First and foremost, I want to say this:
If you are considering this program, do it. Just do it.
Before my trip to Guatemala, I was in a slight state of confusion. I had just taken a leave of absence from my university with little to no idea of what my next moves would be. I decided I needed a change of scenery, but not just any change of scenery - I wanted to do something where I could both benefit somebody else and myself. I could not be more grateful that I ended up in Antigua, Guatemala volunteering with Maximo Nivel.
I spent two weeks in Guatemala working with the most intelligent, creative, and loving children I've ever come across in my life. I was placed at an after school program called Mi Escuelita in a very poor town just outside of Antigua. I've had several volunteer experiences in the last few years tutoring and mentoring kids in low income areas. All of those experiences combined could not amount to the experience I had at Mi Escuelita in terms of impact; an impact you feel, the people you work with feel, and the results of which you see. It was hands down the most beautiful experience I've ever had in my life.
The education system in Guatemala is, to say the very least, flawed. Education is free up through 6th grade, which is a strong factor in why many kids drop out long before then. Another reason the drop out rate is so high is due to the fact that many of the children's parents are illiterate and therefore there is no academic support in the home. There is no motivation, no stimulation for these young beautiful minds to experience. Additionally, many kids have alcoholic parents (which is often times accompanied by a broad spectrum of abuse) and their immense potentials are even further suppressed.
When I say that the kids I met at Mi Escuelita have immense potential, I mean it with every cell in my being. They are unbelievably intelligent, quick, eager to learn, beautifully creative, and the most loving and warm little human beings I have ever come across. The kids thanked the other volunteers and I over and over before we left, but they have no idea what they did for me: they woke me up.
In a developed country like the US (where I live), materials are so available that we often don't think of what it would be like if they weren't so available. In a less developed place like Guatemala, things as simple as pencils, notebooks, and crayons are scarce. I could write a novel about my experience in Guatemala, but what stayed with me the most was the fact that the kids I encountered have so little, yet are so incredibly happy. If they lost their soccer ball over the fence, they would find a soda bottle on the street to kick around. There were no complaints, no tears, no shouts - nothing but their lovely smiles. In a nutshell, they had the energy and playfulness of children, but the maturity of a full grown adult. Most of these kids have been forced to assume adult-like responsibilities from a young age: working with their parents to earn some money and tending to younger siblings are just a couple of examples.
I know I left an impact on these kids because they would not let me forget it. They were so grateful and so happy that the other volunteers and I were there. The impact they left on me was a million times greater. After getting to know the kids as individuals, as a group, and witnessing their potentials, it is so sad to me that they are not stimulated. They are not given the chance to excel and succeed. Such a simple concept, yet so far from being implemented in the Guatemalan education system. They want to learn, they want to be able to speak English, they want to be something, they want to do good, they want to be happy, and they want to love.
The experience I had in Guatemala was one I will never forget and it was one that left me wanting more. It made me want to continue this journey of improving, both myself and others. I have been back home for one day and cannot get these kids out of my mind. I still feel their warm embraces and can still so vividly see their wide and bright smiles. Although I was only there for 2 weeks, there will forever be a mark embedded in my heart, soul, and mind.