids numbers and colors in Spanish. We participated in their dance. We helped them draw and we played with them.
I held a few of them when they cried and even broke up a fight today. They best part was letting the kids push me and others on the swing. They climbed on us and as kids do got their snot and spit on us. They were mesmerized by my watch and someone reset the date and time. I even survived a few hits and kicks. All in all not a bad day.
Why did you want to go on this mission trip?
"Why did you want to go on this mission trip?"
Here are their answers:
Billy has always wanted to go on a mission trip.
Missy wanted to see the culture and wanted to show her daughter how the people in Guatemala live.
Aiken came on this trip because it is a new experience.
Harrison has wanted to do a mission trip since college and specifically one outside of the U.S. The timing was just right for this trip.
Fr. Bob Hennagin
Fr. Bob wanted to stretch the congregation into new areas of ministry, and he wanted to come to Guatemala for the food.
Kari wanted to share the mission experience with the folks at Holy Comforter and specifically Safe Passage. It is such a great organization!
"I wanted to come on this trip because I am a social worker by profession and have always wanted to see if international social work is a possibility. Also my girlfriend, Carley, and I have been interested in helping children all over the world."
Carley wanted to come on this mission trip because she thought it was the right time and never had been on an international mission trip and excited about being a part of starting something new at Holy Comforter.
William has always been interested in mission work, especially internationally. He enjoys the process of touching lives less fortunate and spreading the love of God. This trip seemed like a perfect way to do that.
Thomas has always wanted to go on a mission trip, and this was the perfect opportunity to make a difference in these kids life. By teaching them English and numbers and colors and spreading God's love.
Charles has always been interested in mission because he has heard from his friends about what an amazing and life changing experience, not only for yourself, but for the children that you work with.
It was my birthday and Jessa gave me a pie. Everyone sang happy birthday to me in Spanish and English. We went to dinner that night, Jessa sent a few of us to the terrace to look at the view. When I came back downstairs there were about twenty five balloons on the table. It was a great birthday.
We had a great day in Guatemala. Our driver, Ismael and team coordinator, Jessa, picked us up at 7:45, and we made the 45 minute drive over to the CRE, Centro Reforzamiento Educativo, which is the after school program for the older kids.
Things were a little chaotic at first. We started visiting different classrooms, played games, made art, chatted. Harrison and I spent time with a 15-year-old named Carlos. He loves playing chess, listens to Mozart and wants to visit Russia.
Jessa says the goal in having us here, interacting with the kids, gives them an opportunity to speak English. If the children can learn English, they have a better chance finding jobs out side of the dump ... call centers and the tourist industry being the top two.
At one point we met with a social worker, Oscar. a super cool guy, he explained the process.
We sat in traffic for two hours even though we left at 6. There was a protest by some of the transportation people. We had a great time implementing our crafts as well as assisting with the English classes.
We were able to get pineapple with lime and frozen bananas after lunch. One of my favorite kids, Arturo, found out that he's not going to the water park on Saturday with us and started to tear up. It's amazing to see the attachments from in such short amount of time.
We went to dinner at rainbow cafe and took one of the tutors with us named Tony. He was very interesting. We went back to the hotel after dinner. We are so tired and have no early day tomorrow.
Today was our free day, or so it's called. We left at 6:00 am to go to the volcano Pucaya about an hour from Antigua. The idea is to climb up to the main lava flow (about 6,000 feet), and then back down. They do have horses for the less able. After 50 feet up, I decided to show the rest of the team it was okay to admit that riding wasn't so bad after all
Six of us rode and five hearty souls trekked up the mountain. The views were unbelievable.
The volcano erupted in 2010 and sent hot lava and ash 600 meters in the air. The ash was so thick, that an entire town was covered killing all the livestock, but no people. It erupted again this last March, but it wasn't so destructive. It left a huge lava field that is still smoldering. In fact, we roasted marshmallows over some of the lava holes.
We have traveled around some of the most beautiful places on earth and some of the most heart wrenching poverty. But mostly we've seen beautiful people that live, love and work with amazing enthusiasm.
Tomorrow we're taking the 4th grade class to a water park. One last adventure with these kids we have come to love.
So today was my birthday as well as our day at the water park. The day started off by the group surprising me with a very thoughtful card. We had so much fun hanging out with the kids and going down all the big slides. We also had a blast in the wave pool. I was surprised at lunch with balloons and the kids singing happy birthday. We then took the kids back to the school and headed back to Antigua. Carley and i bought some gorgeous watercolors at the park. We went to dinner at Sombremesa. The owner, Alex, was a character and actually graduated from Auburn. He is an artist and novelist. It was one of my most memorable birthdays and my first in a foreign country.
Well, we're back. Sunday started with some last minute shopping ("Oh no, I forgot to get something for Aunt Zelda"). Then it was time to say goodbye to our hotel staff and our team guide, Jessa Coulter.
We loaded our luggage on the top of a Nissan bus they don't sell in the US. I looked at the pile of stuff tied to the roof and couldn't help think of the opening credits to "The Beverly Hillbillies". One last drive up and down and back up the mountains, and we made it to the airport.
We waited in 3 ridiculously long lines and made it to the plane just as they announced boarding. After an uneventful flight (my favorite kind of flight), we arrived back in the good ol' US of A. Customs was very easy and we were on our way home.
I know there's going to be at least one more entry to this blog talking about what the experience has meant to us, so I'll wait for that one. I do want to take this time to thank everyone for their prayers and support. It was a tough trip at times and knowing you were there for us helped a lot.
We also want to thank everyone who supported us financially and some folk who have helped us in other ways, especially Terri Via and Diane Harbin for the administrative support; Rosine Hall for recording music; Betty Bryan for her tireless work on the Rummage Sale and Michael Paul for posting the blog and other media support.
I truly believe we did God's work. I'm proud of the team, and of the congregation that empowered us to do it.
We asked each member of the team to answer the following questions:
1. Please describe your Safe Passage “moment,” the moment that really stood out to you while working at Safe Passage.
2. Please describe your Guatemala “moment”. What really hit you or something special about Guatemala?
3. Anything else you would like to add about our trip that really touched you.
Here are their answers
The entire experience was wonderful which makes it difficult to choose my favorite moments, so what “Guat” ones do I share? As soon as we stepped out of the airport I was in awe of the culture, beauty and obvious familial bonds in Guatemala. The beauty of the city’s architecture was only amplified by the people; I loved seeing gatherings of people doing any number of things from just enjoying each other’s company to having big celebrations in the central park. I was apprehensive about the language barrier, but after the first few minutes with those involved in the program, all my fears vanished. I realized you don’t need to speak the same language to make a difference, to communicate, or to love someone. Immediately I fell in love with the children, and it brought me such joy to see that we could offer them some kind of escape from their reality. The social worker, Oscar, reinforced this when he said that the kids really do appreciate and love us coming to spend our time with them because they know we could be anywhere else in the world vacationing, yet we chose to be there and work with the kids.
When we took the kids to the water park, one of the little boys, Domingo, was collecting all of the soda cans left on the table by the group When Andrew pointed this out to me, it made my heart hurt. This kid felt he had to work and collect the cans to help his mother because that is one of the items she collects from the dump. It was hard seeing him not be able to enjoy just being a kid and not having to think about work or how his family would be able to eat.
Which brings another thing up from that day; I looked over, and multiple kids were not eating. They were just wrapping up the chicken to take home, because they did not know when the next time was that they would be able to eat between then and Monday when they got to Safe Passages.
A lot of things had an impact on me and my overall perspective. It seemed like what we would classify as simple gestures such as a smile, hug or handshake are things these kids are desperate for; they just want attention and to feel loved. The trip felt like the longest days but the fastest week of my life. I had a really difficult time leaving and can’t wait to go back. Jessa, thank you for helping show our team the true meaning behind the missions and goals of Safe Passage as well as my new favorite snack, pineapple with lime juice on it!! Until next time Guatemala.
My Guatemala moment was actually seeing the people in the dump running behind or beside the trucks. My Safe Passage moment was having the children at the Escuelita push me on the swing, and then have them fall asleep; just reinforcing that the children just want to be loved and cherished.
I sat next to an older student who smelled of urine, and I taught her English. It was so important to her to learn, even though she didn’t have clean clothes or a place at home to bathe. I'm glad we were able to attend a service at La Merced (Catholic Church in Antigua). Also, a group of us got to listen to an Antigua Gospel concert at the square. It would have been nice if the entire group or those who were interested were able to attend, but we just stumbled upon it.
I was playing with a little boy at recess, and he lifted his shirt. He had whip marks all across his stomach. When the little boy saw how shocked I was, he got embarrassed and quickly pulled his shirt down. This was just a five-year-old little boy. This was almost too much for me.
A great Guatemala moment was the volcano. I loved hiking down the volcano. Hiking up was very difficult. Our guide was so sweet and so much fun. I couldn't even hike all the way up the volcano, where as our guide said she did it several times a day!
Fr. Bob Hennagin
My Safe Passage moment was seeing a boy I meet last time I was there. Last time, he was hiding in the corner of a playground cubbyhole and wouldn't come out. This year, he was playing with his friends and recognized "Santa Claus" (me.) He's still a troubled little boy, but he has come so far.
My Guatemala moment was looking at the city dump with all its ugliness and horror, while some of the most beautiful mountainscape loomed just above. Oh, and the food.
My Safe Passage moment was when I saw a little boy that I had met on a previous trip at the Escuelita (the school for ages 2 yrs old to 6 yrs old.) Two years ago this little boy was a trouble maker; he wouldn’t sit still. He had caused a lot of problems with the other kids. Now he is much calmer, concentrates better, interacts with the other kids, and, in general, doing great! I think that is a testament on how Safe Passage is helping the kids. Wow! It blew my mind watching him.
My Guatemala moment is always the same. I love the country and the Guatemalan people. They are the hardest working people that I have ever met. They don’t beg! They find work wherever they can, and will do whatever they can to take care of their families. You see whole families living together, working together, playing together, and taking care of each other. I have so much respect for that.
On this trip my other moment was when we were sitting on top of the volcano! Wow! What a view! It took my breath away! Guatemala is one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of going to. I am so proud of our team. Everyone was really in the moment and did whatever was asked. Everyone on this team really put themselves out 100% in whatever we were doing! Even when it was something they really didn’t want to be doing or when our bus broke down! No complaints! Just made the best of whatever was thrown at us! They really represented Holy Comforter well. We should all be proud!
I would say the Safe Passage moment was the immediate connection we made with the kids at recess. It was awesome to know how much we were needed, but it was heart wrenching too because I knew we were only there for a week. I know there is more we can do in bringing awareness of the problems of that area, and dollars to help the kids. The connection was immediate and language was not a barrier. The kids were just being kids for awhile; running, playing, jumping, and having fun. All of the people in our group were playing with the kids, and to see the connection was pretty awesome. I found out that the conditions these kids live in was horrible, and the violence they see at home was not good; but now it was recess, and they could forget about their home life for a little while.
My Guatemala moment was when we were in Antigua and watching the people move around the city streets. In Antiqua the roads are cobblestone. It was part of the charm of the city though. They were not the best for driving motorcycles and scooters on.They even had things called a tut-tut, which is like a small cab. It was like a three wheeler vehicle with canvas stretched around it. Motorcycles in Guatemala could also ride in between cars if the cars were stopped. Sometimes they just passed cars because they were going too slow. Also, they did not seem to have helmet laws for motorcycles. It was a little chaotic when it came to driving, but surprisingly there were few accidents. You just have to go on the Mission trip to understand the problems and the Beauty of Guatemala.
My moment was when I was sitting at the Escuelita on the playground and noticed it is the opposite of the dump. It is beauty among poverty, with the dump as poverty among the beautiful scenery.
My Guatemala moment was the beauty of the country as well as the resiliency of the people there. Another thing that really touched me was while we were at the water park. The kids were putting their food into napkins to take home as well as one child picking up cans to take home. It made me really think that even when the kids are having fun, in the back of their minds, they realize that they are not sure when their next meal will be.
This was one of the best experiences of my life, and I realized by going on this trip, I have a genuine interest in helping people around the world.
My Safe Passage moment is when we went to the Esculita on Monday and had recess with the kids. What impacted me so deeply was the fact that as soon as we got and opened the door to the playground, you were immediately grabbed by three or four children who wanted to play tag and be held. You could tell that the children really don’t experience love and compassion at home by their mothers and fathers and other siblings. So the first chances they get to have and feel that, they love it.
My Guatemala moment was the dump and how beautiful everything was above it and how terrible the dump was. The irony of the beauty of everything around it, and the horrific site of all the people in the dump digging through the trash; it really impacted me. Something else that was truly amazing to me was the volcano and triumph of hiking all the way to the top.
My Safe Passage moment was when we walked on to the playground at the Escuelita, and all to kids just came to you and wanted to be held.
My Guatemala moment was seeing how there was so much beauty above the dump and around the dump, but you look down, and it's the dump and people are scavenging though all of the trash.
First of all, the Guatemala Mission Trip was awesome, and was an experience that I will never forget. As for my Safe Passage "moment" though, I believe it came simply when I first met the kids of Safe Passage and saw how happy they were just to be there at school. It was so powerful to me to see these kids, with the lifestyles they live, come to school and forget every struggle they might have in the their "outside" world.
My Guatemala "moment" would definitely have to be the volcano, Pacaya. It was so beautiful, and was a great place to take a break from the mission work and reflect on what impacts we had been making the whole week. All in all, the people of Guatemala impacted me, and I hope I impacted them as well. I can't wait to go back!
Safe Passage experience/moment ... Our last day in Guatemala, we took the 4th grade class to a water park. We rode in a chicken bus to pick them up at Safe Passage. As we turned the corner, they started screaming with excitement, for some, this was their first time out of Zone 3. After swimming, they took long showers. I was told this would be the only hot shower most would have all year.
"My Guatemala" moment ... I loved every moment; the morning drive to Guatemala City; getting to know the staff and students at Safe Passage; evening dinners; hiking Pucaya; sitting in Parque Central with Aiken watching all the people.
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Church of the Holy Comforter
2911 Woodley Road, Montgomery, AL 36111