Scott Katz - 2013 Program Participant

View of the Rio Dulce River in Guatemala

The kids looking out at the magnificent Rio Dulce river from the second-floor balcony

What inspired you to volunteer abroad?

I wanted to have an adventure while I had time, before life moves on and the opportunity is lost.

Why did you choose Casa Guatemala out of all the volunteer program providers out there?

I found their website and was immediately interested. I enjoy working with kids and this project is well-established. I had studied Spanish in school and always had an interest in Latin America.

Why did you like the location of Casa Guatemala?

This is an isolated place. There are no roads leading to this project, it is accessible only from the Rio Dulce river. It is also located in the jungle; there are mosquitoes, snakes, birds, butterflies, bats, and we see monkeys in the trees almost every day.

Boys at the Casa Guatemala Mayan Childrens Village

The Varones Pequeños (small boys) in their part of the boys' house.

What makes working with Casa Guatemala a unique way to volunteer abroad?

Casa Guatemala is a well-established program that has a school building, gym area, soccer field, water tower, cafeteria, library, computer lab, and houses for boys and girls, in addition to the house for volunteers. The program is run by a dedicated staff of teachers, administrators, and workers, many of whom are kids from Casa Guatemala who are sponsored by the project to attend high school. The project has also sponsored kids through university, and one former resident is now a doctor in Guatemala City. This remote region of Guatemala does not offer many opportunities, and many children are denied even a basic education, some as young as eight or nine have to work in the fields with their parents.

Casa Guatemala works to change the landscape and provide the care, love, and education these kids need to open new doors for the future.

How did the local staff work with volunteers to ensure their time was impactful?

Other volunteers, the teachers, administrators and the workers all work together to get through each and every day and improve the project when possible. New projects take time to develop but work is actively being done to build a new water tower and the gymnasium was re-built last year.

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

I wish that I had studied Spanish a bit more. I learned a lot in my six months at Casa Guatemala, but having that level of Spanish coming into the experience would have been beneficial.

Guatemalan child playing

Juanito having fun being silly and hanging from the rafters

What was a typical day like for you at Casa Guatemala?

The days start early in Casa Guatemala. The kids wake up at 5:00 a.m. for school or 6:00 a.m. on the weekend. There is one volunteer that spends the night with each group of kids (there are four groups) and volunteers take turns spending the night. The kids will do their morning chores and then shower before breakfast. Breakfast is at 6:00 a.m. (7:00 a.m. on weekends) and then it's back to the house to brush their teeth before school.

School runs from 7:00 a.m. to around 11:00 a.m. (depending on the grade). Lunch is from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., when class resumes. Volunteers are with the kids during lunch. School then runs from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. From 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. is free time, where the volunteers are responsible for the kids. We play soccer, kickball, or go swimming with the kids in the river (the water is clean and safe!), and then it's time for their evening showers before the 6:00 p.m. dinner.

After dinner, the kids go back to the house to play until  around 8:00 p.m. (depending on the group), when it's time for bed. After the kids are asleep, the volunteers who are not spending the night head back to the volunteer house and talk well into the night by candlelight as there is no electricity in the volunteer house.

What can volunteers do on their free time outside of their volunteer work?

The work schedule is 22 days at Casa Guatemala and then eight days off. During these eight days volunteers travel the country and see the beauty of Guatemala, from Lake Atitlan in the west to Tikal in the north or Livingston in the east. There are a lot of places to visit and in six months in the country, including five descansos or breaks away from the project, I did not see the entire country.

What was the volunteer house like?

To call the volunteer house rustic would be an understatement. There is no electricity in the volunteer house. There is no hot water, either, which means cold showers every morning. There are mosquitoes and howler monkeys which will inevitably wake you up in the morning. It's a nice change of pace from the modern world.

School and gym at the Casa Guatemala Mayan Childrens Village

The school building and gym area (to the right - it has since been rebuilt)

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad in Guatemala impacted your life?

Coming back from Casa Guatemala, I had a significantly more positive outlook on life. When things here are difficult or challenging, I think of the challenges I faced in Guatemala and realize that nothing is as hard as it seems. I am more focused, more motivated, and more empathetic. I learned to let go of my ego in Guatemala and think beyond myself, something for which I am truly grateful. And it's not just me. Other people have commented on the positive changes in my life since my return, and I know other volunteers have experienced this as well. It is impossible to overstate the impact this experience has had on my life, and as a result I am planning to go back for eight months in August to give back to the place and the people who have given me so much.