Trip leader and faculty member David Dethlefs describes and photographs some of the experiences of Taft's annual service trips.
It may surprise some that Taft students choose to spend part of their summer break getting their hands dirty in a developing country, helping lay concrete blocks for walls, hauling two-by-fours, and getting to know the grateful residents of the new homes being built while learning about the local culture.
These service-oriented Tafties enjoy it all, immersing themselves in a culture and region previously foreign to them, seeing the beauty and reality of Guatemala. Here, trip leader and faculty member David Dethlefs describes some of the experiences during the past 10 years of these annual trips.
Photos courtesy of David Dethlefs and the God's Child Project.
Arrival in Antigua
We arrive in Guatemala a mere 48 hours after exams, so our transition tends to be an abrupt, if not jolting, experience as we process the sights and sounds of a strikingly beautiful yet staggeringly poor country. We hit the ground running, however, and don't let up for 12 days.
I marvel at the energy and the coalescing of the group. "Awesome" may be an overused adjective, but I never tire of hearing from our kids as they describe their day-to-day, if not hour to-hour experiences. My favorite comment, which invariably comes early in the trip: "Mr. D...I had no idea...." Another favorite comment: "This trip should be required—for all students and all faculty!"
Antigua, where our trip is based, was one of the great cities of the Spanish Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries. The beauty and charm of Antigua can't be overstated. Nestled in a valley surrounded by three volcanoes, the small colonial city is a grid of cobblestone streets and Spanish architecture. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although destroyed several times by earthquakes, many buildings still stand and have been restored.
"The service trip with the God's Child Project is remarkable in its understanding of the needs of the community, and Guatemala, at least in that region, has a truly vibrant and varied culture. Our students have a chance to see firsthand what the needs are in a developing community, and they can see that there isn't one magic bullet to meet all of those needs. At a time when we are hoping to enhance our students' capacities for empathy, global understanding, and problem solving, this service trip can be an important opportunity for our kids."—Baba Frew, Global Studies and Service co-director
The focus of the trip is service, with home building as the central experience. In addition to a crash course in construction, students learn the importance of taking initiative and responsibility. We're on a deadline, and the houses need to be finished. Construction is hard work—wood gets measured and cut (by hand!), the foundation has to be dug, cement mixed, walls framed and painted, along with a roof and the final touches. The future inhabitants, usually a young family with children, are on site throughout the process, and as we get to know them, we witness how much we are profoundly helping to improve the quality of their life. The house ceremony, when we present the house to the family, is quite emotional.
"Reaching out to help others is what life is all about, and trips like these are simply invaluable because students and teachers instantly make the world a better place, and they do so face to face with their Guatemalan family. When you are there presenting the completed house to the entire family, they are overwhelmed with joy, and then [when] we come home and look back, we feel that same joy. We all benefit greatly. I have often said to 'Double D' how much it says about our community that literally hundreds of Taft people have sampled this kind of international joy."—Kevin Conroy, Languages Department head
"One of the most memorable aspects of my trips was the effect that we had on the family who we were building a house for, and the relationship we were able to create with them. The family I helped build a house for on my first trip had a very shy three-year-old daughter. Each day my fellow workers and I grew a little closer to the girl—whether it was through a shared cookie at lunch or accepting her doll as a present for motivation. On the final day when the house was finished, the gratitude that the family showed us and the fact that we provided a sturdy home for this little girl gave me an unforgettable and irreplaceable feeling of fulfillment. But the best part was seeing the smile on the daughter's face as we blew bubbles on the steps of her new home in celebration."—Pearl Young '18
The Dreamer Center serves as the hub of operations for the God's Child Project, which organizes the materials, personnel, and logistics to make the trip possible. The Center is a lush enclave on the outskirts of Antigua. Entering the Dreamer Center is akin to entering the Garden of Eden. Those who oversee the Project feel that the natural beauty of the Dreamer Center will enhance the life of all who enter.
It contains an elementary school, medical and dental clinics, and Casa Jackson, a residential facility for children from food-insecure families. A hospital is under construction. We start our workday here and usually find time to play with the kids—and lose at soccer! The Dreamer Center includes a nondenominational chapel that promotes reflection and is the setting for our orientation and closing ceremony.
The clothing distribution is a remarkable experience bordering on both chaotic and bizarre. The distributions are held in suburbs of Guatemala City or mountain villages where we are met by a growing line that snakes its way around a city block or up a mountainside. We arrive at a municipal facility and unload bags and bags of clothes that we hastily sort into piles before the crowds arrive. Students take one person—usually a mother or grandmother—and lead them through, while trying to answer their requests and maintain some semblance of order.
Students may be initially uncomfortable at Albergue Santa Madre, the homeless shelter, where we serve dinner and try to mingle with the indigent population. Before we visit I explain to the kids it's OK to acknowledge if you're feeling out of your comfort zone—it can be awkward. Yet I'm always so impressed by how many of our students are able to ease into the situation, engage in conversation, listen to people's stories, and play with the children. Some students find this experience to be one of the most meaningful of the trip.
"The visit to the homeless shelter was truly mind-changing. Hearing the life stories of others opened my eyes to a world different from mine. On top of that, it was all in Spanish! At this moment I realized I could understand people, who before Taft, I wouldn't have ever been able to communicate with."—Jake Wasserstein '18
During weekdays we have very little, if any, downtime. But we do have a weekend. On Saturday morning we load into a convoy of vans for the winding trip through the Western Highlands to Lake Atitlán. We break up the three-hour ride with a stopover at the Pre-Columbian ruins at Iximche, a hauntingly beautiful spot and one of the last holdouts against the Spanish in the 16th century.
After a night at a hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlán, we're up early for the ride to Chichicastenango, one of the largest indigenous markets in Central America and the chance for students to practice their Spanish. Spanish is not required but certainly helps. It's a wonderful opportunity for students of Spanish to practice what they've learned in the classroom. At times one even overhears K'iche (spoken by descendants of the Mayans). This hillside town has a fascinating church that blends Catholic and K'iche' Maya rituals.
In addition to the service components, the cultural experience is rich and varied. Host families welcome us into their homes and offer a glimpse of their lives. This past year we had a tortilla and salsa workshop that was fun and delicious.
"I have been on the trip twice. It provided me with the unique opportunity to explore a way of life that was completely foreign to me. I was able to practice my Spanish speaking skills, experience living with a host family, and most important, I was able to help people.
My group built a house for a single mom living with her two daughters. Every day while we worked on the house, the mom went to work and the two girls, ages 8 and 12, wandered around their small plot of dirt. When it rained, the girls would take shelter under a small structure constructed of bamboo and tin. In the afternoon the girls made fire and cooked a simple meal of tortillas. When we finally finished our house the girls presented us with drawings featuring the blue house we had built for them. I still have these drawings and the ones from my first trip to Guatemala. By the end of the week the bonds we had formed with these children was unmistakable, and it was hard to leave them."—Grace Dreher '17
At the closing ceremony in the Dreamer Center's nondenominational chapel, we pause to reflect on the eve of our return home. We all have so much to process—the homes we built, playing with children at the Dreamer Center or Casa Jackson, working alongside the God's Child staff, the array of experiences that are now vivid memories. We all have an opportunity to share, and I'm always so impressed with their heartfelt thoughts and feelings about what they find meaningful.
These trips have become so rewarding for what I have learned and also experienced working alongside students, colleagues, and the God's Child staff in Antigua. When I first signed on as a trip chaperone a decade ago, I had no idea that I was about to join a project that would be life-changing and one of the most meaningful chapters of my career. The opportunity to work alongside students and to witness their enthusiasm for serving others is thrilling.
"I think that the trip is certainly one of the fullest expressions of the school's motto of service. In Guatemala we do the most fundamental things for people to survive: we house them, we clothe them, and we feed them. Regardless of Spanish ability, the trip leaders and the students get to experience the warmth of the Guatemalan people. From the host families to our local guides, everyone we meet is friendly and welcoming. The students get a taste of both traditional Mayan and modern Guatemalan culture and the many ways that they overlap and blend together."—Jon Bender, Spanish teacher