As soon as I heard that Eli’s family had an opening for their trip to Guatemala, I knew I had to go. They were taking teenagers to Antigua to learn Spanish and volunteer. It took some convincing, but they said yes! And, more importantly, my parents agreed to let me go. My high school Spanish would be put to the test in intensive language classes and volunteer work. The other teens opted to help with coffee harvest on farms in Antigua. I chose work as a medical volunteer.
Guatemala day one. Up at 6 am for breakfast in the living room of our host family. I remember listening to Olga and her daughter Rosinda talking while preparing panqueques, and completely falling in the love with the beauty of the Spanish language. After eating, I was given written directions for the bus to Virgen del Socorro hospital. Upon arrival, I was greeted in the lobby by three young women who I volunteered with for the rest of the week. We were the only women there who spoke English.
Virgen del Socorro is a home for special needs children and adults. My job was to assist in the children’s section; 90% were orphans, many with cerebral palsy. Given the immense poverty in Guatemala, families have great difficulty in caring for the disabled. On my first morning, I watched nurses retrieve a kid from outside that someone had left there. It was sobering.
The women I worked with were special needs professionals. I was untrained and felt truly out of my element! But, as I began my duties feeding children, changing clothes, and putting clean sheets in cribs, I found ways to help. Many children had great difficulty eating. They needed people like me to assist, and I learned to spoon the food to a place in the back of the mouth to help them swallow. Many could not eat mashed black beans or plantains, and only took bottles. It was especially hard during breakfast. Some children refused food, or had fits and scratched my arms. I was so grateful to have the other volunteers take over when I couldn’t finish feeding one of the kids.
In my time as a volunteer I learned to relax and help in my own way by engaging these kids. Especially Alex, who I took outside one day to color. A quiet boy, the only thing I had ever heard him say was “paca paca…” and the occasional sigh. He clearly enjoyed throwing the coloring book on the ground more than using the crayons. After repeatedly removing ripped paper from Alex’s mouth and retrieving the dropped book, I realized there was no need to force this activity on him. I was there for the kids! So, I took a close look. Alex was constantly flexing his hands and fingers, and they looked strained. The last joint on each finger was bent. I grabbed his hand, put my fingers through his, and locked our hands together. He stared at our hands, squeezing them together with wide eyes. He looked at me with his mouth open and reached out his other hand so I could hold it too. He did not let go for a long time. It seemed to me that no one had given him that type of affection before.
My travel was intense. Now home, it’s hard to believe how much learning was packed into a short stretch of time. We saw and did a lot, but the human connects with kids like Alex? That was the unexpected gift, one I will never forget.
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