SW Washington students making an impact in San Vicente Buenabaj, Guatemala

This was my second courts for kids trip and just like the first one I showed up at the airport, but with way more confidence than last time. I was feeling like a veteran. My Spanish had improved, and I thought I knew just what to pack. I ended being completely blindsided by the people of San Vicente Buenabaj, Guatemala.

After we climbed 9,000 feet in a bus that looked like a glow in the dark version of The Frizz’s Magic School Bus, we reached an incredibly enthusiastic community. As we pulled up to the community, it seemed like the bus was falling apart. There was smoke coming from behind us and crazy popping noises. It turns out there’s a lot bigger firecrackers than the ones they sell in the US.

During the reception, we listened to words from the principal of the school and community leaders, but the only speech that really stuck out to me was the speech from the foreman. He said thank you to us, like everyone else, but he also demanded that the workers and community members refrain from making any inappropriate comments to the women, and that he wanted all of us to feel at home. If he didn’t make this comment, I’m sure our whole experience would have been different. We might not have experienced the best part of the trip: building friends with the community members. I’m talking about the great friendships where you can’t help but hit it off in the first conversation and you’re holding back tears in the last.

There’s around 500 people in the community we served. Between the 25 of us, we probably touched someone in every single family. A group of guys from our trip, Kyle, David, Ethan, and Taylor, connected with a very generous and hospitable man named Vicente. Vicente gave us rides up the mountain, loaned people his shower, his temescal (which is basically a pizza oven shaped sauna), and his wife prepared fresh mango juice. He worked beside us every day, and if someone had a question about the community, he was the go-to guy. Like everyone else in the community, he had a story: he made his way to the US, where he worked for a few years and sent enough money home for his family to build a home. Most men the community had a similar story. In fact, everyone I asked had a family member in the US.

The women who cooked, cleaned, and probably worked harder than anyone else loved a freshman from our group, Max. Max spent all morning and half the afternoon one day trying to learn how to make corn tortillas for lunch. At first, they refused to let him touch anything in the kitchen, but after a while they gave in and let him fry some chicken. That night I went into the kitchen with him and even the littlest old ladies went crazy. Their faces lit up and they all wanted a picture. Later that week, he was holding their babies while they played basketball, which probably saved some lives. The way he connected with these women was actually really impressive, because he had to deal with a whole new language barrier. A lot of the women didn’t even speak Spanish; they spoke one of the many Mayan languages, Quiche.

Some of us ended up connecting with the kids more than we did with anyone else. I was definitely included in this group, along with Amanda and, as they called them, the “Chinos” (Matt, Preston, and Leo). By the end of the week, we knew the names of probably 20 kids, who was who’s sibling, and who wanted to get a college degree. One boy was 14 and heading to Los Angeles at the end of April to meet his father, and every night for about ten minutes he would ask me what words were in English to prepare for his trip. Juana and Eusebia were two pre-teen girls who loved to play basketball and wanted to get their college degrees.  The rest of the kids – Brian, Christian, Alex, Martín, Anderson, Pablo, Mario, Lucio, Jorge, Nelson, Nelly, Minor, and Santos – didn’t talk much about their future, but they really loved to play soccer and beat up Leo. They were like any kid you’ll meet in the US, if not more appreciative of the small things in life.

Playing with them was just like playing with our cousins and siblings in the US. We wrestled with them, teased them, and even went to watch one of the girls basketball games. It was U-11, so Eusebia couldn’t play, but Juana killed it. She scored a few times and nobody got by her. Watching those girls shut out the other team was probably a highlight for a lot of us. Not only did these kids play like kids from the US, but they were just as impatient as them. Every night they asked me when the court would be ready, and every night I told them the same thing. But their impatience made the inauguration even better.

Getting to dance with the community members and seeing how grateful they were for the court at the inauguration made my trip, and I’m sure a lot of other people’s, too. Afterwards, when we were all loading up on the buses, I looked back and saw a tearful Vicente giving hugs to Kyle and Ethan. Eusebia and Juana both looked like they were about to cry as they were saying goodbye to Amanda. Something about that day assured me that we impacted their lives in more than just one way. I don’t know if it was their performance or how hard the goodbyes were, but I do know that we shared American culture with them, and maybe even gave the younger generation hope. If those kids saw their dream for a court come true, they might realize their dream to get a college degree isn’t so far out of reach either.

-Ozzie Gonzalez, Camas HS student

“The high point for me on this trip is definitely the locals, because ever since the moment we got here, they have been happy to see us and were very excited; and seeing their expression after the court was built and realizing how much it really means to them.” – Kyle Hood, Heritage HS student

“I learned a lot from temporarily being a part of this community. I saw how close a group of people could be. Everyone knows everybody and watches out for each other. This community is far more tight knit than most communities in the US. I learned how if everyone makes sacrifices that big things can get done.” – Kyle Allen, Camas HS student

“What I learned from the community is that you don’t need much to be happy. Even though the locals were in poverty, they were still exhibiting genuine happiness. This made me realize that happiness is a choice.” – Leo Lam, Camas HS student

“What I learned from the community was to always be content, because the community members always carried a smile . . . I also learned that you should treat everyone with respect, because respect is such a crucial thing in the world.” – Anthony Jenkins, Columbia River HS student

“My favorite memories from this trip include watching how the court impacted the community and communicating with the children. I will never forget watching all the women play basketball on the new court and how much fun they were having. One woman was playing with her baby on her back!” – Willow Klug, Hockinson HS student

“I teach A.P. Human Geography and we discuss issues such as development level of countries, population, human rights, and gender inequality. This trip had me constantly making connections to my class and our studies. It made the things I study with my students come alive. We saw poverty up close, discussed the issues Guatemalans face, and watched women work hard in the kitchens, but then also play hard on the new court. It was an amazing week of growth and learning.” – Meghann Bizzarro, Teacher at Mt. View High School