Part way down a cobble-stoned road, with Mayan venders to the left and a view of el Volcán de Agua to the right, stood an apartment entrance complete with blue-chipped paint and a single, barred window.
Behind double doors sat 14 satisfied stomachs, just having inhaled a lunch served by homeowner Ingrid López. We foreigners referred to ourselves as the Together Campaign.
We had traveled 3,424 miles from Springfield College to Antigua, Guatemala. Our aim was to provide service in a few of the country’s many impoverished areas.
Without a dishwasher, Amy Jo Sheketoff and I stared at a mountain of dirty plates protruding out of a deep sink. We were standing at the center of Lopez’s house, in a courtyard exposed to open skies. The scent of fresh linen lingered from an adjacent clothesline hanging above a simple garden.
As the two of us slowly began to clean some dishes, my tired thoughts fell into a soothing rhythm. My mind eased as water rinsed uneven bubbles off a smooth plate.
Four days had passed since we arrived at this house on March 12 and I just realized what a privilege it was to be doing dishes by hand. As minimal as the López household was, we were living luxurious lives compared to those in areas we had served.
Our group joined hands with El Corazón de los Niño’s, an organization that provides education, health care, and service for those in need, along with La Union, a company that connects tourists with Guatemala through guided tours and service learning.
Together we would change the lives of local impoverished families as well as our own.
Our trio started with a visit to a low-income elementary school in a city named Santa Maria de Jesus. Students welcomed us with excited faces and inaudible whispers.
With old brushes and dirty five-gallon buckets, we created paint from scratch. My handless brush absorbed the watery paint as I introduced color to the school. By day’s end, we turned eight concrete walls into two bright yellow classrooms.
Another day we found ourselves using gardening gloves and painter’s masks to clean up the streets of El Recreo Villages, a small development with shacks made out of sheet metal. Each home provided shelter for families with up to five or more children.
There was garbage everywhere, and the rest of Guatemala was no exception. It seemed obvious to me that a waste removal company would provide people with jobs while cleaning up the streets, but to the Guatemalan government it’s not a topic of the utmost importance.
In teams of three, our group scattered into different areas around the village in order to pick up as much trash as possible. Shortly after we started, a mother and her two girls stepped out of their house wielding brooms. They helped us by cleaning the area around their entryway before we had a chance to reach it.
Halfway down the street we were startled by heavy growling and sharp barks. I looked up to see a dog, no heavier than 40 pounds, slowly approaching us. Letting out a loud “NO!” I stepped tall in front of my friends in attempt to ward off the animal. At that moment three small puppies pranced out of some tall grass, and their mother walked away from us, her growl growing faint in the distance.
Later that day, an 8-year-old boy named Miguel would challenge me to race down that same street. Blinded by the moment of competition I forgot about the dog and her pups.
As soon as we passed the animal’s territory, it jumped out and chased after me. Without looking back I heard its jaw snap as it chomped at my heels. Every stride I took forced my feet higher and higher until my knees met my chin.
The dog retreated without a successful bite, and Miguel followed after me, his stomach aching with laughter. I had just escaped a vicious attack, but to the local boy it was just a hilarious moment of an ordinary day.
Our most intimate project led us to La Ciudad Viejo (The Old City); its streets full of labor horses and stray dogs. We walked down a dirt path bordered by sheet metal in search for La casa de Maria, a pregnant wife and mother of five children.
The path brought us to the base of a hill where a boy and a girl no older than 10 were filling buckets of stone. After topping them off, they placed the weight of the plastic containers between their shoulder blades.
We followed them up a hill, over boulders and around trees only to find out they were two of Maria’s children. The family had prepped our service that afternoon by hauling buckets of stone, barrels of water, and bags of cement up to their house.
It was a small, concrete structure, with an electrical wire hanging out between the tin roof and a wall. Inside there was no dining area, no scent of fresh linen, and no sink overflowing with dirty dishes. All they had was one sunken in double bed, the mattress exposed to layers of dirt and flies, along with an old TV atop a dresser.
The children welcomed us inside to lay down our backpacks and water bottles.
Outside of the house, the materials provided were used to create a concrete floor that would later be sheltered by an overhanging tin roof. As I worked at leveling dirt with a hoe, and removing roots with my hands, I felt a rhythm in the air. It was an atmosphere that our group created as a whole. Everyone melted into the moment, and we flowed through the labor like waves to the ocean.
It took the better part of two days, and in the end our work doubled the family’s home, expanding it to no larger than a two-person college dorm room.
Some of us cried on the walk down the hill. Those with dry cheeks simply needed more time to process what we had witnessed, and their tears would come later on.
We finished the dishes at the Lopez’s house, and Ingrid gave us thanks with a smile so big that it forced her eyes to squint. It was her own unique smile, but an expression that resembled the emotions seen in Miguel, Maria, and everyone else who met that week.
On our last day we said goodbye to our friends at La Corazon de los Niños and at La Union. As we hugged they exchanged the phrase “Mi casa es su casa,” (My house is your house).
We left for the airport knowing the people we helped had impacted us at equal, if not greater value. I didn’t want to get on the plane. Guatemala had become a piece of me and I wanted to stay at home.