UWF social work and service learning in Guatemala: A student’s perspective

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Photo by Kenneth King.

Kenneth King

Contributing Writer

When riding through the streets of Guatemala City, one cannot sit still. It is impossible. The roads are an endless path of cracks and potholes. You shift right, left, and then right again as the tires take a beating from an already beaten road. The honking never ceases, it just becomes a part of the conversation.

Fearless motorcyclists whiz by as they navigate between buses, trucks, and potholes while their girlfriends hold on for their lives. The fumes spewing out of rotten exhaust pipes assault one’s sense of smell, as everything begins to smell like burning trash.

It was good to get away from Pensacola, and an even better to get away from Guatemala City as we headed eastward to Zacapa.

Zacapa is a rural area that truckers pass through on a regular basis. Tourists are scarce in this part of Guatemala. It is where we, a contingent of University of West Florida students, spent the majority of our time. We handed out donations and learned about the social work programs of the country, which take place in women’s cooperatives, hospitals, and shelters.

However, one scene that still enters my mind everyday was a local dumpsite.

The smell of burning trash was so piercing that it induced a spell of slight dizziness. Collections of plastic were overflowed from black garbage bags. Dogs trotted and scavenged through the grey, toxic dirt – their rib cages exposed beneath their golden fur.

This was the Teculután dump. This filth was also home to roughly three hundred families. It was home for mothers, fathers and children who lived in makeshift tents.

Vultures picked through the trash side by side with the families. The vultures plucked what they wanted with their sharp beaks. The families used their dirt-coated hands.

I could not help but to be overwhelmed with emotion. The longer we stayed in Zacapa, the farther away we were from the United States and its problems. Now, however, we were face-to-face with the problems of Guatemala.

Unlike developed nations, there is no safety net for the poor in Guatemala. Those who fall sick must bring their own supplies to already overcrowded hospitals. We witnessed this firsthand at the Zacapa Health Clinic. We saw families huddled against the walls as they waited for their turn to be treated.

Fortunately, not all moments were those of sorrow. The non-governmental organization we worked with, Hearts in Motion (HIM), hosts an annual pool party for children with special needs.

Parents from all over Zacapa made the trip to the waterpark in Torta Mila for a moment of relaxation, while we entertained their kids.

I quickly forgot about any disabilities the second we all entered the water. Despite being foreigners, we were all able to connect with at least one child. At the end of the day, there were no “handicapped” kids—just children who wanted to have fun.

After Zacapa we headed toward the city called Antigua. It is an old colonial city with signature Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets. An iconic volcano towered over the city.

Inhabiting Antigua was every type of person one could find. Some were university students walking in groups, commonly sporting their college t-shirts and large shades. Others were the typical nuclear family looking to ‘get away from it all’. Senior citizens roamed through the narrow streets worry-free, until they had to step over a pothole or cross the street.

Travel writers huddled in trendy restaurants, the kind one might find featured in the New York Times, sipping coffee and working on their laptops. Drunks wandered aimlessly, seeking their escape from their troubles at home. That is, of course, assuming they had a home. Then there were the locals caught in the middle of it all. Everyone had been to Antigua.

A deep sadness struck me on our final day in the country. It is a sadness you feel when you lose someone or something that brought you so much life in a small and intense amount of time.

Those smiling faces, from young to old are something that will remain with me forever. I feel that the worst thing I could have done was not to leave the people I had connected with in such a short amount of time, but to forget about them.

The Service Learning in Guatemala program is a study abroad summer course offered by UWF. The course begins with six preparatory sessions before departing on the ten-day trip.

The course is an initiative of UWF’s Emerge Program and welcomes students from all disciplines.

While in Guatemala, students work with the non-governmental organization Hearts in Motion, in conjunction with local staff. Hearts in Motion provides shelter for disabled and orphaned children, medical supplies for hospitals, assistance for senior citizens and much more.

For more information about the program and HIM, go to http://uwf.edu/ceps/community-and-outreach/emerge/our-faculty/2013-2014-emerge-faculty-fellows/dr-chris-cotten/http://www.heartsinmotion.org/