U.S. High School Volunteers Find Inspiration and a Different Perspective in the Highlands of Rural Guatemala

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Students live and work with the indigenous Mayan community of Pasac, Sololá, report feeling humbled and more appreciative of the value of community.

Few school projects offer the opportunity to experience an indigenous foreign culture while making a difference. However, 12 high school students from the U.S. had the rare chance to participate in a unique volunteer program for the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year (September through December of 2010) and live and work with the indigenous Mayan villagers of Pasac, Sololá in Guatemala. The coffee-growing area is one of the poorest in Guatemala and is isolated from contemporary Guatemalan culture.

The volunteer experience was made possible by the Portland-based nonprofit organization specializing in global study volunteer programs, Carpe Diem International Education (CDIE) (http://www.carpediemeducation.org), and Spokane-based Roots & Wings International (RWI) (http://www.rootsandwingsintl.org), a nonprofit focused on promoting economic development in rural Guatemala through education, training and technology. In addition to a week in the village of Pasac where RWI’s Guatemalan office and educational programs are hosted, the semester-long program included visiting ruins in Tikal, one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites located in northern Guatemala, a stint in Leon for language school, and volunteer projects throughout Central America.    

Moved by the villagers’ sense of community, Rachael Smith, a student from Arcata, California, reflected on the stay, “There is such a sense of communal responsibility for bettering their education, raising their children, providing for their visitors and taking on any challenge that faces them! Spending a week in Pasac reminded me of the value of community and how important it is to contribute to whatever community I am a part of.”

Smith was particularly impressed by the community’s RWI-sponsored drainage system project completed in August 2010. “The way the people of Pasac have come together and taken on the project of creating a drainage system is inspiring,” she said.

The uncomplicated way of life in Pasac proved to be an eye-opener for Keely Odell, from New York City, New York. “While living in the Pasac Village, I really enjoyed seeing the closeness of the community and the way that everyone in town would come together,” Odell said.

Like the rest of the volunteers, Odell was not only a spectator, but also an active participant in Pasac’s daily life marked by the struggles and hardships of subsistence farming. “Playing with the children in town made me realize that they have to take on more responsibility at a much younger age, but at the same time the simplicity of life in Pasac gives them the chance to have a real childhood in which they can run and play and have an imagination,” she said.

About Carpe Diem Education
Carpe Diem Education was founded in 2007 by Ethan Knight with the mission to inspire growth and transformative educational experiences through intercultural exchange and community. Focusing on GAP Year and college students, they send small groups to primarily developing countries for service-learning based experiential education. To learn more, visit http://www.carpediemeducation.org.

About Roots & Wings International (RWI)
RWI was created in 2004 by Erik Swanson, a business attorney at Bullivant Houser Bailey PC, then the director of a high school in rural Guatemala. Thanks to the support of individuals and corporate sponsors, RWI has been able to develop three different programs – University Scholarships, Computer Literacy and After-School Tutoring – to help the students from rural Guatemala work towards the development of their native communities. To help the cause or to learn more, visit http://www.rootsandwingsintl.org, become a Facebook fan at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Roots-Wings-International/34765674991 or sign up for RWI’s newsletter (http://www.rootsandwingsintl.org/news/newsletter-signup.htm).

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