Guatemala – Am I Really Helping? — The North Star Reports – by Jennifer Battcher. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

Guatemala – Am I Really Helping? — The North Star Reports – by Jennifer Battcher. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

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I went to Guatemala on a volunteer service trip. Our group provided help to the people of San Lucas Tolimán. We were free labor and extra hands. We sorted coffee beans, made concrete, planted trees and landscaped for a women’s center.

One day we went to the shop of a local store owner who sold hand crafted kitchen utensils. I was given a machete and a block of wood. On the wood was a sketch of a spatula with the handle curving into a beautiful Quetzal, the Guatemalan state bird. The directions were to carve the spatula out, then trade the machete for sand paper to file it down.

I began hacking away at the wood, the giant knife making clumsy splits. It wasn’t long before I chopped off the beak of the carefully drawn Quetzal. Unsure of how to continue, I brought the mangled spatula to the store owner, pointing at the deformed bird. That’s when I saw it.

It flashed across his face for only an instant before he regained his composure and told me to round it out into a bulb handle. But it was too late. I had already seen it. His face, for the briefest of moments, showed disappointment. Frustration. Exasperation. Perhaps annoyance that he had to waste his precious resources on a group of foreign volunteers with unskilled hands. Suddenly, I saw my volunteer trip in a new light.

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Eighteen years old and fresh out of high school, I was no craftsman. I wonder what it is like for the residents of these places. Foreigners show up wanting to help better the country, some with their own ideas of how things should be. The people have to find work for this group of volunteers, hopefully something that will actually benefit the community. The skill levels of these volunteers are so diverse and sometimes unknown to the people they are there to assist. To this day I look back on that trip, and all other trips I have taken as a volunteer in another country, and I wonder, “Am I really helping?”

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The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal’s online learning community and outreach program with undergraduate and K-12 classes around the world. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, Colombia, Norway, northeastern China, Nicaragua, Micronesia, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, El Salvador, England, Finland, Russia, Cyprus, and Haiti. We also publish student reviews of books, documentaries, and films, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers. We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.

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28 responses to “Guatemala – Am I Really Helping? — The North Star Reports – by Jennifer Battcher. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

  1. Matt Breeze

    What a powerful story. Sometimes volunteering can be wonderful and also hurtful to a local group of people. The very fact that you came to ask if what you were doing was helping makes you different from many volunteers. It is very difficult to be critical of oneself, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for you or anyone like yourself who can look critically on their own actions. We should all probably look closer at ourselves more often. Thank you for this article!

    • Connor

      The question of the effectiveness of the “help” one is offering while volunteering isn’t really something I had considered before. I think sometimes, in people’s capacity as volunteers, they might not ask themselves that question, “Am I really helping.” It’s probably important to keep that in mind, especially when volunteering abroad where values might be vastly different from our own.

    • Felicity Byrd

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I recently traveled to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala as well on a volunteer trip! It sounds like we may have had a very similar trip itinerary. While I was there, I asked myself this question many times as well. Am I really helping-or am I simply getting in their way and wasting their time? However, I came to the conclusion that overall, I think we did impact the majority of people in a good way. Most people we encountered were very willing to help us, and patient, and they were so happy to have the help. Not only were they happy to have us there, but nearly every person we encountered seemed so excited and proud to share traditions and values of their culture with us. I tried to keep reminding myself every time I had that thought of that lurking question-that I am indeed here to help and though many of us were unskilled and just eager to learn, we were helping teach them things about ourselves and our culture as well. Many of the men we worked with were eager to learn English and I had several that would point at things and ask me “Que es esto en ingles?” or “What is this in English?”. Although, as Richard Tignor puts it in the book “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart” when speaking of revolt against Hellenistic culture and why-I often wondered if the people of Guatemala saw some parts of our American culture “as being deeply immoral and threatening to their beliefs” (Tignor, p. 210). Though I never got a clear answer to this question, I can feel how you may have felt guilt, remorse, or some sort of confusion when asking yourself this question. I enjoyed reading about your experience, and it also gave me some things to continue to contemplate on. I would definitely encourage you to keep volunteering, and follow your heart wherever it finds passion!

  2. Carley

    I loved the story that you told. Coming out of high school at eighteen with just knowing your little area and not much about the rest of the world is scary. I know how you felt there but I could have never gone to Guatemala like you did. The way you told your story was powerful. I really enjoyed reading it!

  3. What you came to realize, I believe to be quite true. Sometimes the attitudes of the volunteers can really change whether they are truly helping or not. I feel that often, people forget that it is better to enter a community with a humble attitude rather than enter a community assuming that they know what is best for the community. Certainly the community may need assistance, but it is also important to learn from the community’s customs and build on those perhaps, instead of demanding that they change every aspect of their lives. I also believe it is important to remember that it can be difficult to accept the help of others, especially when they are complete strangers. I think in your case it is quite true that at times our help is not necessarily needed or put to good use, and in turn becomes more harmful than beneficial. I hope at some point during your volunteer trip you felt that you had truly helped in at least some small way.

  4. Laura Blasena

    When I visited San Lucas in Guatemala, I had the same sensation and questions. I feel like as far as service trips go, however, the mission in San Lucas has a very good structure. The year that I was there, we were doing hard but simple manual labor–the types of things that it doesn`t take a skilled craftsman to do, which allowed the people there who were actually skilled in their trade the time to do the skilled work.

    It`s very eye-opening to realize sometimes how very little good intentions can actually contribute to the causes of others!

  5. Sarah Grace Devine

    Volunteering is a touchy subject; I have read arguments for and against volunteering, read articles about how unskilled and uneducated volunteers have caused more harm than good, and I have seen hundreds of people give up hours of their day to sort thousands of pounds of nonperishable food for people in their multi-million community. I think volunteers with an open mind and an awareness that having a cavalier attitude can do real damage, puts them on a path of helping the community they’re visiting.I think that you did good work, sometimes that’s hard to see but don’t let that dampen your spirits. Work as hard as you can and be more humble than you ever thought possible, volunteer work is hard but rewarding.

  6. Meghan Lozinski

    That’s a really interesting perspective on volunteering that I think is sometimes overlooked. I have wondered to myself if sometimes volunteering doesn’t just cause more work for someone else somewhere. Of course, though, there are times that volunteers are really needed and necessary and their presence is only beneficial.

  7. Roman Schnobrich

    You make a very interesting point. I think if the group of volunteers could be arranged into different groups of ranging skills and skill levels, that would be most efficient for the locals you’re working around and the work that you’re there to complete. However, that’s easier said than done, and often volunteering is done in a somewhat hasty and hurried manner. Also, the mindset is important; I imagine it’s an extreme turnoff when an overconfident American shows up in a developing country (some refer to Guatemala as a third-world country) for volunteer work and realistically has no idea what he/she is doing.

  8. Rebecca Smith

    I think this is an important experience to consider when people decide to volunteer abroad, or even decide on a career! It seems like it’s almost ‘fashionable’ to go to foreign countries and do a bunch or work, even if it is poorly or inefficiently done. As I am considering what career (or careers) I should go into, I find myself asking if I’d really be helping the community, or world, effectively. I have definitely asked myself whether or not the volunteer work I was doing was really beneficial, even without leaving the United States. Thanks for sharing your story!

  9. Bryce Gadke

    This idea you discovered astounds me. Leaving your home and going out with good intentions is such a noble thing, but we don’t necessarily account for the thoughts of the people living in the places we travel in hopes of helping. Does this fall into the category of imposing? We take for granted the thoughts of the people we are helping. We assume we are doing right by them and ourselves. In reality, are we just getting in their way and not really doing as much as we can? In the future, I’m curious to see what the innovations of volunteering outside of country of origin will look like as the world continues its stride into a more globalized conglomerate of all world affairs.

  10. Thomas Landgren

    When reading your article all i thought was “Wow she is so right”. I have never been on a mission trip especially one out of the country, but what i can tell from hearing stories about them is just you wanting to help them is a way to ignite hope in their lives. It is interesting though that you think you aren’t really helping, it seem you aren’t alone. There are many people that believe mission work isn’t the most efficient way to help those in need, some people believe that the best way to help is to just donate money. Personally i feel like mission trips tend to help the person going on them than the people the mission is visiting. Great Article, it really made me think!

  11. Michel Doege

    There are multiple ways to view a situation such as volunteering. On one hand your experience you may have been able to help in some ways but others like the spatula you were not able to fulfill what they expected which is where it becomes difficult to decide whether what you did over there was helping. I think that keeping an unbiased approach when volunteering helps because then the volunteer is not prone to force their ideas upon the people they are trying to help. This was an interesting article with a new perspective on what things that we have defined as “good” actually are, thank you for sharing your experience.

  12. Kyle Hellmann

    This is a really interesting perspective. It begs the question of volunteer work abroad. People go to make a difference, but are they actually making a difference? I hear stories of volunteers going to a small African village, putting in a new water treatment system, and then leaving. The villagers use it, but then don’t know how to maintain it and/or fix it. The volunteers were involved with the present, without the future being thought about. I’m sorry that this incident happened to you, as you felt a little down, but you also did a lot of good with helping the community. Don’t always focus on the negative.

  13. Tabetha Filzen

    Wow, is all I can say. You really took to heart your mistake and learned from it and took it home with you. To look at volunteering at a place far from your home with a different point of view takes a lot. Not many are willing to see the others’ point of view. You left off with a very good and debatable point as well.

  14. Emily hanson

    Your prospective on this is so strong. Being so young and taking such a drastic trip is amazing. Especially when you have the insite that you have for the work you did. I enjoyed reading your article very much! I hope you’re able to prosue another trip if you choose.

  15. Deng Dimayuga

    Thank you for sharing this story. You’re getting at something that’s often overlooked when volunteering. I think it’s important how you drew out that volunteers can often be seen as free labor. But at what cost does this free labor come? It’s important to take a closer and critical look when considering the impact of volunteering.

  16. Bella Williams

    I had the same experience when I studied abroad in Mexico. Frustration and disappointment are powerful feelings on their own, but for some reason in a foreign country when it concerns those you most want to help, they’re even stronger. I like to think that even though they (‘they’ meaning the people we volunteer to help) may get frustrated with us, they’re still evermore grateful for our desire to fly around the world.

  17. Pingback: Guatemala – Am I Really Helping? — The North Star Reports – by Jennifer Battcher. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal | Professor Liang 梁弘明教授

  18. Delaney Babich

    I enjoyed reading this story very much, thank you for writing it. This is an important perspective to keep in mind, but it also isn’t the only perspective. I think you should also keep in mind, that you took time and energy to visit another country and do your best to help! You had good intentions, and I think that is the most important part!

  19. James Fuerniss

    That is a pretty amazing connection you made. It’s amazing how this can connect with our foreign policy in general. It seems we always know what is best for everyone. This was a really interesting perspective and it is too bad more people can’t make this connection including myself. Awesome point!

  20. This is such an important question to ask yourself whenever trying to ‘help’ any group of people. As a future teacher, I always try to be critical about my impact. When your intentions are good, your impact can still be negative. Have you heard of the activity “The Beads Needs”? I think this could help you and other people when volunteering! Thanks for your article.

  21. Cassidy Jayne

    What a great experience, Jennifer. I can only imagine the impact it will have on you for the rest of your life. It can be overwhelming and discouraging to put your volunteering efforts into perspective, but it’s also incredibly important to keep in mind the intentions you had (have) behind your volunteering. You clearly did great work!

  22. Emily hanson

    That’s such a powerful question. I can see how it’s hard to think of yourself doing anything but good! You’re there with the purpose of doing good, but how far can that purpose carry you? It brings into prospective how it would feel if we have foreigners come into our town and try to help in a way that isn’t exactly what either of us are used to. You brought up a very interesting point that I don’t think enough people think very deeply about.

  23. Jimmy Lovrien

    The fact that you can critically take a look at what you are doing and ask, “Am I really helping?” is quite impressive. Personally, I think “voluntourism” is quite problematic. Specifically for the reason you listed: “Foreigners show up wanting to help better the country, some with their own ideas of how things should be.” I attended a leacture several years ago and the speaker would caution his students not to “go change the world” but to focus on the injustices and problems that still persist in their home communities.

  24. Katherine Grotte

    I highly enjoyed reading this article as I have had similar experiences. Often times traveling to different places/countries to “help” seems to be more like the locals providing life experiences to us young travelers and less us making a positive impact. I often contemplate this dilemma as I plan to join the Peace Corps after graduation. Are we more of a burden than a help? Do they want us? And if they don’t, does it make a difference and we go anyway?

  25. This sheds some light on a new perspective, I think I would have acquired the same feeling after showing the spatula and seeing the reaction on his face. It does bring in to question on whether the help is useful or not, like you said. Overall, it must have been humbling to see the skill needed to make a simple kitchen utensil. It was a great read, thanks for sharing.

  26. Ashley Kittelson

    One problem I see with volunteer trips is there is not a long-term commitment and investment in the community being served. I also see this problem when people volunteer locally. I am a volunteer tax preparer at a local non-profit organization. I have seen several volunteers that seem interested in the project at first but drop out after a couple weeks. That usually means it took more time training them than they spent volunteering. Short-term volunteer projects can be helpful, but the long-term commitments are what lead to change.

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