Q&A: Student Volunteers in Guatemala
For the student volunteers out there: For an eye-opening travel experience, “voluntourism” (or volunteer work through travel) is a sure-fire way to lift the curtain on the well-trod tourist trail and get a closer look at local life while doing meaningful work, too. Earlier this year, south England’s Tudor Hall School sent ten 16- and 17-year-old students and three staff members to Guatemala to do just that—and left raving about the experience.
“Our main goal was to contribute something to a really worthwhile project and to discover more about daily life for people in Guatemala, their customs and language,” says Mair Forde, Tudor Hall’s head of Spanish. To that end, Viaventure coordinated a series of visits to Niños de Guatemala, a Dutch-Guatemalan non-profit with two primary schools located outside Antigua, a picturesque, colonial city. “The charity was perfect for us as we wanted to do something with young children,” says Mair.
The Tudor Hall volunteers helped out in variety of ways: They read books and played games with the kids, participated in music and textile classes, and helped paint a school courtyard, while brushing up on their Spanish, too. When they weren’t lending a hand, they explored some of Guatemala’s signature sights, such as Antigua, volcano-rimmed Lake Atitlán, the Maya towns of San Juan la Laguna and Santiago Atitlán, and the ruins of Iximché, where they experienced a Maya shaman ceremony. (Check out a version of Tudor Hall’s itinerary here.)
Keen to hear more about their “voluntourism” experience, we touched base with Mair when she and her group returned home. Below she shares her students’ favorite moments, why Guatemala’s a good choice for volunteers, and what pushed her group out of its comfort zone.
What goals did your group have as volunteers?
We wanted to raise money to donate to an organization, bring over classroom materials, help out the teachers (when possible), and run some workshops in the afternoons. We did all of those things. Many of our students are studying textiles at school, and a textile workshop was arranged. We also attended a “worry doll” workshop, which a mother at the school organized in her home. This was a cultural exchange we all loved.
What were the highlights of your group’s volunteer work?
Being with the school children and bonding with them so quickly. They were so open and welcoming and threw their arms around us when we arrived each day. We loved playing with them during their break-time and listening to them read in class. It was so sad when we had to say goodbye.
What was one of the biggest take aways from your group’s volunteer experience?
The school children have such fantastic imaginations and quickly taught us some of their playground games. The contrast between the resources we have at our school and the few resources they had at theirs was stark, yet they seemed more enthused by their education than many children in more affluent situations.
- How did your group react to its Niños de Guatemala visit?
We all left wanting to go back for more. We were impressed with the fantastic work the organization is doing and were delighted that more little girls are getting the chance to get an education in Guatemala.
- How did your students react to being in Guatemala?
They absolutely loved it. It is such a beautiful country and has so much to offer. The people are very welcoming, too.
- What made Guatemala good for group travel?
It’s not a huge country, so you don’t have to travel long distances. There are beautiful hotels and restaurants that cater well to groups and that can cope with serious food allergies and specific dietary requirements. There is something for everyone: ancient culture, legends, architecture, fabulous landscape, artisan textiles, lovely food, and the chance to go shopping!
- What were one or two highlights from the trip in general?
Visiting Lake Atitlán and crossing the lake by boat to the village of San Juan La Laguna. The town is a sort of paradise, full of artist cooperatives and very well-organized. Our students did an art workshop and learned about the Maya equivalent to our horoscope signs. We reproduced those symbols with the help of local artists. We also visited a women’s weaving cooperative where we saw a demonstration of the back-strap loom and learned how fruits and vegetables are used to make natural dyes. We went to the town of Santiago where we visited a shrine to Maximón and heard about the very strange legend surrounding this figure. It was definitely an experience you wouldn’t get in England!
- Were there any moments when your group was pushed out of its comfort zone?
On our last afternoon, we visited the De La Gente coffee cooperative. We had lunch in the home of a coffee producer and then walked to his plantation to pick coffee beans. The experience took everyone out of their comfort zone as we saw how hard the producers work for their money. The modesty of the house showed us the financial rewards are not great. Although our students seemed disconcerted at first, the family was so welcoming and the experience so unlike anything the students had done before that they soon responded by throwing themselves into it. It was a visit definitely worth doing and made all of us think about where our coffee comes from and whether people get a fair price for their labors.
- What tips would you share with groups traveling to Guatemala?
Use a company like Viaventure so you feel comfortable traveling and have someone on hand to sort out any problems that might crop up.
- What tips would you share with other groups looking to volunteer abroad?
Trust your instincts when you first make contact. If the people you talk to seem passionate about what they do and are well-organized, the chances are that your volunteer experience will be a successful venture.