Jennifer Herndon - 2015 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I applied for this international program because it was the first of its kind for my college, Austin Peay State University. I have been on and lead what we refer to as an "Alternative Break Trips" before, but the opportunity to volunteer in another country was just too great to pass up. I have been volunteering since I was a small child, and being an non-traditional college senior I wanted to expand my service outside of the United States. I was also blessed to have received a full scholarship to participate in this program.

International volunteers in Guatemala

Our group on the first day at the clinic. Ready to get started!

When I say that I am a non-traditional student, I really mean that I am 45 years old and the mother of two adult children (25 and 23); however, I still felt such a draw to Guatemala. I knew enough Spanish to not be rude when meeting someone, but not enough to fully understand everything. Needless to say, I was very nervous before leaving. My children were very concerned, but I reassured them that I would work as hard as possible.

I have always had a passion for taking care of or helping those who have very little. It is why I want to become a rural medicine provider. I want to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves due to poor circumstances or financial issues. So with my very meager Spanish, little spending money, and a heart full of compassion my adventure began.

Would you recommend Maximo Nivel to other students at your university?

I would recommend it to anyone, and I have recommended it to several other students who are planning on going abroad for both educational and volunteer purposes.

What was your favorite part about Guatemala?

My favorite part about Guatemala was the people! They are some of the friendliest and most grateful people I have ever met.

International volunteer with host mother in Guatemala

Our host mother Senora Perez and I, I miss her every day!

What made your program unique?

The small town we were in was mostly inhabited by Mayans and getting to see their cultural dress, hear their unique language, and experience life around them was very unique.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

From the staff at the school/office of Maximo Nivel to our contacts Jonathan and Oscar (on the job site), we never felt out of place or alone. They worked with us to understand customs and cultural differences. I must also include our host family the Perez's in this, because they welcomed all 10 of us with open minds, hearts, and home. This truly was an amazing staff!

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I would have prepared better by learning more Spanish before I left. When in Guatemala, I would not change a single thing.

What was a typical day like as a volunteer in Guatemala?

We would have breakfast with our host family at 7 a.m., picked up by Maximo Nivel at 7:30 a.m., start work at the medical clinic by 8 a.m. and finish by noon. After work we were free to go eat lunch, shop, or go on excursions of our choice. I spent most of my time speaking with my host family and learning about their lives as Guatemalans.

Can you tell us a little more about your volunteer work?

We worked for a week in Santa Catarina, a small village about 30 minutes from Antigua, where we were staying. The crew from Maximo Nivel was amazing. They showed our group how to make cement, mortar, and build walls/doors with very little in the way of tools, or what Americans would use for these projects. They were patient, as were the staff of the small medical clinic that we were working on. The patients were shy at first, but always thanked us for our work as they would leave the clinic...yes, this clinic stayed open and in full operation around the noise and mess of construction work.

Foreign volunteers with local children in Guatemala

The last day, these girls stopped and gave us hugs and kisses, so adorable

What was your favorite thing to do outside of your volunteer work?

My favorite activity was walking from my host residence to the city center and speaking to the locals. The architecture of Antigua is breathtaking and I could walk around and sightsee all day.

How did you make your limited budget last in Guatemala?

I quickly learned that if you eat in local markets, you can eat in Guatemala for very little money, but you get very good food...and a lot of it! I became friends with a local merchant named Maria and her husband Miguel, they were wonderful. I was able to purchase things to bring back to my family, again, at very low prices.

Can you explain more about your accommodation in Guatemala?

We lived with a host family near Maximo Nivel in Antigua. I had one roommate and we had comfortable beds, keys to the house, and our rooms. The bathrooms were clean. Also, the food that our host mother made for us, both breakfast and dinner, was authentic and wonderful. My favorite part of our stay was learning about our host family.

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad changed your life?

This trip changed my life in so many ways. I used to be afraid to travel due to my illness, but I realized that I can be a valuable asset to any volunteer experience. I have started to learn Spanish and have been in contact with Maximo Nivel to return and work more directly with the children in Guatemala.

I just want to end by saying, "This experience changed my life!" And I will be going back to Guatemala and hopefully many more countries to volunteer.

Construction volunteering in Guatemala

Day 2 - getting the concrete floor ready for the final layer