Habitat for Humanity
of Evansville

Our Global Village Trip to Guatemala

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Hola! It’s been nearly two weeks since our team of twelve, including myself, returned from Guatemala. Our team hasn’t had our debrief reunion yet, but I’m sure all have had time to reflect and adjust, as have I. This trip was a little different because it wasn’t the first time I was seeing abject poverty, and I was also leading the team. My biggest enjoyment was just seeing the growth of everyone – watching their eyes and hearts open, count their blessings, have those epiphanies and learn more about the world. Because for me, that’s what any mission trip is all about.

Once again, it is hard to put into words what a Global Village trip is like. Simply put and not surprising, it was awesome – in so many ways. We had a very diverse team, which made for great conversations and bonding. Of the twelve, all from Evansville, we had two married couples, a board member, our executive director, a couple faithful volunteers, one new to Habitat, our student intern, and a Habitat homeowner. We had all met only a couple times before the trip, but while we were down there the group really had a lot of fun. Each of us brought a different perspective, which really helped deepen discussions and add to the laughs. It was also extra special to have Lacey, a current Habitat homeowner in Evansville on the trip. A Habitat board member sponsored her fee and airfare, and she eagerly joined the team to help give back and pay it forward. The leap of faith she took, as she calls it, completed the Habitat circle, which is a huge part of the mission.

Each day our group divided into two alternating groups, one group of four who would work on a smokeless stove for the day, while the remaining eight would work on the house. Our homeowner partner family, William Batres, along with his three siblings and daughter would live in the house constructed out of cinder blocks. It just happened that we were the first group to help start the construction of the house, so for most of the week our crew was making and tying rebar. And I mean, a lot of rebar – three and a half days worth. But, our team, as positive as ever, dug in and had responses like “If that’s what they need, that’s what we’re here for!” On the last couple days we started lay block, which included mixing and passing concrete, filling the block and rebar in with the concrete, moving dirt and passing blocks.

A smokeless stove was built with partner family-made adobe bricks, mud mortar, and a concrete seal. The team of four would lay the bricks, mix the mud and fill in the joints, then lay burned bricks for the burning surface and seal that with concrete. Finally, a metal cooking surface was placed over the burning area, along with a chimney that would create a vacuum for the smoke to escape.  These partner families typically lived in more rural areas, were of Mayan decent and had significantly lower income. The stoves would prevent women from cooking on an open fire three times a day, causing blindness and sever respiratory problems.

In Guatemala, 51% of the population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 16% live on less than $1.25 a day. The average Guatemalan has had 4.1 years of schooling, and 10% of the population graduate high school. 50% of children under five years old are malnourished. 1.2% of the country’s population owns 62% of the land. There are 1.8 million families lacking decent shelter.  The statistics could go on, and they are all very powerful. But there are certainly wonderful things happening in Guatemala, as well.

Habitat Guatemala is the oldest affiliate in Latin America, founded in 1979. They have provided more than 75,000 housing solutions since their founding, which entails new home construction, housing communities, home improvements, progressive homes, and healthy home kits, which include smokeless stoves, latrines and water filtration systems. They also build organic community gardens, complete with training and nutrition classes, as well as disaster relief programs and restitution for victims of the brutal civil war that lasted from the 1960s to 1996. In the Habitat way, the partner families we worked with will all repay - a no-interest mortgage and stove payments. 

As we got to know William and his family, as well as our stove partner families, it was a joy to see the connections – regardless of culture and language – be made. Early in the week it was clear that the language barrier was an obstacle. It was described during one of our nightly reflections that it was less of a frustration and more of a disappointment at the missed opportunity. It was difficult to communicate empathy. However, we all made our best efforts and thankfully, William and his brother Byron, spoke a bit of English and helped us with our broken Spanish. Regardless, it was incredible to get to know him throughout our days working on his house – it was truly a partnership and a relationship all of us were sad to think about ending upon returning home. Many of us are Facebook friends with him now!

Some of my favorite moments were during those reflection times. Our team, along with our two awesome HFHG field coordinators, Ronnie and Jillian, debriefed each night in front of a fire – sometimes with hot cocoa, most times with beer. We would discuss the challenges of the developing world, the definition of poor and what poverty looks like. Some of the most striking thoughts for me were about undeserving love – and that it is easy to be cynical or blissfully unaware of the problems that a right around you, and the idea of more mercy is tough to sell. And one quote has stuck with me “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t even have shoes.”  

Through all of the working and reflecting, we still managed to do some sightseeing and partake in great cultural activities. We saw the Mayan ruins of Iximche, took a boat ride across Lake Atitlan and toured both a weaving cooperative and organic coffee plantation cooperative, and on Saturday we hiked volcano Pacaya! Guatemala is an incredibly beautiful, vibrant country. We were so thankful for Ronnie and Jillian, who went above and beyond to make sure we saw and did as much as we could.

In the next few weeks we will celebrate Easter, and I will be thinking of this entire Lenten season – which was kicked off while we were in what was called the Holy City of Latin America, Antigua – and how undeserving love for all is a concept to certainly reflect on. And how important it is to love in places that put you out of your comfort zone and where you otherwise wouldn’t have anything to do with. Habitat for Humanity has a wonderful way of doing that – while partnering with people everywhere to create a better world for all. 

Written by former Communications Manager and trip leader, Lee Jerstad. 

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