Guatemala IVHQ Volunteer Trip September 2015

As soon as I heard about the IVHQ program on the EO Fire podcast, I started planning my very first trip. I chose Guatemala and I chose to work with kids. I paid the fees, booked my plane tickets, got travel insurance, background check and vaccinations and I was ready to go. I read all the pre-trip information from the IVHQ site so I could understand a little more about the culture, etiquette and proper clothing. My IVHQ contact, Hannah, was very prompt, friendly and answered all my questions quickly, even though they are in New Zealand.

I flew out on a Saturday night and arrived in Guatemala City Airport at 7:10am Sunday morning. After going through customs and getting my bag, I was told to look for a yellow flag with a big smiley face on it. I saw it immediately and was greeted by Nixon with a happy "Welcome to Guatemala"! He was my driver to Antigua, which took about an hour, so we hopped into his vehicle and off we went. Our first stop, Maximo Nivel in Antigua.
Maximo Nivel was the in-country volunteer co-coordinators for my trip. They were to make sure I was properly educated, trained and placed in the right volunteer assignment. They were my home base for the entire week with access to wi-fi (which is spotty in Guatemala, even though I had my Sprint iPhone enabled), snacks, information about the town, best places to shop and eat, a smiling face to hear about your day and advice on your volunteer placement, if you had any questions. Phomolo welcomed me in and setup orientation for 3:30pm. In the meantime I was checked in, given a packet of information and taken to my host family house. I met Marta Julia who was to be my hostess for the week and she welcomed me into her home. Street access to her home:
 Front door:
 Fresh roses in my room!
View of one of the 3 surrounding volcanoes from her street:
I was surprised to learn that Marta Julia did not know very much English as Spanish was not a requirement for this trip. So it made for an interesting first meal together. She took me to a restaurant for my first authentic Guatemalan breakfast:
Luckily I had downloaded 2 English-Spanish translation apps onto my iPhone before my trip, so we stumbled through some basic conversation. I then committed myself to learn as much Spanish as possible during the trip. Since she was a retired schoolteacher, she was really patient and kind with my broken Spanish and a great teacher. Back to her home, got my house keys, unpacked and took a nap before orientation, since I had barely slept on the plane. The sound of church bells and firecrackers kept me up, but I did doze a little. I grabbed my map and walked the 9 blocks back to Maximo Nivel for my orientation. At this time I was told my placement will be at a daycare in the nearby city of San Lucas for kids 5 years old and under. I was pretty excited.

Now, I must mention that many people had cautioned me about personal safety before my trip. I asked other volunteers and their families all had the same message, don't get killed. Pretty drastic. Maximo Nivel prepared me with some very basic common sense practices: Don't carry your original passport, only a copy (which they made for me), don't carry all your money (quetzals), only what you can afford to lose in case you get robbed. If you get robbed, give them the money. Don't go out alone after dark and only in large groups after dark. Don't leave your drink unattended in case someone may slip something into it. Keep your money tucked away in a pocket which would make it hard for a pickpocket to grab it. Be sure and activate your situational awareness and don't wander around with your earbuds blocking all noise. Basically all the things I learned while roaming around downtown Chicago.

The next day I met Corinne (from Ireland) and we set off for San Lucas. We jumped on the local public transportation called the Chicken Bus for a 25 minute ride to the daycare. People were seated 3 to a seat and sometimes 1 person standing in the aisle. Everyone was considerate and no one was chomping on McDonalds or yelling into their cell phones, like we do in the US:
We hopped off the bus and I finally got to meet the kids I'll be with for the next week.

Everything about Guatemala was completely different from the US. Some of it I loved, some of it caused me great concern for the citizens. But the one thing that is exactly the same is the simple way that I connected with the kids and their acceptance of this silly woman that speaks no Spanish, but is happy to play with stickers, sing Itsy Bitsy Spider, serve breakfast and lunch, hug, kiss, cuddle, push on swings, play ball, blow bubbles and make goofy kittens with sidewalk chalk. I can honestly say that I got way more from this experience than I gave and I will always treasure my short amount of time with my ninos and bebes.

I worked from 8 until noon, then I was free to roam around until dark and dinner back at my home-stay. I did. I walked everywhere and really soaked in the Guatemalan beauty, sadness, joy and poverty.

The country was a contradiction with gorgeous soaring churches right next to broken down buildings, many street merchants of all ages selling their wares. Two particular humans broke my heart, a very young girl (13ish) breast-feeding her baby and begging on the street and a very old woman, hunched and frail, most likely from years of carrying her wares to market on her back and head, begging on the street. There is no government support system or infrastructure to take care of these women, no welfare system, Social Security or Medicare. School is not mandatory, there is no drinking or marriage age limits.  Where do they go at night? Who cares about them?

Gluten-free, organic fruits and vegetables, non-GMO foods, cable TV, these had no meaning down here. Seat belts, optional, child safety seats, didn't see one. But I had a hard time leaving, without all the many distractions and bright shiny objects, I really had a chance to be still in the moments. I really love that. I will really miss that.

Did I help? I don't know. Did I do any good down there? I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure. Did it open my eyes to how a different country struggles with simple and complex issues? Yep. Are we all just humans trying to survive on one big planet? Yes. Can we all help each other? Only if we want to. How do you start? You just start.

I plan on doing at least one IVHQ trip a year. There is no way that I can have a positive impact on the world if I don't even know the scope of the problems.

If anyone has done an IVHQ or similar trip, please leave a comment below, I would love to hear from you.


April said…
Beautiful writing! I felt like I was right there with you. Your happy smiles made all my worries disappear! Proud of you!
trivia said…
Such a meaningful trip! You write really well =)
Felicia said…
I'm so happy for you going on this sounds so meaningful. And even in the midst of the poverty these people have a joy and a peace on their faces. It sounds to be a beautiful place. I know you did much good.there as you do here keeping us sweetly scented and soft. I for one appreciate you sharing, this are an honorable good person and your words took me with you. God bless you always
Sue Faunt said…
Awww, thanks Felicia :)
Dr. BETH morrow said…
Sue: What a beautiful, heartfelt documentary! I felt like I was there with you and your comments were sensitive and warm. I can imagine that no words were needed to converse with you, as your sincerity and kindness radiate through your words!

You ABSOLUTELY make a difference! Anything that you can do to enhance a person's (or animal's) life is divine! I'm glad that you went and will continue to go and touch people's lives. We are only here to help each other, you know?

Stay Blessed, my friend!
Olivia B. said…
Hello Sue, would you recommend booking through IVHQ or going directly with Is there any difference?
Sue Faunt said…
Hi Olivia,
I've never booked direct through Maximo Nivel, but I can tell you they took EXCELLENT care of me and I'd be fairly confident they would do an amazing job.
Enjoy your adventure!!
Stephanie R. said…
Hi Sue. I want to take my daughter to do what you did in Guatemala. But I am reluctant to book with an organization I don't know much about. Have you volunteered with IVHQ again since? Would you still recommend them? Any information you can offer would be appreciated.
Sue Faunt said…
Hi Stephanie,
I have not booked again, but I plan on going to New Zealand as soon as my schedule allows it. I don't have kids, but if I did, I would immediately take them on IVHQ trip. The experience is absolutely worth it and as I said, as long as I listened to the advice, I felt safe at all times.
Let me know if you have any other questions!

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