Victor School’s Guatemalan Journey

Victor School’s Guatemalan Journey

One month ago the students from Victor School landed back in Montana after their trip to Guatemala. During their time in the country, they pushed themselves outside their comfort zones, served the local community, and fostered something that we’re often missing – real-world human connections. In the recap below, Lindsey, the amazing teacher who led this trip, reflects on their journey.

“What one learns in a classroom is just a very small part of the learning process. The real learning starts when one crosses borders and travels miles for the real knowledge.” – Vivek Sahni

June is always an exciting time as a teacher; you finally see all of the growth your students have made throughout the year, you see the seniors graduate and prepare to find their future paths, everyone signs each other’s yearbooks and the school is buzzing with excitement for the summer ahead. This June was especially exciting for me because all of the planning leading up to our trip to Guatemala was about to become a reality! I rang the final school bell at Victor School on Wednesday, submitted final grades Thursday, and packed my bag to meet the students at the airport Friday at four in the morning.

Although the formal school year had come to a close, the seventeen students on the trip were about to embark on a whole new method of education. As their teacher, and now trip planner and tour guide, I knew I was in for a treat as well – seeing everything through their eyes and knowing so many of them would be experiencing so many firsts. For two students, both freshly graduated seniors, it was their first time on a plane. For others, this was their first time leaving the United States; and for most, this was their first time visiting a developing country where the culture and language are starkly different than that of their rural Montana hometown. I expected some culture shock, but there is no way to anticipate it all, and I was in for a learning experience of my own as well.

All three of our flights and connections went as scheduled, and after a long day of travel, we finally made it to Guatemala where we were greeted by the night-shift airport staff with warmth as they chatted away in Spanish. I was proud of myself for remembering to explain how it may seem chaotic when we stepped outside the sliding doors of the terminal to see the enthusiasm and excitement of families and friends reuniting – a scene I always cherish every time I travel abroad. We found our driver amongst the throngs of people and loaded the bus to head to the beautiful colonial city of Antigua where we spent our first three days of the trip.

We stayed at Hostel Split which was very accommodating for groups and arranged for Spanish lessons for us all one day and a guided tour to climb Pacaya Volcano the next day. The students adjusted well in Antigua and felt right at home in the hostel. Even though it was physically challenging, one girl said her favorite memory from the trip was, “sand skiing down the volcano.” One of my favorite memories was watching her and her friends take out their journals and document that feeling of exhilaration midway down the mountain.

On our last night in Antigua, I treated the students to fresh fruit smoothies as we watched the sunset over the town and the surrounding volcanoes from a rooftop restaurant. We were able to do this thanks to money generously gifted by a thoughtful anonymous donor who requested I use it for something special for the kids. As I sat watching the teens chat and take in the beautiful scene I was touched by the incredible opportunity that FLYTE and all of the people who supported us had made possible. Many times the support came in ways so aligned with our trip it seemed fated; and mostly, I felt grateful.

The next morning we traveled to Lake Atitlan to stay at the peaceful oasis of Mahadevi Ashram where I completed my Yoga Teacher Training a few years ago. When I talk about fated donors, I’m thinking of people like Tara from Om the Go who big-heartedly donated Asana Pillows – basically a combo travel pillow and yoga mat – for all of us! We practiced yoga daily and loved that we all had our own personal yoga mats to stretch and sweat on. Not only did the students try meditation and yoga, they experienced living communally, sharing chores, and some of their most commented on subjects – coming to peace with ‘huge spiders’ and using little to no toilet paper!

The first night at the Ashram was when the fear and culture shock really set in and I felt overwhelmed and that maybe I had gotten the kids in over their heads too. Along with my other amazing chaperones, we decided to give them 24 hours to adjust before calling a ‘family meeting.’ I even emailed their parents to make sure they knew we were all safe and were not in fact in danger of being attacked by jungle spiders. One parent so eloquently wrote back, “This experience is going to be life-changing and eye-opening! I am just so excited that these kids have been plucked out of their comfort zones and have multiple days of practicing yoga, eating a vegetarian diet, volunteer opportunities, and immersing themselves in a foreign culture. However subtle or obvious, transformation is inevitable!”

After surviving the night we headed to an amazing cooking class at Amigos de Santa Cruz where we made authentic Mayan cuisine, learned about their vocational training programs, and donated books for their preschool library. After enjoying our lunch with a view, we headed to the town square where kids were playing soccer and the PE class was doing running drills. Within minutes my students were playing soccer with the little boys, asking if they could join the running drills and teaching kids hacky sack. All of the stress and worry from the night before was ran right off on that village soccer court. The students gave away their baseball hats and wrote a thank you note to the PE profesora. Then we were on our way down the cobblestoned hill toward the dock where our wooden boat taxi awaited.

The next few days flew by as we all got into the rhythm of life in the lakeside villages. We were invited in with open arms to volunteer and learn from the wonderful people at Konojel, a nonprofit whose mission is to ‘reduce chronic malnutrition and endemic poverty in San Marcos.’ They served us lunch and explained the reality of life in a rural village in Guatemala. We then were blessed with the opportunity to visit and volunteer at the community center where undernourished children receive a healthy meal and educational enrichment. Seeing my students sit down and read books in Spanish to the children was priceless.

The second day we worked with Konojel, we played much-anticipated games of both soccer and basketball. More of our hats were gifted away and signed, and their kids gave us all little wooden hearts with Konojel engraved on them to commemorate our time together. These multicultural connections we were forging made the news from home of separated immigrant families at the border seem both unbelievable but also conquerable if we simply continue to foster friendships and understanding like those I was seeing form in a matter of days.

After an exciting day trip to the Chichicastenango market where the kids learned that ‘good price for you’ was not always full of truth, we played some fun games of Path’s Crossing, a travel game kindly given to us and which had us both laughing hysterically and crying with gratitude. Sadly, our trip was coming to a close. I was in awe of how well everything turned out.

It was my first time traveling with a group this size, my first time leading a group of students, and my first time experiencing the joys and challenges of travel through others’ lenses. We were all exhausted by the time we headed to the airport for our red-eye flight home, and for a moment it was hard to see past the teen-attitude born from lack of sleep and ten days in unfamiliar territory. But then, I started reading some of the post-journey reflections that those same testy teens wrote, and I was brought to tears with their responses. Reading things like, “I realized how much we take for granted: like toilet paper and clean water, and free education,” and, “Everyone has their own way of living and mine is no better than anyone else’s,” and even, “I want to work harder in school because I now know what kind of an opportunity I have.” This is exactly what makes it all worth it.

All the planning, all the asking for donations, all the logistical challenges, and the unexpected and last minute travel changes, all of YOUR donations, in their many forms, are completely worth it. Thank you for allowing my students to have this opportunity. Thank you for supporting FLYTE and for supporting teachers. Thank you for making it possible for students to experience new cultures and countries and to broaden their world views. We are forever grateful.

Thank you to Lindsey for bringing us along on Victor School’s transformative journey!

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it took an entire community to send these students to Guatemala.  Thank you to all our partners, in addition to the ones Lindsey mentioned above, who made this trip a reality for Victor School:

Are you a teacher in an underserved community who wants this same opportunity for your students or know someone who is? We’re excited to announce the start of our next search for our 2019 School Partner! Click here for the application and to learn more.