A few short weeks ago I hopped on a plane ready to embark on yet another spiritual, emotional, and physical journey returning to my blessed homeland of Guatemala. Every time I step out of the airport and onto the cement tarmac and inhale my first breath of diesel fuelled air, I know that i'm home. Waiting with arms wide open is my honourary Guatemalan mother & father Rudy & Sully (the directors of Children's Homes International and many incredible relief & development programs that uplift the nation and its people. This is the same couple who united me with my birth mother, but that's a story for another post). Rudy & Sully, along with Ed & Nancy (my adoptive Canadian parents...who I normally just refer to as my mom & dad) are the 4 people in this entire world that have consistently shown me day after day, and year after year that people who really want to make a difference in this world will usually do it... one way or another.
I'm always overjoyed to be in Rudy & Sully's presence, and sometimes even for selfish motives because I know my time shared with them will only benefit me and teach me how to share the same unshakable conviction that all individuals in this world are important, and every single life matters. Whether it's feeding one stomach, educating one mind, or simply giving or receiving one hug or a smile, they aren't determined to revolutionize the entire world all at once...they simply make small changes over time that add up eventually transforming lives, communities, nations...and even one day, the world. I'm one of those people who usually gets frustrated along the way. I'm conditioned by my Canadian culture to want quick and quantifiable results pronto! I know Rudy & Sully have countless frustrating days and overwhelming responsibilities but they never give up, they never quit, and they humbly keep going, and keep fighting even when it feels like they're fighting alone. That's the spirit I want rubbing off them and on to me. They never call attention to themselves, they simply pay attention to the needs of others. The change they've made in their country often goes un-applauded, un-rewarded, and certainly doesn't receive the attention it deserves, BUT they simply keep doing, keep serving, and keep going because they wouldn't think of living their lives any other way.
Each Guate trip holds a new journey for me. I think i've officially traveled there 25 times in my entire lifetime. Not too shabby for a 27 year old. I think that more than qualifies it as home. I've been to the highest highs and the lowest lows of the country. I love the mountains, the valleys, the culture, the kids, the food, the energy, you name it - I love it! I've spent nights in the jungle, nights in hot hotels and makeshift beds and every time I fall deeper in love with the locals, the Mayans, the ghettos, and the suburbs. All of it, every little part is mystically beautiful, and authentically home. This time I was particularly privileged to get a first-hand experience at the elementary school that was that built in the community where I was born. A former fishing village filled once filled with life, beauty, and abundance called Amatitlán that now gives life to the hustle and bustle of rural poverty, failed development, violence & crime, and environmental degradation.
The sweet yellow school is located down a long road of battered homes marked by tossed shoes over the electrical lines indicating this is a site/street where drugs are sold, and can also mean "gang turf". As soon as you enter the schoolyard you are greeted by floral painted walls and the cutest faces dressed in head to toe uniform. They are so adorable that it's easy to forget that many of them had their uniforms donated, are sponsored children, or their parents have sacrificed at great cost to purchase their supplies for education. It's also easy to forget that these are the children of local gangsters, drug dealers, and have somehow survived a vicious cycle of abuse, oppression, crime and corruption. The school hosts these children at their youngest and most vulnerable stage. We like to call them kinder & pre-kinder. Their safety and security is always hand in hand with their education. Just a few weeks before I arrived to Guatemala, Sully and her educational assistant took a little longer than usual to clean up after the days lesson. One child was also late in being picked up so the school day dragged on as they anxiously awaited pick up since they know that any additional time onto the scheduled day can be a dangerous sign. As they were leaving the school after the child had finally been claimed, they were held at gunpoint by a gang of men; threatened and robbed of their possessions including cell phones which have quickly become murder targets in many areas. Teacher robberies are becoming more common in Guatemala. In Amatitlán, devoting your life to children becomes a just a little more literal than what we're used to back home. We even had one day when I was teaching at the school where some parents of the children warned us that there was an unknown motorcycle gang roaming through the streets who had already robbed some locals that day and recommended we close school promptly in order to avoid any threats. We obeyed and saw the gang in our rear view mirror as we were leaving town in our van. I've never seen Sully step on the gas quite so fast!
My Spanish is shall we say " más o menos" (so-so). I'm essentially fluent in basic conversation but i'm very timid to use my grammar. Hanging out with the kinders & pre-kinders was the perfect fit. The only problem with their Spanish is their squeeky little high pitched voices seemed to travel at lightening speeds! When in doubt I just patted them on the head and said yes. One day we were creating mother's day cards and both teachers were occupied with other issues so I was assigned the duty of translating each child's message to their mother and writing it on a small piece of paper for them to copy and transfer to their card. Definitely not a simple task, I found myself telling each child to speak slower so I could understand and record the message. It was hilarious since they did what we usually do to people who don't speak our language and compensate with high volume assuming that it's not what you're saying but adding sound decibels will somehow enhance the translation. I was impressed to see that each child at that age had full knowledge and conception of the alphabet. They could easily copy the letters with accuracy and you could tell that they have been working on their printing. Later in the day we worked on math. I like to bow out after anything beyond 10 X 10. After that I just get lost. These kinders & pre-kinders can do basic reading, writing, and yes...they do math too. Additon and subtraction was a breeze for them...and I still count on my fingers!! The education and attention to detail at this school is absolutely incredible.
Another amazing quality of this school is it's commitment to inclusion. Inclusive education for children with exceptional needs at this school encompasses physical & developmental disabilities, fetal alcohol, mental health and the whole nine yards. This quickly sets it apart from countless schools in the nation (heck, even in Canada). One little girl in the classroom (Rosemari, pictured below) was born with down-syndrome and other cognitive challenges. With all the stigma surrounding disability in a developing nation like Guatemala, she was abandoned at the hospital at birth. She was blessed to find an adoptive mother who welcomed her into her home and introduced her to this school which has quickly become her place of acceptance and belonging, filled with friends! She is undeniably one of the most popular kids in the entire school. You can't enter that school yard and not see her since she's constantly surrounded by a swarm of friends, laughing and playing until sweat runs down their little foreheads and their uniforms are worn out from intense recess tag, skipping, and of course boys chase girls! One day Rosemari came to school very upset because her grandma was visiting her home and became very intoxicated and violent with her mom. She shared this with the teacher and told the teacher that she learned in school that this is not acceptable behaviour and she told her grandmother to stop harming her mother and drinking in her own commanding little tone and sure enough, it stopped. These children are not the future of Guatemala or the leaders of tomorrow...they are the hope of today. Their relevance isn't down the road, it's now. They are needed in their family, their community, and the country at large because they are building the foundation of the nations future...one printed letter at a time, with each skipping rope shared, every sentence written, and every hand reached out to their fellow classmates. These little kinders are unifying their homes, and standing up for what is right. It is a joy and a pleasure to stand with them.
When it's time for me to finally pack up for home, the tears always seem to flow uncontrollably. I quickly become a babbling and bawling hot mess with zero self-control and a tremendously ugly cry face. It's in this moment that i'm determined to change the world, save the country, and somehow keep all these children for myself and give them everything I have and more. I look at Sully and Rudy and ask them "how can I help?" and "what more can I do" or "what else do you need". I say this with caution since I know the needs are overwhelming and the weight of what they do is so great. They oversee the school, nutrition programs, other education programs, child sponsorship, community outreach, disability education, programs in the highlands, in the jungles, and beyond! I really don't know how they can even bare it. They look back and smile at me with great peace and love. Sully usually has tears in her eyes and simply says, "please...don't forget about us".