Why I’m volunteering in Guatemala
Thinking about volunteering in Guatemala? Read about my experience as a volunteer in Panajachel, Guatemala.
Most people know me as a travel writer, someone who spends her time flitting off to warm climes lounging poolside at luxury resorts. But, since I left the corporate world more than a decade ago, I’ve also worked for non-profit organizations in countries from Bolivia to Russia. It was my way of giving back to the world, a way to contribute something.
However, that wasn’t my plan when I arrived in Guatemala last month. I intended to focus on new corporate clients and my culinary travel memoir with a few jaunts to swanky destinations in between. 2014 was going to be a year much like 2013. But after I met Claudia and her grandmother in the small Maya village of San Jorge la Laguna, Guatemala, all that changed.
Volunteering in Guatemala with Mayan Families non-profit in Panajachel
It all began when Mayan Families, a non-profit organization based in Panajachel, Guatemala, invited me to join them for lunch at their Elderly Care program. The project, which provides elderly Kachikel Maya men and women with a hot meal and medical support, is located in the village of San Jorge la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlan. I’ve rarely seen a town blessed with such a beautiful setting.
With a necklace of tall volcanos and sparkling shoreline, it’s a mix of brilliant blues, deep greens and creamy stucco buildings. If you didn’t step beyond the church steps, you might think it would be a perfect spot to retire. But as I would soon discover, the reality is very different.
Lunchtime with the women, each dressed in their brilliantly-hued woven clothing, was quietly touching. Most lived alone and had walked for an hour or more to get to the centre. Some arrived with grandchildren in tow and shared their meal–stewed chicken, five tortillas, rice and an orange–or packed half away for supper time. They chatted, laughed quietly with their friends and, with a gracious “gracias” headed back outside for the long trek home.
“Do you have time to stop into a few homes?” asked Amy, the Mayan Families Project Director “They’re just up the hill.”
I couldn’t really object that the hill was too steep, the sun too hot or that I wasn’t prepared for hiking. After all, the other women were decades older than me and were making the trip daily, oftentimes barefoot. So, before long I was huffing and puffing my way up the mountainside.
“How much further? I asked, shivering as a cool breeze whipped around the mountainside.
“Almost there,” said Amy, as we scrambled along a path filled with rocks and thick vegetation.
“Watch out,” said one of the staff noticing as I grabbed a handhold of vine. “Those chichicaste leaves can burn your skin.”
Finally, we arrived at our objective, the home of Claudia and her grandmother. If the path hadn’t ended, I would have missed it. It wasn’t much more than a ledge on a cliff. We took turns standing on the ledge and stepping inside the two rooms–one with a bed and the other a stove. No electricity or running water meant they had to haul drinking, washing and cooking water on their backs, up the mountain I’d just climbed. Every day.
But their living situation is much better than it used to be. After her mother died, Claudia had to work to earn money just to eat. Now, thanks to Mayan Families, at age 16 Claudia attends school.
“ I’m in grade 3 now,” she said proudly.
As I looked around, I worried. Claudia’s grandma was 78 years old – how long could she continue to haul water up a cliff? Rather than seem worried themselves. the pair were hopeful. Soon they’d be receiving a Mayan Families Christmas basket of tamales. Or would they? I wondered. I’d heard donations were down by 40% this year.
I was tempted to buy a basket just to make sure it happened. But I decided it would be more helpful to the organization, to others in need and to Claudia and her grandmother if I committed to raising long-term, secure funding. In Guatemala, 69.5% of children under 5 years old within Maya communities are malnourished – the worst in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The more I thought about what I’d accomplished in 2013 the more I realized my year had been more about luxury than sharing. It was time to try to tip the scale at least a little bit the other way.
Other ways to help in Guatemala
I’ll be staying a little longer in Panajachel, Guatemala than planned and will be harnessing my writing skills to craft grant proposals. Given that the cycle of the average Foundation grant is 18 months it will be no quick fix. I don’t even know if I’ll be successful. If you’d like to help out, here are some ways to chip in:
- Gift a Christmas basket of tamales for $40 via the Mayan Families website;
- Sponsor a family like Claudia’s for a year – you’ll even get a tax receipt;
- Support the incredible work of Mayan Families with a tax-deductible donation. You can even make a tax-deductible donation in Canada;
- Send supplies such as medicine, shoes, computers and toys. Download the list of what’s needed;
- Get involved in a community project such as assisting marginalized groups, teaching English or saving sea turtles through conservation by volunteering in Guatemala.
- Help spread the word on Facebook, Twitter and through friends and family.
Thank you for joining me on this volunteering in Guatemala project and wish me luck! Sign up for my blog posts and you’ll be the first to hear how its going!
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: