Guatemala Service Trip

Students take a trip to Guatemala to build houses for local families.

In early January Jesse Griffin, director of community service and assistant to the chaplain, along with student co-leader Kevin Beck ’08, took a group of 10 students to Guatemala for a service project. The group planned to work with ConstruCasa a nonprofit organization to help build basic homes for people in need. ConstruCasa is similar to Habitat for Humanity, except that Habitat requires a mortgage payment every month. This organization constructs very basic homes, which include three rooms and a bathroom. The house consists of a concrete floor, tin roof and high-efficiency wood burning stove to help filter the smoke and decrease the amount of wood used.

The 12 volunteers who embarked on the trip stayed in Antigua City, a beautiful area surrounded by three active volcanoes. The Roanoke College group would hop into the back of a pick-up at 7:30 a.m. and ride 20-30 minutes into countryside, where the scenery shifted from the city atmosphere to an area that was influenced heavily by the Mayan culture.

ConstruCasa set up three building sites in the Village Santiago de Zamora, with a population of about 800-1000 people. The cost for each home was $3,500, meaning that each student needed to raise around $300 to contribute their portion to the construction. The group successfully raised all the funding to complete one of the homes, but instead worked on the foundation for three homes, and a group from Australia finished them after the Roanoke group departed.

To build the homes, they had to start from scratch. The project manager at the site made four groups who started digging footers, which ended up being incredibly tough for the group due to the massive amounts of rock that were limiting the depth of the trenches. Cement for the structure was mixed by hand; 400-500 bags were unloaded, broken open and mixed in a wheelbarrow of sand and gravel. The group built for four days, and on the final day they had all the footers poured, metal aligned, and concrete block laid about three feet height. These “L” shaped homes provide truly good, if basic, shelters for the families.

During their lunch breaks, the students had the opportunity to gather with locals at a soccer field nearby. “Athletics is one thing that cultures always have. Athletics and sports can break barriers between cultures. You can have difficulty communicating, but when everyone is together and a ball’s out there, it levels the field amongst people,” said Griffin.

As Griffin reflected on the Guatemala trip, he mentioned the students’ reactions on the final day with the families. It’s hard for the students to know how to react when a family is incredibly emotional because of their appreciation for their new homes, which will make a significant change in their lives. At the same time, Griffin notes that it’s a small part of the vast poverty problem in western Guatemala and central America. “I get jaded sometimes. I’ve been there for so long that I forget what an experience it is when you go for the first time. It’s almost like a separation anxiety," he said.

The group arrived back on Saturday, and classes began that Monday. It is always interesting for Griffin to run into students who have traveled with him. A distant-look in their eyes to him reflects a type of reality check and how weird it is to be back on campus. Griffin mentions the way he gauges the success of these service trips. “One way to gauge the success of experience is if it’s hard for the students to come home, then it’s a success. And two, it’s going to be a hallmark experience of their time as students at Roanoke College. A trip that can point students in a new direction, change their life and their view of the time they spent at this educational institution.”

Released: March 11, 2010