Coming from Camden, New Jersey I thought I grew up in poverty. Little did I know that poverty went much further than the streets of Camden. Seeing the residents of Guatemala grow hungry and without a stable lifestyle has taught me to value everything I have. I no longer consider myself "poor" because I have seen that elsewhere it is worse. I saw the eyes of children light up when it was time to eat, I saw their smiles when it was time to play, I saw them full of joy when they were away from their home and at "Safe Passage".
Working with the children at Safe Passage made the issue of poverty feel closer to home. The kids face much adversity, but they are still like all other children in that they have dreams, crave affection, and harbor an amazing amount of energy. Henley turned the situation in Guatemala from a concern into a passion and held it close to her heart. My experiences during the trip showed me the power of each individual's influence. Each person has the ability to acknowledge poverty, but it takes courage, dedication, and hope to challenge oneself to proactively work against it.
Prior to visiting Safe Passage, I had volunteered and been involved with many other grass roots organizations. Although these organizations provided great services to the people that they were serving, the organizations were very limited in the populations that they served and the number of services that they offered. When I arrived at Safe Passage, however, I was amazed at the many facilities safe passage had built and at Safe Passage's scope of operations; they provided additional education to over 500 students, took care of many of infants whose parents were working on the Guatemala City dump, and even motivated the women who were working on the dump to start a jewelry-making co-op that is allowing many women to no longer work on the dump!
As somebody aspiring to engage in a philanthropic career following graduation, I was profoundly inspired to know that the vision, hard work, and perseverance of a fellow Maine resident and former Bowdoin graduate (Hanley Denning) were able to create an organization that has positively changed, and continues to change, so many people’s lives. To know that my peers and I are able to have such a lasting and profound impact on such a large group of people is incredibly empowering and will continue to motivate me in all of my future pursuits.
The most striking memory I had in Guatemala was visiting the Jewelry Cooperative the mothers of the students within Safe Passage established. One of the mothers, also the president of the Cooperative was a woman whom I will never forget. Her personal story was so very touching and her pride and strength reminded me so much of my mother. Before, she worked five days a week in the Guatemalan Dump just to make ends meet for her family, but after contributing so much time and effort to the making and the selling the beautiful jewelry, she - as well as other participating mothers - have been extremely successful. Because of her success, she was able to decrease her hours at the dump to two days a week and in the near future she is even considering quitting the dump all together. Her inspiring story can help others realize that they too can overcome what may seem like permanent impoverished conditions.
A vivid memory I have of working at Safe Passage is of an experience I had with a young girl during the second day of our visit. We were making masks as an arts and crafts activity with the children, and I was helping this girl, Paula who was probably no more than eight or nine years old. She was extremely lively and outgoing and I was having a wonderful time talking to her about her family and interests. What stood out in my mind most vividly was when I asked her what it was that she would like to be when she grew up. She smiled and got really excited, eager to share her future ambitions. Paula said she was really passionate about wanting to become a teacher and a doctor. This remark remained imbedded in my mind, because it showed that regardless of the harsh circumstances these children come from, just like children we see at home, they too have hopes and dreams. It also enlightened me to the inspiration and motivation that Safe Passage undoubtedly infuses in the children that attend its program, encouraging them to pursue careers and goals beyond the scope of their lives at home and the dump. This small yet significant experience with Paula was encouraging in that she was able to show me what Safe Passage has done for her and many other children as well.
Maria was one of the students in the third grade class we worked with at Safe Passage. During the art project we did with the class, she immediately stood out as one of the most daring students when she volunteered to make a mask on her own face, which required allowing me, basically a stranger to Maria, to cover her face with Vaseline and paper-mâché. Over the next two days as we kept working on the mask project, Maria’s enthusiasm never faltered. She continually asked me questions about America, my school, and my family and never showed any frustration with my slow answers, at times probably inscrutable, in broken Spanish. She joked around with her fellow students and helped another girl when her mask broke.
I remember Maria because her ebullient personality was so endearing and contagious and because I felt that Safe Passage allowed her to completely be herself—outgoing, curious, and creative—in a place where she otherwise would probably have been busy working in the dump or on the streets or caring for her siblings. In Maria I saw the energy, inquisitiveness, and lightheartedness that every child should be able to express, but that the extreme poverty we saw in Guatemala City stifles in so many other children. Maria made me see what a huge difference Safe Passage has made in the lives of the children it serves.
On our field trip to the beach and waterpark with the students of Safe Passage, I remember a very powerful moment when another volunteer and I held hands with four other boys, forming a human wall as we walked out into the ocean to face the crushing waves. For me this was very symbolic and emotional. It was symbolic in the way that facing the waves was a challenge, but we did so linked together hand in hand, and just as much as everyday of their lives is a challenge, everyone, the students, the volunteers, the parents, are in it together. For me, there was such an inexpressible feeling of unity, and not just in that moment, but throughout the week as well. I think we made a lasting impression on all the students we worked with, and I believe we grew incredibly as a group. The one thing I learned in Guatemala is that no one person can save the world, but any little contribution you make to a community can have a profound impact on the lives of the people living that community, and that makes any effort extremely worthwhile.
My life really isn't that bad. Yes, I may have some identity struggles, my family may be a little discombobulated (well a lot discombobulated), and sometimes I may feel all alone in this big world, but I'm still blessed. Seeing students my age and younger, living in impoverished and unsanitary conditions, being able to enjoy and take advantage of what little resources they have, helped me grow a better appreciation for the life that has been given to me. The community filled with love and encouragement at Safe Passage in Guatemala sincerely touched my heart and has inspired me to try and foster those same sentiments in any community that I am apart of. Just as I did in Guatemala, I will not allow any cultural, language, or economic barriers stop me from gaining more knowledge about myself and those who are nothing like me. At the end of the day we are all human.
Even spending the little bit of time that I did around a whole community of people stifled by poverty made me really understand the extent to which poverty can trap people. I’m sure that I saw people much smarter and more talented than myself walking around Guatemala City who will never get to do some of the things I don’t even think twice about; that’s sad.
Witnessing what Safe Passage is doing for the people demonstrated to me that, although it might be impossible for one person to completely end poverty, one person can do a lot to give people the opportunity to find personal success and achievement in their lives.
Working with children who came from such a meager background really reemphasized my appreciation for the great privileges that I’ve grown up with. It’s really easy to forget that the things in my life, many of which I was simply given as a consequence of the situation I was born into, are not commonly held privileges, and that I have an opportunity to do great things in my life. I sincerely believe that this puts an obligation on me to use my life and my opportunities to do good things in the world, and I plan to fulfill that obligation.