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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 | 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).


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.


A latrine the team was helping to build


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.


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


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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How One Week In Guatemala Changed My Life

It’s National Volunteer Week and we’re thrilled to share a first-hand experience from one of our amazing volunteers who traveled into the field with us.  Below is a personal essay from Joseph Lee, a high school volunteer who spent a week building new cookstoves for families in Guatemala.  Thanks for sharing your story, Joe!

Joe standing in front of new cookstove

Joe proudly displaying a new cookstove’s donor tile inscribed with his name

Written by Joe Lee, President of the Project Cookstoves Club at Van Nuys High School 

I still remember the first time I set foot inside a traditional home in Guatemala—a country I had no idea would eventually hold a special place in my heart. It was early August in 2014, and I had just stepped off the plane to begin a week of volunteer service with nine other students—eight of whom I had just met that same day. The air was thick, yet the sun shined beautifully that morning. And as we anxiously took our first steps into the vast city, all ten of us were loaded inside a white van that was headed straight for the Good Neighbors Guatemala headquarters.  I looked around the packed vehicle to the nine other students—still strangers to me. We all had the same look on our faces:  tired and apprehensive. Although we didn’t know anything about each other, we all had one thing in common: we were about to embark on an adventure that would ultimately shift our perceptions of the world.


Arrival into Acatenango.

After a long drive to the rural side of the country, our naps were interrupted by the van’s sudden stop, signaling our arrival in Acatenango. Slowly making my way down the broken streets of the community, I immediately felt foreign and alienated by an environment that was so different from my own. How did I end up in a place like this? What on earth am I doing here? My mind was racing with these questions. We arrived at a small, run-down house that resembled almost all the other houses in the village. “Come inside,” said Jorge, our team leader as he beckoned us in with warm gestures. One by one, we each stepped in past the single narrow door that brought us into the modest and humble life of a Guatemalan family.


A family in Acatenango stands next to their traditional cookstove. My fellow volunteers and I built them a brand new stove during our trip!

I still remember this moment very clearly. Entering the dark and cramped room, I was inundated by a strong, suffocating cloud of smoke that instantly watered my eyes to the point of soft tears. My breaths became heavier, and I felt a pungent burn in my eyes. Out of desperation, I turned to locate the source of the smoke, and there it was: a cookstove, unlike any other, brewing a simple family meal. And, suddenly, the struggles and torments that I had learned about prior to my arrival became a cold reality.


Another traditional cookstove I saw in Acatenango.

I am a first-hand witness to a crisis that prevails in Guatemala to this day. Project Cookstoves is a Good Neighbors project with a mission to save the lives of millions of Guatemalans who suffer from their traditional stoves. These stoves, which provide daily meals for families, as well as warmth in the home, release toxic fumes that gradually fill each crevice of their cramped home. For a standard house with only one room, the effects are detrimental. Those exposed to the toxic exhaust, including children, immediately begin to feel congested and, thus, find difficulties in breathing, leading to cardiovascular disease, emphysema and lung cancer. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, there are nearly 5,200 deaths per year in Guatemala alone that are the result of household air pollutants, and over 9.6 million whose health and lives are directly affected. To mitigate this unhealthy exposure, Good Neighbors dedicates itself to building better, safer, and more energy-efficient cookstoves through this project.

Joe pushing a wheelbarrow with soil needed for cookstove

Me pushing a wheelbarrow with soil needed for the new cookstove.

As a student myself, I first became involved with Good Neighbors through my mom, who heard about the organization through her close friend. In the one week that I spent with their team, I participated in multiple activities. Every day from morning to early evening, we visited ten different families in total and worked vigorously to build brand new cookstoves for each one of them. The process involved hours of cement-making, brick-laying, and cookstove-building. We were guided by a local Guatemalan bricklayer, who expertly built each stove. After a long day of working, we would then return to the city, where we ate dinner, washed up, and hung out with one another in the hotel. This part of the day, for me, was always special because it allowed me to spend time with my team. I always found out something new about everyone, and I began to realize that we weren’t so different from each other. By the end of the week, the team became more than a group of random misfits; it was the beginning of new friendships that I know are going to last a lifetime.

Mixing cement with (l-r) Ryan, Nitya, Sunwoo and me.

Guatemala is a beautiful and fascinating country. But it is also a place that is desperately in need of help. While millions of people lead comfortable lives worrying about what kind of clothes they’re going to wear or when they’re going to obtain the latest gadget, the residents of rural Guatemala–as well as many other third-world nations–are struggling to cook a simple family meal without getting harmed by its negative effects. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that we stand up and make a difference. If we learn to break out of our local confinements and reach out to those who don’t reap the same benefits, the world would be a radically different place. If we don’t rise up and catalyze a change, then no one will. One helping hand, one willing body can make all the difference.

Taking a break with kids from Acatenango (back row l-r: William, Nitya, and me)

A finished cookstove I helped build, donated in my name!

Today, I am still a part of the movement for change in Guatemala. After experiencing a profound conviction from this volunteer trip, I was inspired to educate my peers and raise awareness in my local community. Thus, the Project Cookstoves club was formed at Van Nuys High School. I believe that anyone can make a difference in the world–it all starts with a willing heart. I highly recommend this volunteer trip to all those who want to lend a helping hand. I am confident that it will change your view of this world, as it did to mine.

Me (standing, on right) leading our Project Cookstoves Club at Van Nuys High School.

Wow, thank you Joe for sharing your experience with us.  We are so grateful to have you volunteer with us!  Do YOU want to be inspired, like Joe was?  Click here to read more about how you can volunteer in Guatemala!

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Some of the members of Team Good Neighbors after the race!

Saturday, March 14th was an amazing day for Team Good Neighbors – not only did we run a 5K (some for the very first time!), but we raised $5,565 for Project Good Sisters! But we’re not done raising money to support girls’ education and equality in Malawi. If you’re interested in supporting the project, you can still donate and learn more here.

Special shout outs to Ralph, who placed 9th out of 1,000 in his age group, and Nelson, who placed 51st out of 176 in his age group! Amazing job, guys!

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Some of our team members picking up their shirts and race bibs!

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Ralph and Steffany – so supportive of one another! Ralph was 9th place out of 1,000 in his age group – congrats!


We asked some team members about their day, and this is what they told us….

What was the best part of your day?

Ralph: Seeing my sister finish the race. I made sure to finish the race as fast as possible just so I could race on over to the finish line with my camera and await her arrival with warm encouraging chants and photos. I’m probably her biggest fan and all time supporter and I loved seeing how hard she pushed herself just training for this race. So it was a must for me to see her crossing that finish line. Seeing her smile and realize that all her hard work paid off was the best part of my day!

Matilda: My most favorite part of the day was finishing the run and hearing the supporters applaud us, and then receiving our medal. And it was fun taking pictures with Good Neighbors as a team!

Nelson: Best part of the day was spending time with friends running for a good cause.

Sarah: The 5k overall was so fun! It was my first official run ever and on top of that, it was a big one right before the marathon! I think the overall vibe was my favorite. Everyone was pumped up and ready to start running. It was great to see all the little kids enjoying the run and wearing their t-shirts for charity. There was music, people were cheering, and joining so many people at Dodgers Stadium and Elysian Park was a great experience.

Lauren: It was really fun experiencing the beginning of the race, when everyone is nervous but excited. The best part was getting over that last hill and finally seeing the finish line! Plus, knowing that I helped girls in Malawi by doing something as simple as running a 5k!


Nellie, Adriana and Lauren excited about finishing the race!

What was the hardest part of the run?

 Ralph: The hardest part of the run was maintaining my speed while going up the hills. I knew they would slow me down but I just had to push myself.

Matilda: The hardest part of the run were the HILLS!! So killer!

Nelson:  Well to me, the whole race was pretty fun but the hills were taking its toll on me, even though I’m used to running. Also, it started to get really hot!

Sarah: The hardest part of the run…was the running. I didn’t manage to run the whole way, but it was still nice even if I did rest time to time!

Lauren: There were a lot of hills, but there were two that definitely made the run extremely hard and made me want to walk!

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Our two youngest team members, Brennan and Camille, got some help from their grandfather!

Why did you choose to run for Team Good Neighbors?

Ralph: I decided to run for the team because I wanted to support their vision of helping out girls in Malawi. I wanted to make a difference for this awesome cause by giving it my best. I’m a huge supporter of their work.

Matilda: I wanted to have the opportunity to run with Team Good Neighbors because I appreciate all their work and I think it’s so great, all that they do to help people and everything they do as a team effort.

Nelson: I ran for Good Neighbors last year for the LA Marathon, so when I heard about the LA Big 5K this year, I decided to join! It feels good doing what I like for a good cause.

Sarah:  I decided to run because I wanted to raise money and this was a fun way to fundraise!

Lauren: I’m a very active person who loves the outdoors, and nothing beats getting good exercise while helping a great cause!

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Well deserved medals, ladies!


Nelson finished 51st out of 176 in his category! Amazing!


The awesome medals the team received!

What an incredible day! We want to say thank you SO much to all of our team members for all of their fundraising, and for running with us! We’re still shy of our overall fundraising goal, so if you’d like to help us reach it, you can give on our team page.

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Next up in our Meet the LA Big 5K Team series is Sarah, an 11th grader who loves watching soccer. She’s really involved in social issues at her high school, and was super excited to join our team. She answered a few questions for us:


Q: Hey Sarah! Have you ever run in a race? How’s your training going?

This is my first time running in a race! Most juniors are done with PE credits, but I’m staying in my JROTC Program for all 4 years, so it’s easy for me to practice running regularly! My friend Max (who is also in JROTC and also in The Net Project club), and I have been running together as well. Training’s a lot more fun when you do it with your friends, so I’m really thankful for JROTC!

Q: What do you love to do in your free time?

As nerdy as it may sound, I enjoy reading in my free time! I’ve always liked reading, because reading a work by a talented writer can introduce you to so many different feelings, stories, and opinions.

Q: What’s your favorite subject in school?

I do enjoy English class, but I would say Physics is my favorite class this year! At first I was wary because it seemed like a difficult subject, but it’s interesting to see how some scientists managed to explain (a few) workings of the world with a few simple variables. Physics is immediately applicable, so whenever I learn something new like how an object rotates, I’m surprised at how often I can immediately connect that concept to things I notice in everyday life.

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Q: What’s a fun fact about you many people might not know?

I was born with 27 teeth instead of 28!

Q: You’ll be running the LA Big 5K race to support The Net Project, but what are your thoughts about Project Good Sisters?

Although I’m running the LA Big5K Race to raise money for The Net Project at Van Nuys High School, I am a firm supporter of Project Good Sisters and its message of female education and empowerment. I recently read a book called “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in my English class, which covered how female empowerment was essential to the economic/social/etc well-being of a country. Its absolutely unfair that someone’s sex dictates what one can or can not do. Women are a wealth of untapped talent, intelligence, and compassion and I think we–people who have the resources to help out–should work to first, make it even a possibility for women to pursue education and second, do away with the stigma attached to female independence to safely encourage more women to take advantage of their academic opportunities. A study in “Half The Sky” actually dealt with the same cause that Project Good Sisters is advocating; except, in that case, they didn’t fully anticipate the stigma attached to female menstruation and how it prevented girls from attending school regularly. The fact that Good Neighbors thought of ways to comprehensively approach this problem, including book bags to hide the sanitary pads and even outhouses to take care of their business with dignity, won my support. I’m glad Good Neighbors is addressing this often-ignored problem and helping out girls my age receive education.

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Q: What’s The Net Project?

My friends, Hwi Soo Kim (Van Nuys High School), John Kim and Steven Lee (Fairfax High School), and I started The Net Project this school year. The purpose of The Net Project is to send insecticide-coated nets to help prevent malaria in Malawi, Africa. We realized that malaria drugs were too expensive (cheap for tourists, but definitely not for the average Malawian), and resulted in drug-resistant mosquitoes that were even more dangerous. And surprisingly, after research, we found out that something as simple as a net saved lives. Finally, research also showed us that malaria isn’t just a health problem; it’s more than that. For example, Africa loses 12 BILLION dollars in productivity EACH year due to malaria. People sometimes say that fundraising for a disease like malaria is like throwing money down a hole because the community is often unreceptive to the programs that are trying to be initiated. However, Good Neighbors has already established a deep connection with communities in Malawi through their constant and varied aid (such as through building water wells through Water For Life and now, Good Sisters) and thus will be providing welcomed aid to a community whose trust they have already earned. This year, The Net Project as a whole is working together to raise $3000, enough to support an entire community with nets.

Q: What’s special about The Net Project?

I personally think The Net Project is special because as a high school club, it depends on young people being involved. When young people are involved in a humanitarian cause such as this, we’re not only helping others, we’re helping ourselves. Through technology, the world is becoming more “connected” and “globalized”, but often that same technology can make one feel insignificant in the face of the big, quite overwhelming world that exists out there. Helping out in events such as these reminds us that we too are significant, so I really hope that my club members and I will learn the valuable lesson of empathy and our own self-worth through our events this year.

Thanks Sarah, and congratulations on starting such a special project in high school! To support Sarah, please visit her page here and check out the rest of our team here! Want to join? There’s still time – just head over here!

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