Editor's note: One year after leaving the Guatemalan orphanage, the writer reunited with three of his former charges, now adopted in the United States. Read his heartwarming account, and see a photo gallery, in our follow-up story, "Treasures Found."
En español | Challenges, I’ve found, come in various forms. When I volunteered for five months at a Guatemalan orphanage last November, many came my way—namely, age, language, and dozens of children. I was young, a non-native Spanish speaker, and inexperienced when it came to kids.
For my first two months in Río Dulce—a lush tropical region 30 miles inland from the Caribbean—I taught fourth graders, a rambunctious group who revealed all too clearly the limitations of my español.
One day, after a particularly frustrating morning in class, I took aside my two biggest troublemakers (who were also two of my favorites) and explained that we could clown around outside class, but in class we needed to maintain a respectful teacher-student relationship. I stumbled over my words, paused to search for Spanish vocabulary learned long ago, and gesticulated excessively. Thinking I’d made my point, I asked if they understood. They nodded eagerly.
“So outside of class we’re friends,” I said. “But inside of class, we are…?”
They squinted at me, wanting to give the right answer. Then, in unison, they replied: “Enemies!”
It was a laugh-cry moment.
Later, I was assigned refuerzos, special tutoring for those who lagged behind or had learning disabilities. My job ranged from teaching students how to use a pencil to making sure they knew the alphabet and improving their reading. I also took on the role of orientador, a kind of camp counselor/parent for the younger boys when they weren’t in class, and I ran evening and weekend activities with other volunteers.
While my Spanish vastly improved, my age and lack of experience still posed an obstacle. My brief work history and few years of being an uncle didn’t arm me with the confidence, know-how, and patience the job required. I wondered if I’d make it through five months.
With time, I won the kids’ respect and confianza. By learning to maintain a steady grip on my own emotions, I could deal with the children’s emotional volatility. (Once, in a span of two minutes, a kid hugged me, threw a bar of soap at me while cursing, and then hugged me again.) I was initiated into the art of handling bed-wetting, midnight vomiting, and other biological functions. My teaching improved, too. By my last day of refuerzos, my students recited the alphabet flawlessly.
Looking back, I see now that my difficulties at the orphanage came down to one handicap: I’d never had parent-like responsibilities.
I wasn’t alone in this. Most of the volunteers were about my age and grappling with the same challenges. Many 20-somethings are attracted to such projects in Latin America, but where are the elders who could guide both the children and us? Where are the older Hispanics? Their native tongue, cultural background, and life experience could make a huge difference in Guatemala.
This country has an abundance of natural beauty, cultural diversity, and history, but, like many developing nations, it’s plagued with poverty, lack of education, discrimination, and crime. Many organizations are helping Guatemala look toward a brighter future. Volunteer opportunities include working with street kids, assisting in after-school programs, teaching, providing various types of aid—for example, in health clinics and on construction projects—in poor neighborhoods and indigenous communities, and helping with wildlife.
Your help is needed. Which project will you choose?