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