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Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

VOLUNTEER INTERVIEWS | A Warm Touch of Humanity

Meet Jacob (pictured above on right.) High school student, musician, and life-changer. After consistently offering his small income to support a child through our sponsorship program, Jacob made the bold decision to take his involvement a step further. In 2015 he signed up for our volunteer trip to Guatemala with his musical ensemble of 18 students from Irvine, CA. Little did he know that this courageous decision would set him up for an encounter that would impact his life forever.


Hello Jacob, introduce yourself to our readers!

Hello, my name is Jacob, I’m a music dork who plays the viola and is obsessed with classical music.

Awesome, wish we could hear some of it! Tell us a little about the trip you took with Good Neighbors.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

After five hours of flight, our ensemble arrived in Guatemala and headed for our target city: Patzicia. Led by Good Neighbors Guatemala staff member Maribel, we immediately started building cookstoves for families in rural areas. After short greetings with overjoyed residents, we dirtied our hands with bricks, and mud, and started to build our first cookstove.

Traditional cookstoves in kitchens are very toxic: smoke from cooking fills the room, the family member’s eyes would burn, and it is difficult to breathe. I had assumed that cookstoves weren’t as crucial as other projects, such as building houses, but I was wrong. Cookstoves are pivotal to the health of the whole family. The process wasn’t as laborious as I had expected; we had teams of 7-8 volunteers  per cookstove which made the work enjoyable and relatively quick. Each day, we built two cookstoves, and vastly improved the lives of each of those families! We shed blood and sweat, but reaped the residents’ heartwarming thanks that motivated us to keep on serving the community.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

 

That’s so amazing! Were there any challenges you had to overcome through this experience?

On the fourth day of our trip, we hosted a concert for a high school run by Good Neighbors. The violins, clarinets, and violas set up on the stage, and as the time of the performance approached, the seats in the gym started to fill with friendly faces. I took out a little speech I had prepared, introduced our ensemble, and started our repertoire of five pieces.

Disappointingly, most of the audience seemed uninterested. In desperate need to entertain them, after the fifth song, I asked the audience, “Quien sabes Mario?” I was met with silence and I was shocked that they didn’t know who Mario was. I asked once again, “Super Mario?” The crowd suddenly became boisterous, showing unprecedented excitement.Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

I started to play the Super Mario theme song, and their faces remained astounded and excited. I continued with Titanic, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Frozen. Surprisingly, most of them knew these movies; especially during my playing of ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Do You Want To Build A Snowman?’ the crowd became wild.

This had to have been one of the most climactic moments of my music life: I was able to excite the whole crowd with the goofy musical pieces that I’ve often played for fun. My competitive side of music has been mostly in my view, but this was an opportunity to show my goofy side.

So fun!! Now, we heard that you had a really special encounter on this trip? Can you tell us what happened?

A few days before my departure to Guatemala, my mom told me that Good Neighbors had set up a meeting with Bryan, a boy I’ve been sponsoring through the Good Neighbors sponsorship program. My feelings were mixed: nervous, yet excited. I hadn’t considered that I might ever have the fortune to meet Bryan face-to-face, and now that this opportunity was so close, my eagerness grew.

After the concert, the rest of the group left to continue building more cookstoves, but I stayed with a Good Neighbors leader to meet Bryan. We walked down an underground path to the Good Neighbor local office. I slowed down, realizing how tremendous and significant this meeting would be.

When we reached the office, there was a young boy with short, spiky hair, waiting there. I reached out to him and hugged him tightly. He had grown so much since that picture Good Neighbors first sent me. Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

We couldn’t communicate fluently, but with my limited knowledge of Spanish and with some translation help, we started to talk about all kinds of random things: favorite colors, hobbies, subjects, foods, and every other possible thing that came across my mind.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

We walked around the neighborhood that Bryan lives in, and each step that I took with him seemed so unrealistically marvelous that I couldn’t help grinning. Bryan’s mother also came along, and gave me a hug and kept thanking me for coming.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

I’ve never felt so accomplished, satisfied, thankful, and proud. Our awkward conversation continued on, but each word we spoke touched me; everything seemed so unreal and too good to be true.

They kept on thanking me, but I should’ve been the one thanking them for being a source of encouragement and motivation every day. Meeting Bryan was probably one of the best moments in my life, and I will always treasure it.

These were the biggest highlights from my Guatemala trip that made it so meaningful and worthwhile. What I gained from this trip highly outweighed the laborious aspect; we exchanged our hard work for a warm touch of humanity. This trip was indeed an unforgettable journey, and I am very thankful to Good Neighbors that I’ve been given the opportunity to participate.


Incredible. Thank you Jacob for making choices that position you to make real, consistent change in people’s lives! We’re inspired by your story.

If you want to experience a warm touch of humanity like Jacob did, email us at volunteer@goodneighbors.org for information on our upcoming trips! You never know, you might just end up with your own miraculous encounter.

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VOLUNTEER JOURNALS | Unedited Lives of People

In 2015 Amy Chiu, a student from South Hills High School,  gave up part of her summer to fundraise and take a trip with Good Neighbors to Guatemala. Once there, Amy and her team spent long days in the sun building safe cookstoves to replace old units that were causing serious health risks for the families. But we’ll let Amy tell the story..


Nowadays, technological innovations seem to be updating faster than we can keep up, allowing us to view other parts of the world through the small screens of our electronic devices. However, what we see on television simply isn’t the same as what we can marvel at in person. Although we hear global news blasted from our car radios every morning, we don’t truly understand these problems with such big, scary-sounding words.

I wanted a taste of this experience firsthand by catching a glimpse of real world crises that others face. Thus, upon decisively signing up with Good Neighbors to volunteer in Guatemala by building cookstoves for the local villagers in Acatenango, I embarked upon a weeklong journey.

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An old cookstove

Constructing new cookstoves could make a significant difference in the lives of local villagers. In order to cook, families build open fires inside the rooms of their homes. This is especially dangerous for small children playing near the fires. In addition, the families are exposed to the smoke, which can cause lung-related illnesses, and young children who should be learning at school must spend long hours gathering large amounts of firewood instead.

Compared to the amount of wood needed for traditional cookstoves, the Good Neighbors cookstoves only needs one-third of that amount, and the smoke travels through a stone chimney connected to a hole in the roof. Not only can many health problems be prevented because the toxic smoke is eliminated, but children can also have more opportunities for a better education by not having to collect as much firewood throughout the day.

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A new Good Neighbors cookstove being installed

This trip ultimately broadened my perspective as an individual and taught me lifelong lessons that I will forever cherish. During my experience, there were countless moments that touched my heart.  

On the first day, after we arrived, all fourteen of us (including our Good Neighbors staff members and guides Esther and Jose) clambered out of the airport and into a van. (By the way, our driver would prove to become a regular James Bond with his insanely awesome driving skills.) We were, and I quote fellow volunteer Jason, “excited and nervous.” I pressed my face up against the window in anticipation, drinking in every detail. Our group stopped by the Good Neighbors Guatemala office for a quick tour and introduction (and our hotel DelSol) before we headed to Acatenango.

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Guatsquad with local school children in Acatenango after chatting with the students and challenging them to an intense game of soccer. We tried and failed at not looking like tourists.

During the first half of the drive out of Guatemala City, our surroundings resembled parts of Los Angeles. However, as the van carried us further out into the villages up the long, winding roads, we all quickly became mesmerized by the beautiful scenery. Everything was so…green. Our van moseyed up the mountain, and everyone seemed to be infected with excitement as we pointed out the rows of unending maize, oohing and aahing at adorable children playing. Young, rowdy boys piled into the backs of trucks laughed and waved at us.

When we finally parked at the side of a dirt road, Jose led our group to the very first house we would build a cookstove for. The piece of land was surrounded by a fence made of short sticks, and Jose swung the gate open, inviting us in. There was a cage full of chickens, and small chicks roamed freely. Before us stood a room with three walls and to our right stood another room half its size. There were no doors, and the floor was completely made of dirt.Amywork2

Everyone was assigned different tasks, and then we got to work by soaking bricks in water collected from a plastic barrel, sifting the dirt, and mixing the cement with a sticky syrup. We took turns asking the family questions in Spanish, who introduced their three children. Oldie was a bright little girl with wide eyes and an even wider smile who caught chicks for us to hold. Little Santo shy, but he occasionally rewarded our attempts at jokes with peals of laughter. Alfonso was quiet, with a mischievous sparkle in his eye.

With everyone pitching in, we managed to finish most of the cookstove that day.

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The next few days, we repeated the process of building stoves for different families in the community. Some lived higher up in the mountains, so to reach their homes, we hiked for fifteen minutes on steep roads. Others lived in the middle of the farmland, so we waded through the rows of maize. As we chatted with the locals, we picked up bits of Spanish phrases and learned more about Guatemalan culture. I found out that one couple had been married for fifteen years and the husband built a well from scratch in fifteen days! Their doe-eyed little girl, Dulce Maria, was bundled up in a Dora the Explorer jacket and their son climbed trees to pick fruits. The couple shared soda and local snacks with us.

Although each family had a unique story, I noticed a common theme that all the residents shared. There was an intangible element in the air, a feeling that I couldn’t quite put into words, until one night, when Esther asked us to share our thoughts in our daily evening reflections. As she spoke about teamwork and being good neighbors, I realized that what we had all been feeling in Acatenango was a strong sense of community.

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Bolique. The traditional Pueblo meal with Amy, Jason, Miles (from left to right)

Whenever we passed by anyone, each person always chirped a friendly greeting, whether it was “buenos dias” or “hola.” Strangers welcomed us to their homes with genuine smiles. Even when we were building stoves for one family, other friends would eagerly stop by to lend a helping hand. Though our Spanish was far from fluent, we connected with the children by playing games. In fact, the locals were so open and warm, when we spontaneously decided (encouraged mostly by Jason) to challenge a nearby school to an intense game of soccer (which the schoolboys won), the principal came out to take pictures!

Everyone wanted to share a piece of their lives with us- some families generously prepared traditional Pueblo meals of bolique and tamalitos; Maria passed around cups of leche con bananas as Mark, Shivani, and I painted her stove, and still others bestowed upon us blessings with tears in their eyes.

Building cookstoves became routine for me, but this meant the world to the families.

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My beneficiary family: Maria, the mom, Oldie, the daughter, Santo, the little boy, and Alfonso (not pictured). They were the first family we visited, and to my surprise, after a couple days, we came around full circle and I ended up at their home again with my benefactor tile.

 

AmySignWhen the trip came to the end, saying goodbye felt bittersweet. In about a month, the families would be able to use their new cookstoves. However, I had gotten to know them and my fellow volunteers so much more personally that I began missing everyone before we even left! I wasn’t ready to part with the beautiful land up in the mountains or the sense of inspiration the soaring skies gave me.

As we shuffled off the van and into the airport, I thought about how much Guatemala had changed me on the outside (I tanned due to my refusal to wear an adequate amount of sunblock and made friends with mosquitos) and on the inside, as I would walk out of LAX a completely different person.

When visiting a country on a volunteering basis, there are more opportunities to see the raw, unedited lives of real people. I went into the trip with the mindset of helping others, but I now feel that Guatemala helped me much more. Children were constantly laughing and found more reasons to beam than frown. They saw so much happiness in life and seeing them reminded me that choosing to view a situation in a positive light isn’t so hard. Even if we didn’t understand what anyone was saying, everyone we met showed us that a smile was the universal language for friendship.

It was a tough decision, but we eventually settled on thumbs up over peace signs. #girlsruntheworld

It was a tough decision, but we eventually settled on thumbs up over peace signs. #girlsruntheworld

There are different connotations associated with the word “neighbors.” Some immediately shiver at the sound of this two-syllable word, as recollections of controversial views and ancient tensions regarding the Your-Golden-Retriever-Desecrated-My-Garden war of 1930 resurface. Others beam fondly as they reminisce about the many “welcome” pies received upon moving into the neighborhood. Still others ponder, “Neighbors? What neighbors? The nearest store is a two-hour drive.” However, when I see the word “neighbors,” I think of people who may not know you very well, but are willing to share their stories with you.

During my experience in Guatemala, volunteering with Good Neighbors taught me much more about being a neighbor than I ever expected. So, from one neighbor to another, I urge you to challenge yourself to seize the day and change someone’s life- you never know, you might even change your own in the process.


Amy and her team completed a total of 13 new stoves, drastically improving the  living conditions and lifestyle of these families. Our neighbors in Guatemala who encountered this team will never be the same. But there is more work to be done! If you want to spend your summer like Amy did, email us at volunteer@goodneighbors.org for info on our upcoming trips!

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VOLUNTEER JOURNALS | Everything Was Shared

 

Meet John Seo (pictured above on right.) Avid reader and student of Tustin High School, John was one of several students who journeyed on a Good Neighbors volunteer trip last year. The location: Dominican Republic. Their mission: build new latrines for families affected by poor sanitation. But here’s the story in John’s own words.


In 2014, I went to Guatemala with six other students to build new cookstoves for families who suffered from inhaling toxic smoke while using traditional cookstoves in their homes. This past summer, we wanted to experience something different but also make an impact in people’s lives. So our team of eight volunteers went to help build latrines for homes in Chinguelo, a remote mountainous community and one of the project sites overseen by Good Neighbors Dominican Republic (GNDOM).

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John Seo (right) and the volunteers taking a break in the shade to cool off from the sweltering heat

The obstacles began at Las Américas International Airport. Extremely humid air coupled with the scorching heat was almost unbearable compared to the cool and breezy winds of Southern California. Drops of sweat rolled down our faces even before we stepped outside.

Although it wasn’t my first time going to a third-world country in Latin America, my expectations were blown away by the extreme poverty that struck the country. The extreme disparity between the wealthy and the poor was disturbing. It almost didn’t seem fair that, back at home, we lived in houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in one of the safest cities in the world, yet millions of people lived in poverty.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 2.4 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation facilities such as toilets and latrines. Poor sanitation is linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera and diarrhea, just to name a few. An estimated 842,000 diarrhea deaths around the world are caused by poor sanitation every year. Although the access to improved sanitation facilities has increased in the country during the past decades, rural areas still lag behind.

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A latrine the team was helping to build

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Volunteer Sam Yoon (left), helping a community member unload cinder blocks from a horse

We officially began work on the latrines on the second day, but the first day was just as challenging adapting to the new environment. As the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean shores always seemed just a few minutes away, most of us half-expected a small paradise, but the poverty stricken communities we passed by showed us the reality of the situation.

 

When we first met the families, something was quite different from ours. Families of 5-8 people were living in “houses” the size of our closets, yet not a single face showed discontent. The children were radiating with joy and excitement. It shocked us to see that even without the convenience of modern technology and video games, kids were still able to have so much fun.

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Bonding with children: Clarissa, Lina, Eileen and Lina’s little sister (from left to right)

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Community members, GN volunteers & staff in front of an almost complete latrine

More importantly, the sense of community the people shared was beyond anything we had seen in America. Every fruit, every soda pop, and every meal- individuals would come together to share the joy. Nothing was kept private and everything was shared. The trust and support for each other was even extended toward us, complete strangers to them. We worked side by side with them and they even invited us into their homes. With unconditional generosity, the families accepted us into their lives.

Geographically, most of the homes were separated over a mountainside, beyond a grassy plain, or across a river, yet the community’s concept of family stretched further than any border. Although the work we did there was more challenging than we experienced in Guatemala, we couldn’t have been more grateful for this unforgettable experience.

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John and his fellow volunteers left Chinguelo with one latrine fully completed, and three more built with finishing touches added after their departure.   This directly impacted the daily lives of four families, improving the health for over 30 people. Because of the volunteers’ hard work and determined hearts, these households can now thrive, free from the dangerous diseases that come from lack of adequate sanitation.

If this story has inspired you to step out and make a difference, Good Neighbors has 2016 trips lined up and open for applications! Simply email volunteer@goodneighbors.org for more info!

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