A drive through the quaint town of Puerto Barrios and a few side streets away from the main towncentre… this is where you’ll find GuateMalta.
Upon entering the estate, a number of teenagers are playing football in the playground while many other young spectators are supporting their favourite team. For these youngsters GuateMalta provides them with a relaxed, comfortable but moreover an essential safe environment where they can be themselves. This place offers an alternative location for neighbouring locals to spend their free time away from drugs and prostitution- be it playing football, enrolling in a computer studies course, forming part of the TV broadcasting team, or spending some quiet time in GuateMalta’s uniquely designed church, which adorns the idyllic hilltop.
Volunteering abroad was something that I’ve always wanted to experience; it was just a matter of finding the right opportunity for this to materialize and when my cousin Yana suggested it and we both managed to combine our work schedules, we set off ! Since we came here, I never stopped looking back on these fifteen precious days. In retrospect, having spent just a fortnight volunteering with Fr Anton in Guatemala, was surely not enough. Fr Anton prepared us as best he could for what we were about to experience and did his utmost to paint a clear and precise picture of what we would encounter during our work there. Getting abreast with the current situation in the area was one thing, but actually seeing the extreme poverty within Puerto Barrios and the surrounding villages, on a daily first-hand basis, was truly heart wrenching!
Fr Anton made us feel right at home and introduced us to his friends who immediately welcomed us to help us feel more like part of the family. Each and every one of them works so hard on-site and is driven and motivated by the same goal: that of providing a serene, safe and entertaining environment where the community of youngsters can thrive at least for a few hours away from their dangerous and sad reality.
During our time there we offered our help in doing anything that needed to be done on the estate as well as accompanying Father Anton on his daily visits to the villages and spending time with the locals. He always made us feel very welcome and looked out for us making sure that we had breakfast, lunch and dinner together with the rest of the volunteers whilst sharing our life stories and individual humorous experiences. After dinner we often played a game or two of Rumikub and sometimes even enjoyed singing along to Fr Anton’s guitar playing.
On one specific day, whilst Fr Anton celebrated mass to the communities, Johnathan and myself helped set-up stone ovens for the families which they were going to need in order to be able to replace their traditional way of cooking. It’s very hard to make someone understand that what they’ve been so accustomed to doing for generations and generations, is actually causing them serious harm. Every single day their lungs, especially those of the young children, are getting harmed by the copious amount of emanating smoke inhaled from the constantly burning fire. Father Anton realized there needed to be some modification to their way of cooking, to reduce health risks, as well as lessen the use of wood. Cutting down trees and carrying large pieces of branches is a daily chore which needs to be done by any able member of the family, the old or young are needed for this arduous task, even if it means skipping a day at school to help the family.
Yana and I would spend most of our time trying to communicate with the children and organize games for them to play. Since our colloquial skills in their native tongue was very, very limited, we decided to write down phrases in Spanish to enable us to explain these games to them. The smiles on their faces and hearing them giggle away, was unforgettably rewarding and must be personally experienced in order to fully appreciate the gratitude and happiness these children were conveying through their facial expressions and sheer joy. It was just as thrilling to see how quickly they warmed up to us and were so keen to learn a few new games. We hope that they will continue to play these new games and pass them on to other children and friends in the villages close to their homes.
On another morning, we accompanied Father Anton to one of his visits to a particular school in town. He taught the children about Easter and its significance. He then asked if we wanted to say anything to these young children and teenagers, and I quickly felt that this was my chance to reach out. I wanted to pass on something important that my parents had taught me and which I had valued while I was growing up. I strongly believe that some words of encouragement and positivity can go a long way, especially in such a poor community where education is not given much importance.
“I wasn’t fully aware how important education was when I was your age. All I wanted to do was play with my friends. But I started to realize that I wanted more for myself. I had dreams- dreams to have a great job, see the world and help people in my own way.
I began to understand that education was the key. To grow and learn is very important. It gave me more opportunities to become the person I dreamed of becoming . In life, you will never stop learning. The world is filled with beautiful things, and I wish you all to go out there and discover the world. The way to do this is through education. Having a good education will take you to where you want to go!”
By the time I had finished my little mentoring, I was looking at a roomful of smiling teenagers nodding in agreement and just then I felt ever so grateful and satisfied as this was exactly what I had wanted to imprint on those youngsters. I knew that the younger ones might not fully comprehend the significance of what I had tried to impart, but seeing most of them nod back at me in agreement seemed to confirm that they understood the values I wanted to convey and this meant the world to me. It also inspired me to seek out more opportunities to carry out more voluntary work in my life and pass on this incredible experience of giving oneself to the service of others and enriching one’s life through alleviating suffering in the lives of others.
I continue to pray and hope that this little fire I had ignited in them will spur them on to continue to strive for a better future, despite the odds and whatever their personal circumstances might be; especially with the support, guidance and help of Fr Anton and GuateMalta!