Photo credit: Heather Knox
Mr. Acree and I had the privilege of taking 14 incredible students to Guatemala recently, for Aberdeen Hall’s inaugural service learning trip to Project Somos. The Project, as it is commonly referred to, is located in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, west of Antigua and east of Lake Atitlan, at an elevation of 7,500 ft above sea level. With stunning panoramic views of volcanoes, and lush greenery, Project Somos provided a stunning backdrop for an experience that was even more beautiful than its breathtaking scenery.
14 months ago, I began planning a trip that I would later describe as being one of the most impactful experiences of my life. My step-sister Heather Knox, and her husband Gregory Kemp began Project Somos in in 2011, as a way to support indigenous families and children living in extreme poverty in rural Guatemala. Over the past 9 years, they have welcomed over 400 volunteers, including numerous ISABC schools like Aberdeen Hall. After talking with dozens of people connected to the project, reading student and parent testimonials, and discussing the benefits of service learning at Project Somos with other teachers and administrators across the province, we knew this would be a great opportunity for Aberdeen Hall students.
In October 2018 interested students in grades 8-10 submitted applications to be a part of this trip, went through an interview process, and were selected to come to Guatemala based on an established set of criteria. We began weekly orientation meetings in January 2019, and throughout our time together, developed a very close bond. Students from different grades and backgrounds got to know one another, planned activities together, and became close friends as the year progressed. We made tortillas, had Spanish lessons, researched the history of Guatemala, prepared for culture shock, and learned about the various celebrations, food, clothing, and traditions that we would soon be immersing ourselves in.
On November 15th 2019, the highly anticipated departure date had finally arrived. Our group travelled via Mexico City to Guatemala City, and after a tiring 18 hours of travel, we stepped into the tropical humidity and excitement of our new destination. We were immediately transported 40 km west to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua. It was beautiful. Historic colonial architecture, panoramic volcanic views, and the beautiful bright fabric indicative of traditional Mayan weaving made Antigua truly a sight to behold. During our time in Antigua, we observed a flower festival, learned how to barter at open-air markets, improved our Spanish, and made chocolate in the traditional Mayan technique. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Antigua, it was time to depart for Project Somos.
After a windy bus ride through the Guatemalan countryside, we arrived and were met by Heather, Greg, and 2 of their dogs, Tika and Kila. After checking into our rooms (brightly coloured cabins with bunk beds, cozy duvets, and the occasional spider friend) students began their orientation. We learned about the importance of sustainability, where the Project gets its water, how not to waste any resources, and how to clean and disinfect our dishes. The students took on these life lessons with gumption, clearing every dish and crumb after every meal, while always laughing and joking over a sink of dishes.
After a delicious meal grown on site and prepared by local cooks, we sat down together and learned about the harsh realities of life in Guatemala. We learned about the school system, the lack of qualified teachers and classrooms with zero resources, we learned that young girls are often married and pregnant by their mid teens. We learned about how difficult it is for families to access quality education, and the poverty cycles that persists when children cannot learn.
Monday morning. Many of us were up at 5:30 am to watch the sun rise while the spectacular active volcano, Fuego, erupted in the background. After a delicious breakfast of tropical fruit, yogurt, granola, homemade bread, and preserves, we walked up to meet a bus full of very excited 4-14 year old local children. We walked them down to the school and playground, where we rotated through stations. Students squealed with delight as they learned how to play California Kickball, made slime, watched the eruption of a tinted sucrose Coca Cola and Mentos volcano, formed and baked holiday ornaments, baked muffins, harvested vegetables from the finca (farm) and much more. That night, our students wrote in their journals about their fulfilling and tiring day of giving to others.
The next few days included sports day mornings, in which students did relays, played Mission Impossible, did a tug of war, and much more. Our students planned and facilitated all of these activities, and had the opportunity to also work in the fields, prepare snacks and meals in the kitchen, clean, make tortillas for a group dinner, and much more. Our evenings consisted of playing the guitar, numerous games of chess, as well as educational activities, such as an impactful documentary and discussion about Guatemalan migrants seeking a better life, and a heart-wrenching evening with a local mother who bravely shared her story and struggle.
On Thursday we took the Somos children to the Iximché Mayan ruins where we watched a traditional Mayan Fire Ceremony, learned about our Mayan Nawales, and visited a nearby petting zoo. Heather Knox of Project Somos writes “For [the local] kids, each of these activities is a huge gift. Their lives are not easy. Their families live in extreme poverty. There is often violence. At Somos, we offer opportunities for learning, eating well, and happy play. When volunteers are here their world expands.”
Our last day at Project Somos was bitter sweet. We had the culmination to our special week, entitled “navidad en noviembre” in which we taught the children about Christmas in Canada, watched a holiday movie, made them special wood-fired pizzas, sang songs, and said our goodbyes. Walking them up to the bus on the last afternoon was very difficult, and it was obvious that our students were incredibly impacted by their connections, and humbled by a powerful week of new friendships, seeing the many faces of poverty, being disconnected from technology, and contributing to something so simple yet so meaningful in a child’s life.
Molly Small, a grade 11 student writes “I can honestly say that since I came back from Guatemala, my outlook on life has changed. The children at the Project had nothing but joy and appreciation for everything they had. This appreciation is something that we can all lose because of the materialistic society that we live in. This experience taught me that I can make a difference as an individual and as a member of a community by putting myself in the shoes of others and working to get involved in organizations like Project Somos.”
Jashanjot Khun Khun also reflected on her experience by saying “This experience has taught me that I can CHANGE something if I set my mind to it. Words cannot describe the impact that Project Somos and the kids had on me. I feel that it has made me a more considerate person. One thing that stood out to me the most was that no matter how little the kids had they always showed up with the brightest smiles! If there is one thing I want to say to my peers, it is that always be grateful for what you have.”
On Saturday, November 24th 2019, our trip came to an end. How did it go by so quickly? After lunch in Antigua, we made our way to the airport in Guatemala City for our red-eye flight home. All of us, tired, a little dirty, but always laughing. A new appreciation for life, and the deeper and more meaningful friendships that were created amongst our group - our most cherished souvenirs. As a group, we are forever changed by this experience. We got to be part of something so special, so meaningful, and so life changing. We will never forget our time together, we will never forget Project Somos, and we will never forget the children of Guatemala.
- Contributed by Ms. Meghan Dunn
*Side note- as soon as we arrived home, several Grade 9 students connected with their Entrepreneurship teacher, Mr. Cutler to leverage their experience at Project Somos into a sustainability project. We can’t wait to see what comes from this, and we are inspired by your huge hearts and that you are using the life lessons you learned to continue giving back. We hope you will keep these lessons with you throughout your lives.