Alumni Spotlight: Samantha Fien-Helfman


Samantha, 25, is a Washington, DC native who graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2009.

She volunteered with NPH Guatemala from December 2009-January 2011, before going on a 7-month backpacking trip throughout Central and South America. Now, back in DC, she will try anything once - a commitment that has led her to jump out of a helicopter in Switzerland, cut her hair in a mullet, swim with whale sharks in Honduras, and get sick off street food more times than one could possibly count.

Morning: 365 days. A year of service seems like an eternity when you think about leaving the comfort of your friends and family and moving to a foreign country full of unfamiliar faces and a new language. At least, it did for me. I had just graduated college and was far from ready for the stereotypical, dreaded office job that characterizes post-graduation.

I embraced and ran to NPH – still not quite sure if I viewed it as an escape from what I envisioned to be a monotonous post-college lifestyle, or if I was searching for something and hoped NPH could help me find it. Maybe it was a mix of both.

I arrived in December 2009 to the small, farming village of Parramos, where the NPH home is located. Located atop a hill, the NPH property more aptly resembles a college campus with its on-site clinic, school, dining hall, workshop rooms, various houses, and community garden than a “home." Volunteers share three houses on the grounds, all of which are outfitted with comfy living rooms, small kitchens, and outdoor hammocks.

I’d wake up each day at 5am to a town that had already been awake for hours. Fireworks popping. Dogs fighting. Roosters crowing. Music blasting from a one-room house. I’d watch the sun rising the over the nearest volcano, reveling in the gorgeous hues that took over the sky.

Though it seemed the whole world outside was stirring, my immediate house was silent. I’d be the first up and out the door before my seven housemates even woke. I liked those moments of solace in the morning. I would run up the stairs, the waft of fresh bread cooking in the panaderia, rushing by me as I made my way to the comedor for breakfast with the kids.

Afternoon: My service included several key responsibilities at the NPH Home. During the day, I taught English to 5 classes – ranging in age and fluency level from preschool to 8th grade. I had no teacher certification and speaking English was completely different from being able to teach it. I spent countless hours the first few months in the English department, poring over past lesson plans, reading through old textbooks, and trying to formulate a plan for my classes.

Though incredibly frustrating and exhausting at times, teaching was an amazingly rewarding experience that allowed me to work directly with the kids and offered a tangible way to see the results of my work. I spent my evenings with Dulce Corazon de Maria, a section of 21, 14-16 year-old girls to whom I had been assigned to serve as a mentor and counselor.

Evening: Though many of the girls in my group were understandably slow to open up, they eventually became like sisters and daughters to me. And it is the small, simple moments with them that I miss the most: lying on the sofa and offering advice on friend and boy problems, helping with English homework, taking countless photos, playing night soccer on the cancha (basketball court), having spontaneous dance parties, curling up on oversized pillows and watching movies, eating dinner together, learning the words to the newest reggaeton song and playing it over and over again.

Highlights: I spent many weekends at the home, but used the others to travel throughout Guatemala. Many were spent at Lake Atitlan – a gorgeous, mystical crater lake surrounded by three volcanoes and indigenous hillside villages – and a 3 hour bus ride from the home. It was there, in the large town of Panajachel, that I took up private salsa classes and spent afternoons playing Spanish Scrabble games in my friend Luis’s coffee shop. In the neighboring lake town of San Juan, I took classes in traditional Mayan weaving from a local artist, and in San Marcos, I indulged in yoga classes and cliff jumping.

Each volunteer also received four weeks of vacation, time I used to visit the famous ruins of Tikal in Northern Guatemala; the crystal blue lagoons of Semuc Champey; the Cayes in Belize; and the Bay Islands of Honduras where I received my scuba diving license.

I don’t know what I was looking for when I came to NPH, but it was in my year of service, that NPH and the girls of Dulce Corazon helped me find myself. Despite being the one who was supposed to be “giving,” those girls gave me a greater happiness and contentment with life than I even knew was possible.

I fell head over heels in love with Guatemala – the bright woven fabrics, the jam-packed chicken buses, and the gorgeous vistas, but I fell even more in love with the people: Taxi drivers, women in the market, hairdressers, restaurant and hostel owners who so quickly opened their hearts and showed me just how beautiful this country really is – in its spirit, warmth, and generosity of heart.

And the children at NPH Guatemala, especially those in my classes and the girls of Dulce Corazon, who provided an unexpectedly wonderful home away from home. It’s been a year and a half since my service ended and I can only hope that my next adventure will bring me the same sheer happiness I experienced with NPH.