It is impossible to put into words the experience that Caleb, Cara and I had during our 11 days in Guatemala. It was a dream come true, but it was better than I ever dreamed. In short our hearts and perspective on life were changed. My kids came back understanding the pure joy that comes from self-less service. We saw a part of the world that was more beautiful than I ever imagined and we witnessed a way of life so different from ours that we could never possibly see life the same again. As we flew home Caleb and Cara were trying to figure out how they can return every six months, every time FHe (Family Humanitarian Experience) goes to the beautiful mountain village of Senahu, an 8-10 hour drive north-east of Guatemala city. The drive to anywhere from Senahu. MORE BEAUTIFUL than anywhere I've ever been!
Senahu - The main village where we stayed.
Caleb has never before had a desire to serve a mission. I pointed out to him that what we experienced was just like serving a mission. I pointed out all of the hard things: we slept in uncomfortable circumstances, we ate food that was unfamiliar to us, we couldn’t speak the language, we were living with people we didn’t know, we went to great lengths to served BUT with all of those hard things the joy of serving, of lightening the burden of another, of pure love, makes every sacrifice worth while. That being said he replied, “So how many times can I come back before my mission!”
As Caleb, Cara and I talked about the expense of going on humanitarian trips I told them that if we were to return we would not be able to do some of the other trips I’d been planning. (The expedition cost $995 per person plus flights and extras so it was about $2000 per person.) It told them it was my next dream to take my family to Disneyworld now that everyone is old enough to go on all of the rides. They said that if they had to choose, they hands down choose to go to Guatemala or other humanitarian trips. I was so impressed by the joy they found in serving.
On the way home I interviewed Caleb and Cara each individually so that their impressions would be recorded. Here are some of their thoughts:
CALEB (8th Grade, Age 13):
He kept telling me “It was just so FUN!!!” In digging to find out how it was FUN. He said that he loved making new friends. (There were a lot of youth his age on the trip.) There was also down time every evening for the youth to play games and enjoy each other.
He loved jumping into the waterfall and even hiking in the mud (and the six times he fell in the mud) to get to the waterfall.
He thought it was AWESOME playing with the village children and he liked working and serving by choice, not because someone was making him. He said, “It is so much fun to see the kids smile. It is better than anything. They smile about the littlest things.”
Caleb said that he learned to be happy with the little things and that he felt the spirit at church because people make such big sacrifices to get there. He said that church was one of his favorite moments there.
Caleb’s favorite project was working on houses (which he did three of the five days in the village) and the day at the medical clinic was crazy because he had no personal space. The kids were all over him.
CARA (6th Grade, Age 11):
She also said “EVERYTHING was SO FUN!” She loved the village children, especially the ones near the closest house we were building. She went to that house two days in order to be with her new friends, who also had puppies.
Cara’s favorite moment was when she returned from lunch the first day she was building the house (more playing and making friends than building) and their group of 5 friends had grown to a group of MANY who were waiting to play with them after lunch. She liked that her cousin Corbin played soccer with them with a ball he found.
She thought New Years was really fun. (Caleb bought some fireworks that would have defiantly been illegal in the US and we tried to keep everyone safe. The kids, and a few adults, just stayed up and played cards and games until midnight.)
She liked sleeping in a tent and loved making new friends with the kids on the expedition.
She liked going to the medical clinic and Days for Girls because there were so many kids to play with and she liked getting after the bullyboy.
She said that she learned that people can be happy without money, and that she doesn’t need stuff to have joy. “People need the simplest things – someone needed an oven to make bread for her whole village. The homes were so simple.”
She also said, “People really believe in the church. It is really hard to get there but they do. We are spoiled.”
We were with a group of about 10 families. There were a total of 46 people on our expedition and 30 of the 46 were under the age of 25 and were on the expedition with a parent. It felt a little like a youth conference where the youth really stepped up and showed their best selves. I never heard complaining, and they were so inclusive. It was really a top-notch group of youth and adults, people I hope to continue to associate with throughout my life. Pictured are the 30 youth on the trip from oldest (25) to youngest (3).
Rather than listing what we did chronologically I’d like to share my top ten take-a-way’s from the trip.
- "Love needs no translation”
This was the saying on the matching t-shirts we received, and I saw it in action! The best part for my children was showing love toward the village children. I think there were times that they forgot that they didn't speak the same language because they were able to have fun together and communicate.
- Great appreciation for a culture comes by being immersed in it.
We stayed in a community center right in the village of Senahu. We slept on a concrete floor with noise outside - like the locals. This is the building we stayed in, right in the middle of town.
It was open air, but the weather was perfect. It down poured rain most nights but we were a comfortable 65-70 degrees most of the time.
We went from village to village in the back of cattle trucks. Here the medical clinic crew was getting dropped off. And the crew that was headed to work on the water line kept going.
It was incredible to see the corn on the mountainsides, and recognize that the natives were eating corn tortillas for every meal. (We were offered corn tortillas at every meal too.)
Our food was simple, but very tasty and best of all only one person got sick one day. It was really remarkable that our caterers kept such a large group of Americans so healthy in a 3rd world environment.
It was impossible to complain about our ice cold showers when we looked around us and most didn’t even have running water. We knew that our 3rd world experience would be for a very short time, but most of those people would never even go as far as Guatemala City unless they were fortunate enough to raise the funds to go to the temple.
- I can do hard things and my children can be resilient too.
I’ll admit that I was a little nervous to go on this trip without Josh. He is my rock. He takes really good care of me and our children especially when it comes to most anything physical. If you know me, I really dislike getting dirty and camping is NOT my thing. This trip was a great reminder that I can do hard things. Things that are way out of my comfort zone and not just survive, but I can thrive. (Even though in this picture I was hiking in mud and had just fallen.)
It was awesome to see Caleb and Cara step up too. I told them that I was not going to “baby sit” them on this trip. I would be there if they needed me but we were going to work together as three equals. It was so neat to see all that they are capable of. I really loved spending this special time with them. Nothing like the bonding that takes place standing in the back of a truck.
- Service is accomplished One-By-One as the Savior did it.
As I go through the projects we worked on I recognize that the real connection and the real service came one person at a time. This time I spent blowing bubbles with Neil, so people would stop touching his blond hair and white skin, was so enjoyable for me.
My favorite project and the thing I went to accomplish was delivering 102 Days for Girls feminine hygiene kits. I did two classes and delivered them to two villages in conjunction with the Medical and Dental Clinics. Delivering the kits and especially teaching was an even more humbling experience than I imagined. Training was extremely difficult because everything I said had to be translated from English to Spanish to the Mayan language of Qhuche. The beautiful part was that the women were so grateful for the gifts we had the opportunity to deliver.
We had one doctor and one dentist on the trip.
Keith, my brother in law, pulled around 300 teeth in the two days of medical clinic. There wasn't water or electricity in this clinic. Keith said there were some people who stood and watched him pull teeth all day.
I was not the ideal person to work at the medical clinics. I tried to learn how to take blood pressure, but I wasn’t any good at it. I am not a blood person so being in the dental clinic was not for me.
I enjoy entertaining the hundreds of kids that accompanied their moms to the medical clinic.
The first day, in the village of Seriquitche, the day Cara went with me, there were not as many children so it felt so much more orderly.
The day Caleb went with me there were so many children it was CRAZY. (These are the people lined up for the clinic.)
That day our drive was over an hour, standing in the back of a cattle truck, to get to the village of Canguacha. The drive itself was incredible. There were moments that we were on the ridges of mountains on a single lane road with what felt like cliffs on both sides. It literally took my breath away. It was so beautiful!!
Our group built three houses. We use the word house very liberally. Basically we put up walls. There is no plumbing and no electricity in the homes we built. They were 6 meters by 6 meters. It was incredible to see houses being built with not a single power tool! In fact, to plane the wood the builders used machetes.
The thing the children loved most of all about these house projects is that they were encouraged to play with the neighborhood children while the older teens and adults worked. They loved making new friends!
Another project our group worked on, a few miles over the mountain from Senahu, in the village of Sesoch, was building a stove. There is not a single stove in the entire village! The people mostly cook over their fires but in order to get baked goods they had to take the steep trek over the mountain to Senahu. FHe was providing a business loan to a family with six children. The oldest son had been providing, but his mission papers were in so the 16 year old will be taking over as provider. It is our hope that this oven will provide the family with income and will be a blessing to the village so that they can get baked goods locally.
There were a few other projects our group did that we were less involved with. A couple of ladies spent two days teaching people how to sew. They had never used sewing machines before. One man felt it was a miracle they came to teach sewing because he had been sent a machine by a friend in the US and had been praying that someone would show up that could teach him to use it. A couple of men spent one afternoon in the family history library at the church teaching people how to use the internet and computers. Another strong and adventurous group spent a day working on a water line to the village of Canguacha. Many of the people that came to the medical clinic in that village were sick from parasites. It was nice to know that we were working on a long-term solution.
The final project our group worked on was at a preschool for children of single moms. It was incredible to see the simple facility. We worked on dividing a wall so babies could nap without toddlers disrupting them and building a desk. One girl had gathered supplies for the school for a Young Woman’s Project and it was neat to see their meager supplies completely transformed.
- You don’t have to understand the words to feel the spirit.
It is always special to go to church in a different country, but it is especially touching when you have a small idea of the sacrifices people make to get there. This 90-year-old man walks over 2 hours to be at church every Sunday.
We were also so impressed that the people at church, particularly the boys white shirts were SO WHITE and perfectly pressed. It blew my mind knowing they live in homes with dirt floors and wash their cloths in the streams. I felt impress at how serious they take the priesthood they hold.
I was so impressed with the way these Myayn people use music as a universal language. First, they sang with their whole hearts in sacrament meeting. It was awesome!! We also had some other neat experiences with music. Sonia, a woman who had been learning how to sew gathered our entire group of women “for a picture” after the woman’s meeting on the last day. She wanted everyone to get in for the picture. When we all gathered she held up her phone and instead of taking a picture she began singing “Good be with you Till We Meet Again” in Qhuche. She sang all of the verses (as they seemed to always do) and we were all so touched. We sang to her (just one verse as we hurried Americans do) and others who had gathered around as well. It was so tender and special.
On Sunday evening we split up into small groups. We took dinner to eat with local families in their homes. It was an awesome experience to be with them in their humble circumstances. The family Caleb, Colter and I ate with was lovely. Their kitchen had a dirt floor and three chickens perched in the room. The mom made tortillas and hot chocolate for us on her kitchen fire. The dad and children spoke Spanish so we were able to communicate.
The Coombs and Cara went to the home of two teen boys Anakleto and Mario. Their parents only spoke Qhuche, but the boys asked for Cathie’s favorite hymn so they could sing it together. In that room with only a fire for light they sang hymns. The boys sang to them in Qhuche and they sang in English. One of the boys asked to sing the “Spirit of God” to them in English. Yes, the spirit speaks through music!
We also loved the musical celebration we enjoyed at dinner our final night in the village. Alfredo and his family brought some men to play a traditional Mayan marimba. Everyone had a great time dancing as they played.
A few boys from the high school performed as a Mariachi Band as well. They had such passion on their faces. They brought us joy through their music.
A few boys from the high school performed as a Mariachi Band as well. They had such passion on their faces. They brought us joy through their music.
- The gospel gives LIGHT to the eyes of the members. It gives hope, purpose and possibility.
It was fun to talk to the missionaries after church. There appeared to be a companionship for each ward, including a companionship of sisters, living in Senahu. Apparently there are currently seven missions in Guatemala, four in Guatemala city and 3 in the outer villages. The missionaries were sacrificing great personal comfort to be serving but the difference they are making is profound. When we went to the waterfall some kids followed us holding an LDS pamphlet hoping we would recognize that they were one of us. They were so sweet. The teen boys wanted to make sure we were all safe and tenderly followed us and waited to take our hands when we went over particularly slippery or potentially dangerous sections of the hike. They live in the middle of nowhere with almost noting of the world, but had such light and hope it was evident to all of us. (The boy in the picture was waiting to help Cara past a slippery spot.)
- God answers prayers
Before leaving Josh gave blessings to Caleb, Cara and I. Unfortunately I don’t remember any details from the blessings except that he blessed me that I would “have perfect health” while I was on the trip. That really stood out to me because it felt like a really bold thing to say, after all I was going to a 3rd world country where most Americans get at least a little sick. I clang to that throughout the trip, and I was blessed with perfect health.
Another time my nephew Corbin prayed that we could get a lot of work done for the family we were building the stove for. After praying he had the thought to lift and dump the wheel barrel directly into the stove and eliminate the step of shoveling the dirt into the stove. Eliminating that step did make the work go faster.
It was just so neat to be used as God’s hands. One afternoon a group was working on turning sheets of metal into pans for the fireplace. Gus, a product engineer, happened to sign up to work on the fireplace that afternoon, not knowing they would actually be making pans. His knowledge and ability to change the original plan made the pans so much sturdier. It was defiantly divine intervention.
Keith (my brother-in-law) had prayers answered in the dental clinic and I prayed that we would have perfect order as we distributed the Days for Girls kits. I am sure may other prayers were answered that we don't even know. It felt like we were serving as God’s hands and He allowed His angles to be with us, and many many prayers were answered.
There were little miracles around every corner, even fitting our truck full of the medical clinic crew through a gate that even in hind sight, we could not fit through.
- Gratitude for EDUCATION
This trip made me feel a profound gratitude for my education and especially that it is so easy for my children to receive an education. The foundation we work through is the same foundation that supports the high school in Senahu. Only a small number of the village children get to go to school beyond a few years. They don’t read or write. They are learning how to work and I’m sure many life skills but missing out on so much that is learned in school. The children who do go to the high school usually have to leave their families and move in with another family in Senahu, usually at great sacrifice to their families. I’m so glad my children don’t move out at 13 or 14 to go to school and we give up much of our monthly income to keep them in school.
One request I had was to give a goal setting/mindset training. It resulted in the women from the Qhuche speaking stake (organized just six months earlier) gathering our last afternoon in the village. I gave a brief pep-talk on mindset. (Which had to be translated twice and with each translator what I said got longer so who knows what they even were really taught.) At the end I said how does this story of Bunker Bean apply to you. The first person to reply just said, “the problem with us is that we can’t even read or write.” At that moment my five-year-old niece was writing her name. What a gift that we can read and write! After confirming that classes for adults are offered, my response was to say that is a perfect example of a starting point. Decide that you can read and write and go to every class that is offered until what you dream becomes a reality. It was a humbling experience and made me so grateful for the ease we have in receiving an education.
That Stake Woman’s Social turned into a highlight of the trip. One woman in our group was a jump-rope team coach/instructor. She brought jump-ropes to donate and after my “class” we give the children there the opportunity to jump. (She even most of us, including me, to double-dutch during some of our down time.)
Someone else brought a parachute and we modeled how to play with it. We then encouraged the women to play with their children. It was so beautiful to her their laughter. Play is not a strong part of their culture, everyone is busy working to survive.
- With the blessings we have comes stewardship.
Since my mission I have had the mantra that where much is given much is required. I think another very important message is that we don’t need to feel guilty for what we have, we need to feel GRATEFUL. Part of that gratitude is recognizing that God loves all of his children and ours is the stewardship to help others.
Josh’s mom, Sharon, is a great example of this as she tirelessly makes Day’s for Girls kits. She has found a project she feels is worthwhile and she dedicates herself to making the world a better place by working on it. I hope to remember my stewardship better in the future. I hope to continue to apply this scripture found in Jacob 2:19 more fully in my life.
“And after you have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will see them for the intent to do goo – to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.”
- If you have the desire to do humanitarian work, the funds to do it will come together.
Spending so much money to go on a humanitarian trip was a really big concern for me. We travel a lot but we typically travel on a shoe-string budget so this felt like a huge splurge! My dear friend Rachel, who also happens to be the founder of FHe, reminded me that money is nothing to God and that if we desired to serve the money would not be a problem. I really had to make the decision and move forward on faith that it would be fine, and it was more than fine! In fact, almost none of it came from our regular budget. The miracles and mercy’s of God showed up before we ever even went on the trip. We started out with a pizza dinner fundraiser. (It was good, we raised about $600, but defiantly not worth the work. I wouldn’t recommend fundraisers where there is also high overhead.) After helping with the pizza fundraiser, Josh’s parents decided to let us head up and keep the proceeds from the Navajo Taco stand they do each year for the 24th of July. The money from that was the exact amount we needed to pay for our flights. My cousin offered to use her company’s charity matching benefit from work to pay $500 toward each of our expeditions. With that we only needed $1000 more dollars. The way that came to us is a reminder of how kind God is.
FHe was fundraising to build “dry wells” to get water to people in Africa. I felt as if I should contribute but know that I was also trying to get money for our trip. I donated a couple hundred dollars knowing that water is the most basic of needs. As I sent of that money I thought, “you can’t give without it coming back to you 100 fold.” The next Sunday at church a dear friend came up to me and said that she and her husband felt that they wanted to contribute to our trip. She handed me a check. I didn’t look at the check until after I’d walked away from our tearful and heartfelt conversations about need in the world. When I walked away and saw that the check was for $1000 I was blown away at the kindness of God and the generosity of my friend. I’m here to say, that if you have desires to serve and you are willing to put forth the effort, God will work out the details. Worth the effort? ABSOLUTELY!!