The Western Highlands of Guatemala offer a stunning backdrop to a fascinating, indigenous culture.
The southern border is rimmed by a chain of volcanoes, and the Cuchumatanes mountain range sprawls across the northern border. A lush landscape of lakes, streams, and valleys fills the space between them.
Unfortunately, the Maya communities that call this place home have struggled to maintain their identity while securing their place in Guatemalan society.
Global Leadership Adventures, an organization that provides volunteer opportunities to intellectually curious and socially-minded teenagers, has been working with Mayan children in a school in Xela (a town that’s widely considered the epicenter of Maya culture) for six years.
Discover Corps joins GLA in these efforts through our own volunteer trip for adults and families, Children of the Maya.
Over the course of these six years, concrete improvements to the infrastructure of the local school alongside a close relationship with the local community have made a huge impact on both locals and volunteers.
The Pacaja Elementary School has been the focus of volunteer work in Guatemala. With focused efforts throughout the years, there’s been an impressive progression in both the infrastructure of the school and the connection with the Mayan children and the local community.
The school is located in the small town of Xela, which is also known as “the city that is the soul of the culture.”
Work throughout the years has included the following projects:
- 2010: The school was painted and 600 desks were sanded, painted, and restored.
- 2011: Running water was installed at the school with 8 new faucets and trough sinks, and a classroom addition was built on the school.
- 2012: A second classroom was added, with the help of volunteers who built 70 square meters of sheetrock. The local community fundraised for a roof, doors, and windows. Local students and parents painted murals to honor the town of Xela.
- 2013: A third classroom was built.
- 2014: A cinderblock and mortar wall was erected to begin the addition of a 4th classroom.
- 2015: Volunteers helped with design and painting of the 4th new classroom.
By strengthening and improving the local school, volunteers are giving Mayan children a space to learn and preserve their culture for many generations to come.
Connecting with the Community
One important aspect of volunteering– no matter where in the world you may do it– is forging a connection between volunteer efforts and the local community.
This is among the main reasons why tackling one big project for an extended period of time is ideal: It allows the organization and its volunteers to connect with the community over time and build relationships with the people.
By working closely with community leaders, our volunteer organizations can put the community first when planning and executing our projects. This has been especially evident in Xela (which is also known as Quetzaltenango), as the local community has become increasingly involved with the work on Pacaja Elementary School.
Students and parents came together to paint the mural about Xela in 2012, and Xela locals began fundraising efforts to support the school, dedicating both money and time to the progression of these projects.
The work we’ve been a part of in Guatemala has made an obvious impact, providing the Mayan children with a more comfortable, safer, and more effective space for learning. But the cultural exchange that’s happened over six years of work — the connections and friendships that have formed between volunteers and locals — is truly priceless.
“You’re having such an impact on their life and, in turn, they have an even bigger one on yours,” recalls Kevin, a volunteer from New Jersey.
Volunteers and locals continue to work side by side on the progression of Pacaja Elementary School in Xela, and we look forward to returning each year and connecting with old friends.
Learning About Mayan Culture
By improving the conditions of the school in Xela, Global Leadership Adventures and Discover Corps hope to contribute to the preservation of the ancient Mayan culture, which is so vital to this community.
Our volunteers have the opportunity to experience Mayan culture first hand, by exploring the artisan markets, meeting a local shaman to learn about cosmology, creating colorful textiles, and more.
In that way, volunteers are not only helping to preserve the Mayan culture from within the community, they’re also taking a small piece of it with them, in the things they’ve learned and the experiences they’ve had. They can then share those treasures will people back home, and spread the beauty of the Mayan culture well beyond this small town.
Visit Guatemala & Help Mayan Children Yourself
So much work has been done but there is still so much to do. In 2016, Global Leadership adventures and Discover Corps will be contributing to the construction of a fifth classroom, to be used as a library. GLA Guatemala’s local director is fundraising to stock the library with e-readers, which would be an incredible, educational experience for the local students.
If you’re curious about this beautiful country and the fascinating culture of the local people, volunteering in Guatemala is the perfect opportunity to experience both, while furthering our bonds with the local community and participating in powerful change.
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.