Members of the Elmira Community Church travelled to Guatemala July 18 on a mission trip with Compassion International, a Christian charity that works with local churches in 26 countries to fight child poverty.
Despite sweltering heat and the requisite cultural and linguistic challenges of volunteering abroad, the team spent a week painting classrooms, leading kids through games and songs and distributing supplies like toothpaste, brushes, pencils and crayons.
Trip co-leader Eva Fehr said it was an eye opening experience.
“I was struck by how full of joy the people are. They have so little, but their hospitality is so great. They are so joyful with everything that they have, which made me think about how I am just not thankful enough for what I have over here.”
On her second mission trip down to Central America, Fehr says she recognizes the impact the experience has on those who take part.
“I’ve heard some of the group members say that they are going to do things differently now, definitely being more grateful for what they have and choosing to be more joyful instead of grumbling about things.”
It brings perspective she said, allowing participants to, “just be joyful, because we could be in situations where it would be hard to choose joy over sadness.”
Cultural differences, like the crowded capital, Guatemala City, with its frenzied vendors and beggars and chaotic traffic were overwhelming at first, Fehr said, but things relaxed once the group trekked out to smaller towns like Solola, Panajachel and Escuintla.
That’s where the group was able to really connect with the local people.
“It’s so different,” Fehr said. “I know my daughter was saying when we were coming back, ‘down there, if you wave at people, or you smile at a person, you just make their day. You could tell. They would be so downcast, but then you’d give them a wave and a smile and you could see them light up, and how it is so different here, because here you can smile at someone or talk to someone, or give them a wave and they just look at you kind of funny.’ Over there, connecting with the people just brings them so much joy, just to have that attention.”
And the feeling is mutual.
“It’s great for us,” Fehr said. “They bring us just as much joy. Just wanting to connect with us and expressing their gratitude for us being there. They are just so grateful for every part of it. We took some supplies down for them too, and they were reassuring us the whole time, saying ‘we will put these to good use, we won’t waste them.”
The group of volunteers included a number of teenagers who, Fehr says, could certainly learn from the Guatemalan children.
“They take so much for granted here. The kids over there, are just so happy, my daughter was saying, to hold her hand, playing with her, just giving hugs. They don’t need an iPad or any kinds of games. They are just so happy to play and to have that physical, face-to-face connection. Kids here aren’t active, they are in front of some kind of screen. Over there my daughter said she didn’t even really think about her phone or being in front of any games, she was just so happy to be around the kids.”