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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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