“It’s not you that you’re going to give but it is mostly you who will receive.” We all wondered, what did it really mean when past missionaries told us so before we embarked on our journey? Our team could only find the answer to this after three fruitful weeks at Fr. Anton Grech’s parish in Izabal, Guatemala.
Between mid July and beginning August 2018 our group of 15 members all originating from the Gozo Half Marathon team had a first hand experience in Guatemala. Since we share a love for sports, physical activity and total inclusion which is all clearly visible through the yearly organization of the rapidly growing Teamsport Gozo Half Marathon in Xagħra, we decided to expand this love to reach those who are not as fortunate as we are. Hence, we tried to organize ourselves as much as we could beforehand by discussing with Fr. Anton and agreeing on multiple projects that could be carried out during our stay given that we were quite a large group. Our team had already spent two whole months organizing a series of fundraising activities within Gozo to help raise a nice sum for our main project in Guatemala, the building of a roof specifically for the GuateMalta sports arena within Fr. Anton’s parish. As a matter of fact we succeeded and managed to raise the beautiful sum of around €38,000. This premissionary period was already a great team building experience for us but we never knew what a much more enriching experience awaited us in Guatemala.
It’s been a long time since most of us wished to be part of a voluntary experience within disadvantaged countries and finally there we were, taking off to Guatemala on Monday 15th July 2018. The whole trip which took around 48 hours to arrive, seemed to be a journey through time starting from the modern cities of Frankfurt and New York, inhabited by citizens who experience a high quality of life, and ending up in the poor city of Izabal, inhabited by citizens suffering poverty and difficult social backgrounds. Once we were there we got to experience a whole new world with a whole new lot of life lessons. We were immediately greeted by a set of smiles and a welcoming family of leaders who were to help us complete our planned projects within Izabal. In fact, we were divided into several groups focusing on different projects: education, recycling, manual work and technology. However, every member of our team made it a point to help in all 4 projects.
Thus, the day after, our team set to work immediately. Since one of our projects was related to education within Izabal, some of us spent 3 weeks visiting 2 different elementary schools, Quebrada Seca and Las Collinas. Every morning between the frames of each classroom door stood loads of children eagerly longing to be next for the unusual visit by a group of English teachers. We used to carry out an English lesson comprised of physical movement, singing, dancing and craft making. It was truly an eye opening experience mainly for the teachers within our team when we witnessed: the miserable conditions of the classrooms which were incredibly hot, noisy, unsafe and sometimes shared between two teachers; the sanitary facilities which were dirty or else not present at all; the management because of some laidback teachers who did not provide the necessary attention to their students; and finally the lack of resources to teach within the schools mainly for those dedicated teachers who wished to do their job right. More than that, we got to experience 2 schools of children who were eager for attention and friendship and who reminded us about the true meaning of joy, appreciation and gratitude despite the poor school conditions. For this initiative, our team would like to mostly thank the patient and joyful Kathya Junieth who helped us fulfill our wish of visiting Guatemalan schools and for assisting us in the delivery of the lessons due to the language barrier.
Another project which we undertook for these 3 weeks, was the recycling project. Discussions and meetings were held in order to familiarize ourselves with the waste disposal system within Izabal which we discovered to be far from adequate by the standards of a 21st century country. Our daily encounter with the surroundings of Puerto Barrios helped us slightly understand this particularly when we did not find public waste bins, when we saw an attempt for recycling in a school with generic waste in all the containers, garbage disposed of in heaps within or outside the slums or else plastic being burned in a particular village due to the lack of waste collection. However, a clearer picture of the unfit waste disposal system in Puerto Barrios was mainly visible to us during our visit to what is called The Garbage Village which is a dumping site of which its entrance passageway is floored with hundreds of plastic bottles if not thousands of them waiting to be crushed by the means of transportation which lead their way into village. Apart from this, inside we discovered acres of land covered with heaps of waste continuously watched by vultures while some people live there to find dignity in a ‘job’ which has no dignity at all. They build their slums on this site and their ‘job’ is to pick up waste, do the necessary separation and try to sell it to make some money. It was truly saddening to see young children and toddlers helping their parents in the midst of all that waste and the unhygienic environment. Eventually, these scenarios lead to the worrying situation of the unique green landscapes of Izabal being threatened by the incorrect way of waste disposal and more than that by the lack of education about how to do so. Hence, we decided to work on the education part to attempt to relieve such a threat by visiting the Bilingue ABC School to carry out lessons about the 3 Rs which finally helped us in recording a promo video with the students for an advert now being aired on Stella Maris TV channel. For this initiative we would like to thank the hardworking and dedicated Jacky Paiz and Evelyn Sosa for showing us the ropes to fulfill such a project.
One other project which was definitely odd for our normal routines was that which consisted of manual work. Our whole team had the honour to assist the local workers in one of their most precious working projects on which we mostly dedicated our fundraising efforts in Malta, the roof for the GuateMalta arena. In fact, every morning some of us put on their working clothes and helped in laying the foundation for the pillars of the GuateMalta arena’s roof and in working on the roof’s beams. While our strongest hands had to work through the muddy soil and challenge the hot and rainy weather to lay the foundations for the columns, it was surely rewarding when we gazed over the arena and saw groups of energetic youths returning every day to engage in sports activities away from the dangers which lurk among the streets of Puerto Barrios. We also cannot forget those youths who did not hesitate to challenge us for a football game or 2 in which we ended up soaking wet to finish our games through the interruption of heavy showers of rain to really declare the winner. In addition we did not just use our working clothes to work our way through the construction site of the sports arena but we also stained our clothes with rainbows of colours to fulfill one of Fr. Anton’s wishes which was the renovating of the GuateMalta arena façade. Since the painting was fading and it was a while since it was done, Fr. Anton assigned us with the job to whitewash the façade and to come up with an idea to revamp it. Having a humongous blank wall in front of us definitely encouraged us to unleash our imagination and two of our members immediately put their creative minds to work. This was followed by 3 full weeks of competing with the rain, day and night, to finish a colourful and contemporary façade which reflected what happens beyond the walls of GuateMalta. It had to be the very last day of our 3 weeks stay in Izabal for the rain to be merciful and let us finish all the designs. We simply cannot forget this very moment especially when typical Fr. Anton made sure that we remember this moment by surprisingly pushing us all when we were having a commemorative photo which is now characterized by startled faces and feet in the air. With regards to our manual experiences we would like to thank and express our warm admiration towards Abraham and the local workers/volunteers (our amusing Hermanos) who work tirelessly to complete building projects within the parish of Santo Hermano Pedro with the aim to improve and provide opportunities to the people of Puerto Barrios.
One final project that was carried out behind the scenes was by our professional IT members who made sure to grant the wishes of Fr. Anton during our short stay. We set up a surveillance CCTV system to control crimes and violence (stealing, murder, etc.) in the neighbourhood which is something very common and which was shortly confirmed when we got to witness a case of persons who stole from the GuateMalta premises. Furthermore, we helped in updating the Microsoft system to provide a better and updated learning experience to the youths who choose to attend IT sessions weekly within the GuateMalta IT labs. Finally, we revamped the GuateMalta website which is an important means of sharing and connecting with the rest of the world.
Despite the great lessons learnt from all our projects mentioned above, nothing beats the richest experiences of all, our encounter with the Q’eqchis Mayan village people. Our working days were filled in or interrupted only by visits to these native people remote from the urban sector who Fr. Anton visits once a month to celebrate mass. Our long trips at the back of the trucks helped us get a closer look at the ecological wonder of the deep rainforest of the Mayan area. We were also well taught and presented enough knowledge along the way by one of the most experienced tour guides in town, Fr. Anton, who knows the way to each village by heart. Throughout the hour long drive or more, it became a typical sight of meeting people, who were travelling by foot, to hop onto the back of the truck and relieve themselves from the last remaining part of their journey towards their village chapel. There were other times when these remote villages could not be reached only by drive and so we had to walk another additional one hour with the guidance of native people who specifically walk all the way to come to meet Fr.Anton and lead him to their village.
Approaching these villages was always evident within a few metres away when we start hearing the sound system echoing the upbeat musical notes through the dense uninhabitable greenery from which finally appears a waiting child or two hinting us that we had arrived at last. Once we followed these children we would always face ourselves with huts made out of wood and palm trees and the only concrete structure standing in the midst of it all, being the chapel of the village which was possible by the donations of the people. And roaming around this all we would capture the glaring eyes of the native people who hold their monthly mass appointment and eagerly wait for the arrival of Fr. Anton and the accompanying missionaries. Then, these people would surround us upon arrival and sometimes go around us and incense us to erase the traces of evil spirits we may have taken with us before we stepped onto the floors of their dear chapels of which the altar was decorated with freshly cut flower bouquets and palm fronds. Sometimes we chose to attend to the mass which was being celebrated but most of the times we were tempted to spend our time outside when Fr. Anton makes a call to all the children who wished to play with our team. And there it went, a whole procession of giggling children going out hand in hand and situating themselves in the open fields waiting for our first move to vent their natural instinct to play, run, scream with happiness and giving us a shower of smiles and hugs. We will truly treasure the moments we spent singing, dancing, laughing, playing all kinds of games and trying to keep up with the energetic souls of each and every child who easily warmed up to us and made us regret the moment we left the villages.
At other times that we chose to stay for the mass we would engage ourselves in a very spiritual and silent atmosphere which was sometimes broken by a large number of baptisms at a time. After the mass, we would then distribute full boxes of soft toys and sweets for which there were priceless leaps of joy and keenness by children and adults alike to get their hands on these unusual gifts which are definitely not easy to see or get in their remote villages if not with the help of Fr. Anton and the visiting missionaries. Following this unusual sight, the catechist of the village, which is kind of a leader in this native culture, used to invite us over to his place or to a public shelter for a typical meal of chicken/fish grown or caught by themselves, plantains, rice, tortillas and fresh coconut water to drink. We were deeply touched at these instances especially when we were surrounded by the poor locals who stood still watching us eat, overjoyed and honoured that we donated some of our time to visit their village from far.
On the other hand, locals of 2 particular villages which stood on the highest mountain in Izabal, Nueva Jerusalen, could not provide us with a meal due to more extreme poverty and instead spent their time showering us with their blessings and their promises for prayer. They also spent some time talking to us which reminds us of a particular mother who shared with us how her 8 year old son was not allowed by his employer (a rich land owner) to miss work and attend for the mass celebration since he works at cutting wood. This is simply one case of child labour, unfair job conditions and the extents which are reached when a family suffers poverty. We felt powerless when we were presented with such a case, not knowing what to say to console the mother or what to do in such a situation. This amongst many other stories is why we have great admiration towards Fr. Anton who has to deal with similar cases every day and works endlessly to conduct long-term projects aimed at helping these forgotten families (by the world but definitely not by Fr. Anton).
An interesting and definitely odd experience for our team was the visit to the prison of Izabal. We must admit that we were scared stiff of entering the large grey plain building with the huge metal gate only guarded by barbed wire all around and simply one armed soldier at the entrance. We went inside in groups of 5 to be marked by 2 rubber stamps on our wrists which we protected so dearly during our time in the prison so as that they would not go away even if we were drenched in sweat in the confined building of the prison. These rubber stamps were our only guarantee to go back out of the prison when our time was up. As soon as we got in we found a large market in the yard run by hundreds of inmates who grasped the opportunity to stop us at every step of the way to sell their hand made objects and earn some money. We proceeded to the chapel inside of the prison building to celebrate mass with the prisoners who found comfort in their Catholic faith. It was a long 45 minutes of hand fanning in the hottest of the smallest of rooms found within the prison. There we found prisoners waiting for the rare encounter of outside faces, ready to smile as much as they can and shake our hands at peacemaking during mass. At the end, they thanked us from the bottom of their heart for our visit and Fr. Anton explained how special they feel at such moments when these prisoners have been absent from the outside world for a very long time and abandoned in what is considered the 2nd worst prison in the world in terms of living conditions (fits 200 prisoners but holds over 1000 prisoners at the time being).
On another day a group of youths and their leaders came to pick us up after breakfast and demonstrated us a common visit for which they frequently go for. They showed us a number of people who are sick and to add insult to injury suffering poverty at the same time. We were taken aback by the cases we witnessed ranging from a woman suffering stomach cancer and spending her living days on a swinging hammock; children suffering cognitive disorders living at unreachable slums; a man recovering from skin cancer; a mother unable to walk bound to her inaccessible slum on the top of a hill because of a failed operation carried out by a student doctor separated from her daughter living at the bottom of the hill who is recovering from a very recent motor accident. These cases show the great need for professional health care and better living conditions in order to ease the pain of the deserving Guatemalan patients who would have been totally abandoned if it wasn’t for the locals themselves who chose to keep them company and support them in the way they can. In fact, it is very heartwarming to witness such a group of youths who choose to donate their time to the sick and share with them comforting prayers and hugs. It is worth mentioning that these youths are the same ones who frequent the GuateMalta arena and the Stella Maris TV channel, projects started by Fr. Anton. We would like to congratulate these youths, especially one of their leaders Jefferson Perez, who work so hard to sow good seeds in the young generation.
All the aforementioned would have not been possible if it wasn’t for the inspiring figure behind it all, Fr. Anton. We sincerely admire Fr. Anton for managing to maintain a respected leader position in Izabal visible in the overwhelming love of all the people. It’s exceptional how he manages to juggle everything in his busy schedule when considering that during our one-hour rest he would always have to go visit another village, celebrate another mass, attend a meeting or answer a phone call, save a newborn and solve many another situations. He’s always changing lives of so many Guatemalan people not only because he’s always there to listen and has an open door policy at home (people literally go in and come out as if it were their home) but he also made sure to work on a long term basis when implementing projects aimed at mainly educating the Guatemalans. Finally, just like any other father figure he does not just show care towards the people around him, he also makes sure that everyone wears a smile when he’s around with the help of his humour and his one of a kind character. So we thank you dearly Fr. Anton for welcoming us in your parish and for being a key puzzle piece in the formation of our characters. We will always cherish the priceless laughs we shared, the great knowledge you shared with us about Guatemala, the leisurely activities you managed to squeeze in your schedule, the cruel firecrackers prank, your immense knowledge of different music genres, your brilliant werewolf tactics and mostly your all so comic Spiderman move. We promise you that we will share this move with many others until the end of time. Consequently, we can never miss to mention how much we miss the peeks of your 4 paw pal Goofy standing from behind the tables during our daily dinners.
So finally, going back to our starting question. What does it mean when we say we have received much more than we have given? We had great exposure to cultural diversity, made many friendships, strengthened our team, put ourselves in the shoes of the brave missionaries for a short period, had our first experience in the beauty of the rainforest and downgraded materialism which is unfortunately becoming so natural these days. Nowadays, when we have the ability to choose what to eat, we remember that others have no choice but to eat what’s available or else nothing at all. When we choose our jobs or complain about work, we remember that others have very limited options or suffer unfair conditions. When we have the ability to choose a place to go on a night out or complain that there’s nothing going on, we remember that others don’t because of the dangers lying within the streets and the lack of places to go to. When we are bored in our homes or complain about wanting better homes, we remember that others can’t even do this because they don’t even have their own home. When we complain about not having enough clothes, we remember the barefoot Guatemalan child who was always all smiles which were easily spread amongst the people around him. If anything, this voluntary experience helped us grow empathically and broaden our perspective of life. We can say that we have made the greatest discovery of all: HAPPINESS REALLY LIES IN SIMPLICITY. However, a changed mindset needs to be transferred into action which brings us to our main call for our readers,
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
Your first step can be by sending donations to Fr. Anton Grech’s mission and his fellow volunteers because they are truly noble protagonists in the disadvantaged zone of Izabal. Or if you wish, choose to serve the people in Guatemala instead and spend your most rewarding days as a volunteer, which will be forever etched on your heart. At least that’s how we feel.