Students build playground for Guatemalan children

Like many American college students, there was never a time in sophomore Sarah Gouker’s life where she didn’t have a roof over her head or food on the table. Her parents made sure the math major and Business Scholar received a good education, sent her to private voice lessons every Wednesday, and she shopped at the nicest name brand stores.

When she and 19 members of Earthwide Outreach by Students (EOS) landed on Guatemalan soil for an eight-day service trip during Winter Break to build a playground for underprivileged children, their world did a 180-degree flip.

Street beggars asked the students to purchase their beads, scarves and strawberry shortcake stickers for close to nothing. The Guatemalan people also welcomed them to their country as if they were movie stars, waving and yelling with excitement.

“We traveled in a packed minivan with our luggage stacked two-yards high on top of the vehicle through Guatemala City to arrive at our destination, my face was plastered to the window with fear,” wrote Gouker in an email. “AR-50s (rifles) were held by guards in front of banks and car dealerships, children were walking around with machetes, and a dozen roses were being sold on the side of the road for five quetzals, which is less than 75 cents in America. I was ready to go home.”

EOS teamed with Maximo Nivel, which finds service opportunities in certain areas of Central and South America. According to junior and EOS President Nikki Johnson, the students did fundraisers and received gifts from private foundations and local businesses, as well as a gift from the Denny Plattner '84 Memorial Fund. Otherwise, they raised enough to pay for the trip — almost $1,300/per student — on their own.

“We have worked (with) Maximo Nivel before (Costa Rica 2012) and they offer phenomenal service for volunteers,” said Johnson. “They provide a work site, transportation, host families to stay with as well as on-site staff that speak both English and Spanish fluently to avoid any miscommunications.

Though Gouker’s first impressions were daunting, it wasn’t long before she got over her culture shock and saw the beauty surrounding her in Antigua, where she and the others stayed with host families.

The students spent five hours each morning working on a dusty, hilly patch of land in nearby San Mateo, sawing wood and painting it with termite repellent, flattening the ground, mixing cement, picking up large rocks from the side of the mountain and installing the  seesaws, swing set and jungle gym.

Afternoons allowed time to explore and learn about the country’s unique culture.

“Antigua is rich with history and architecture, and it was so much fun to be able to walk around on the cobblestone streets and experience all that the city had to offer,” said sophomore Rachel Helt. “(Our) hike up the volcano was beautiful. The views of the landscape surrounding it were amazing and being able to roast marshmallows from the heat that comes out of the ground was an awesome experience.”

While some students were Spanish majors with a good command of the language, others, like Helt, relied on their friends and the Maximo Nivel staff when it came to communicating with the Guatemalan people.

“I have taken Spanish for four years but it never really stuck, so there was definitely a language barrier in some situations,” said Helt. “But the locals knew that we were foreigners and would slow down their speaking so that we could understand them better.”

Helt didn’t consider the manual labor she and the students performed difficult, but found adjusting to the food a different matter.

“I am not a picky eater at all, but when nothing agrees with your stomach is makes it very hard to eat anything. So working (while you’re) not feeling 100 percent was one of the most challenging things about the whole trip.”

On their final day in Guatemala, the lack of hot water, inability to flush toilet paper down the toilet, hours of sweating, and mouthfuls of dirt were all worth it. There were colorful streamers hung from the playground and inside the adjacent school, the young children sang a song for the Hanover students.

“For some reason, that specifically touched my heart and my eyes swelled with tears,” said Gouker. “We were all given a certificate and a thank you letter from the children as a token of appreciation for our work. Then one by one they lined up and gave us all hugs.

“They hugged us tight and long and whispered in our ears (the word) gracias. I was overwhelmed with happiness and sadness at the same time; happiness because I knew that we as a group had given them a gift that would make their days on top of that mountain a little brighter. But sad because I wish I could have done so much more. The founders of the school spoke to us before we said goodbye. They told us to thank our family, friends, and school for the support for this project and they said we were forever a part of their family.”