GUATEMALA – Empowering Communities and Individuals

“What is the purpose of traveling to Guatemala?”, asked family members, friends, and other donors along my crowdfunding journey.

My response and main pitch during crowdfunding was the following: I want to learn about a country that is so close, yet often feels so far away while discovering my own biases and assumption about my place in the world and the world as a whole.

I knew we would visit a couple of locally owned businesses, yet I could never have imagined the breadth of non-profits this trip exposed me to.

Right when we exited our plane after a red-eye flight, off we drove to San Luis Sacatepequez to volunteer at one of the better run orphanages in Guatemala. From the moment we walked through the gate little kids grabbed ours to show us their artwork, handed us toys from play totes, and led us to the trampoline. As I further toured the orphanage my heart broke at the sight of babies that took five or more minutes before beginning to crack a smile. We were welcomed to sit down to lunch with all the kids where we all relaxed, played games and dispersed across the yard. Every kid craved moments of acting their true age and having someone to truly connect with. This experience set the tone for the remaining nine days, allowing me to continue keeping an open mind and remembering that I can never truly know the way someone grew up and how this can shape the way they walk through life.

As I traveled through Guatemala I learned again and again that as an activist my job is never to change a culture or to go in and “save” communities but to help empower communities as an ally.

While our group visited various towns hidden in the side of the volcano surrounding Lake Atitlan, we were lucky enough to visit the non-profit Amigos de Santa Cruz, a community-led grassroots organization working to empower the community. As Lee, our incredible tour guide (coincidentally, the treasurer of the non-profit), brought us to the rooftop of the beautiful yellow yet incredibly conspicuous building for a vegetarian feast (cooked by students in the job training program), the executive director, one of only three employees who are expats, spoke to us about the change Amigos is creating and led us on an after-hours tour. I was surprised to see a fully stocked woodshop room meant to engage young boys with no other motivation to stay in school and with minimal alternative job prospects. As I was led from rows of sewing machines to computers sponsored by top tech companies to an art store with beautifully woven bags, pillows, and other unique items, I was truly inspired by the positive changes occurring in Guatemala.

Woodworking at Amigos de Santa Cruz
To experience every aspect of an organization successfully run by the residents of Santa Cruz and feeling such joy as well as seeing the hardships of growing up in an orphanage shaped my trip in incredulous ways. I knew I would learn countless lessons on my journey, but I never could have imagined the number of times these experiences and people tugged at my heartstrings and shaped my experience. I will be forever greatful to Tzedek America for allowing me the space to grow and expand my world view as we travelled to Guatemala and had such a unique and impactful trip.

Emily Bakal

One Comment Add yours

  1. Beth says:

    Such a well-written and interesting post, Emily! We’re proud of ypur openness to new experiences and pleased to hear about all that you’ve learned from your trip.


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