We mentioned in our last blog post that we would be spending our weekend building houses with the nonprofit, Un Techo Para Mi Pais (a roof for my country). Jessica, Anthea, Alba, and Pavit left Guatemala City at around 6 on Friday night and headed to a gym near the community where they would be working.
We traveled about half way to our final destination. The place arranged for our stay was a large gym. After getting to the gym, we got to hear encouraging words from some of the families beneficiaries from Techo. We even got to witness a dance performance some of the local kids came up with for us! After eating dinner, all the volunteers played some icebreakers to get to know each other better and then went to sleep early to rest up for the long day we had ahead of us.
Saturday morning started off at 4:45 am for us, as some volunteers blasted Bob Marley to ease us awake. After breakfast, we headed out to Villa Nueva- the community that was to receive twelve houses that weekend. We were all split up into teams that were to build houses for different families. Many of the volunteers were actually employees of corporate McDonalds, as their foundation had recently donated 300 houses to Techo. Some teams even had help from the community members themselves. Saturday was an interesting day to start building the houses, as it was pouring rain before we had even eaten lunch and did not stop until the next day. However, everybody working on the houses was extremely dedicated and determined and did not stop until they had accomplished their goals for the day. We left Villa Nueva at around 6pm on Saturday and returned to the gym to eat dinner and warm up after a long and wet day.
We woke up at 4:45 again on Sunday to get ready to finish our houses and have them ready for the families. After busing out to Villa Nueva, we all went back to our specific building sites and went to straight to work. We were luckier with the weather on Sunday, as it did not rain until most people already had roofs on their houses (however, Pavit’s group was not one of the luckier ones and ended up working in the rain again).
After putting the finishing touches on the houses (putting in the windows and the door) and decorating them with balloons and streamers, we presented them to the families. We even set off firecrackers! In the end, the houses were one room, 6 by 3 meters, with wooden floors and walls and aluminium roofs. The families were all extremely grateful and many tears were shed from volunteers and community members alike. After the houses were built, members of the community as well as volunteers came together to share their thanks and reasons for wanting to help Villa Nueva. We had some coffee (the best any of us had ever had) and food. After our get together we made our way back to the city. It was a truly eye opening and inspiring weekend. We all made new friends and had the opportunity to help give somebody a roof over their head. For anyone that has the opportunity to work with Techo, we highly recommend it!
Here are the descriptions of our experience from each of the Nourish members who volunteered this weekend at Techo:
For me, building a community literally also builds the community symbolically. This feeling was most tangible when the volunteers and community members were standing on land that the community had cleared for a school. Community leaders, families and a district politician took turns speaking about gratitude, solidarity and hopes for the future. After securing housing for the community, the next step is clean water and a school.
The family I worked with consisted of a single mom and her 3 daughters, ages 11, 9 and 2. The women worked whenever she could, sorting through a waste dump for recyclable material. She related to us that all the money she made went to food and soap. She was mourning the loss of her 13 year old daughter who ran away with her boyfriend. From what I understood (as my Spanish is imperfect), this event moved her to save the 800 quetzals (approximately $100) to buy the house.
The original home the family lived in was made of leaky scrap metal and wood. It was one small room, with 2 beds for the family to share. There was also a make shift shelf fashioned from trash cans and plywood, as well as a small table for food shortage. I noticed there was no fridge or sink and the dirt floor was crawling with insects.
After my team finished construction, I met a family who all seemed to have deep, unsettling coughs. When I was holding their baby, I noticed that he was having convulsions every 20-30 seconds. Alejandra, the organizer of the event, explained the family was sick because of their living situation, although I didn’t understand the specifics. They were one of the families receiving a new home.
I have often hear it said that giving “hand outs” is a negative act – encouraging laziness and disincentivizing the poor. However, even though the families only paid about 10% of the cost of the homes, I did not feel that constructing these homes was a hand out. I felt we were working in the community with hard-working and deserving people to make a better life for them, for their community, for Guatemala, and for the world.
Overall, the highlights of my experience were:
- Hearing the life story of a fellow volunteer when we were hoisting and hammering the aluminium sheets for the roof. He was born in the mountains in an indigenous community, but was forced to leave after his community got caught in the civil war and every member of his family was killed. And here he was giving back.
- Praying with volunteers and family after we unveiled the house. Every person was praying loudly and passionately at the same time, creating a strong sense of solidarity and gratitude.
- Understanding the meaning of “building a community”
- Getting a ride on a motorcycle with a police man
For more comments about the nature of building a house, please read the other ladies’ posts.
My weekend working in Villa Nueva with Techo might just be the best weekend of my summer thus far. It was a little scary to be split up from Alba, Jessica, and Anthea (especially because of my very limited Spanish speaking skills). However, I had the opportunity to work with some really amazing and inspirational people. Our team consisted of Techo volunteers, McDonalds volunteers, and a neighbour of the house’s owner named Jorge. Everybody was a really good sport the entire time we were working, even when it started pouring rain on Saturday. I actually discovered my love for the dirt and the mud while digging holes for the foundation of the house; everybody was laughing at the foreigner with the passion for la tierra! Nobody was afraid to get down and dirty, and I loved that. We knew what we had to get done and we did it. We were a bit slower than other groups, and were among the last to finish our house, but in the end it didn’t matter. Presenting the house to its owner, Maria, was one of the more emotional moments I’ve experienced in Guatemala. Knowing how much that house meant to her, and knowing I had a part in helping her receive it (however small) was a humbling moment. This weekend definitely left me a little bit in love with the entire organization at Techo and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have worked with them.
This weekend we spent at Villa Nueva was unforgettable, from the moment we arrived at the Dome (the meeting place for all of the volunteers) on Friday to the moment we were dropped off two nights later. We were welcomed by all volunteers and leaders of Techo as soon as we arrived at our meeting place. Everyone wanted to know our names and our reason for being in Guatemala. I was waiting impatiently for my tia Moira and her son Gabriel who were joining us for this great adventure. They both come from Davis, California to do some volunteering and our time here in Guatemala happens to overlap!!!!
Friday- After all volunteers arrived and all of the leaders had been introduced, we listened to some Marimba brought by the students at UVG. At 6:30pm all the volunteers got in their assigned buses which took them to their respective destinations, where they were staying for two nights. For us who went to Villa Nueva, (Anthea, Jessica, Moira, Gabriel, Pavit and I ), we arrived at a gym. Several of the families who we were building houses for were waiting for us with a nice, warm Guatemalan dinner. We had ¨chuchitos¨which are very similar to tamales, accompanied by nice warm coffee. I ate my dinner with two girls; Lesvi, 14 years of age, and her 9 year old cousin whose name I did not catch. They were both very curious about the culture in America and though I could write a whole essay about our conversation and my own observations, I will keep it short and just write about what struck me. By this I am referring to their dreams. These two girls are very involved in their household- they help with household chores, cooking, and taking care of their younger siblings. They both go to school in the mornings where they study the basic subjects (English not included). Though they have a lot of responsibilities they also have very ambitious dreams. Lesvi dreams of being an English teacher and her cousin dreams of being a veterinarian.
Saturday-The next day we traveled to Villa Nueva where we met our family and started the construction. I learned all kinds of construction tricks and was able to apply some of the knowledge obtained during my undergraduate years. Everyone in the group was essential! Especially the families who were able to put so much effort into building their own house! Kids and adults all came to cheer us up through the sunshine and rain. Guatemalan weather is vicious, as we have described in earlier posts, and it rained and shined on us all day Saturday. I came prepared with rain-proof gear and managed to stay fairly dry all day Saturday. We advanced quickly with all their help. The hardest thing was setting up the pillars for the house but all our work was eased with a nice homemade meal. These last couple of days definitely met all my cravings for Guatemalan food! 😀 By the time we left on Saturday we had our floor down, as well the walls and reinforcements.
Sunday- Since we had gotten done the most important work on Saturday, we got to business on Sunday and finished the work promptly! We also took a walk around town and even played some soccer with the kids. After we presented the finished house to our family we had lunch with them. Once again it was amazing food! Our group then split and went to help other groups with their houses. I went to Pavit´s house. I especially liked working with groups because I was able to work on different parts of the building project. Building the roof was fascinating and very scary at the same time, especially when it started raining! This time I did not save myself from the rain, I just decided to enjoy it! Though my contribution to the second house was minimal, I was still thanked like everyone else who put in a lot of effort.
Finally, after all houses had been finished we all gathered in the new school. This school is not yet built but it is a standing promise from the mayor of Villa Nueva. There were a lot of inspirational speeches as well as many thanks from the community to us, the volunteers. I hope us volunteers showed our appreciation to these people who welcomed us from the very fist day we set foot in their neighborhood.
Though we were only a minimal part of this project which was organized by hard working Techo volunteers and sponsors it was all a wonderful and unforgettable experience shared with wonderful people!
The 2 days spent with the Techo team was one of the best weekends of my life. I am so honored to be part of this fantastic crew of passionate and inspiring individuals. Just stepping into the carpark where the volunteers gathered on Friday, I could feel the excitement and energy in the air. No, it wasn’t due to the free Redbull or DJ in the background–it was the eagerness of hundreds of motivated individuals who were ready to make an impact in Guatemala. Needless to say, I was immediately infected by everyone else and was pumped up for the weekend.
My team and I worked for a lovely family of five. The father is the main breadwinner of the family and he earns an income by working as a security guard at Amatitlan. In order to support his family, he wakes up at 5am in the morning and sets off to work on his motorbike. He works a total of 18 hours, from 6am to 12 midnight, and rests only on Sundays and Mondays. As his kids ran past us while we were deep in conversation, he paused and said, “My kids are beautiful.” This is a man who touched my heart deeply because I knew how hard he had to work to earn this new house for his wife and three children.
I was deeply inspired by every member on the team. Although not everyone was gifted in manual labor, it was evident that each person gave their all and wanted to contribute to the best of their own abilities, be it screwing in a nail, sawing wood, or moving large planks of wood. The team members were so determined to complete the house before lunch the last day, and only rewarded themselves with a delicious homecooked Guatemalan lunch at 3pm when we were done. That simple lunch never tasted sweeter.
I was not one who was most useful in manual labor and thus ended up teaching the children, Paola and Minale, English during my construction breaks. Paola, an 11 year old, is the oldest child of the family and spends her afternoons after school taking care of her two younger siblings while her mother busies herself with household chores and a job. She only owns one English book and has been studying the book by herself in her free time. Sitting on the ground by the construction site with just a pen and paper in hand, we went through numbers, days, months, colors and food in English. Minale, her 6-year old sister who has yet to begin school, sat by our side and recited English words with us. As I continued working, I couldn´t help but smile when I spotted Paola reciting her newly learned words and writing them over at one corner.
After we were done constructing the house, Paola and Minale took my hand and walked me around their village. They excitedly showed me their fields of tomato and maize, their little cement court where they played football with their neighbors, their grandma´s house where another four of their family members lived in. They spoke Spanish slowly to me and Paola occassionally used her new English words in our conversation. Karen, a kind 15 year-old I befriended, invited me to her home and showed me the room she shared with her mother and her different pets (4 roosters, 1 little chick, 1 cat and 4 newborn kittens!). This was the most precious moment of the weekend–I was no longer a stranger to them, but a friend (:
The Techo experience also gave me a better understanding of the workings of a non-profit organization. I was amazed at the large pool of new and existing volunteers that Techo draws in order to make each building project successful. When I asked Tato, the director of Techo, what he thinks the role of a non-profit organization is, he shared that non-profit organizations not only work on agendas that the government have not sufficiently supported, but also serve to build a culture of volunteerism among the people. As I have witnessed over the weekend, Techo has definitely succeeded in achieving both goals and is a great organization to model after. I came out from this Techo experience with a heightened respect for all the Techo staff and their work, and a greater interest in non-profit organizations.
This weekend with Un Techo Para Mi Pais was an unforgettable and rewarding one. I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by passionate and motivated individuals,each coming from different backgrounds, but all united with a common goal to improve their beautiful country. The villagers of Villa Nueva also moved me with their kind hospitality and love towards us.
Much more than just building houses, this was a weekend about building relationships (:
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