I knew there would be tears during my trip to Guatemala last month. I participated in a soap distribution trip with Orlando-based Clean the World to see how soap is saving lives and knew we would be visiting some of the country’s poorest areas. During the quick, four-day trip my tears didn’t flow because of the poverty, I cried because of the smiles I saw and hope I found.
“In the U.S., people line up for the latest iPhone, here they were lined up for soap,” my roomie for this trip said to me after our first full day in Guatemala. (BTW, my roomie rocked!)
She was right. When our small group walked into a facility operated by the in-country host, Children International, we had to weave our way through the crowd. Women along with some children and men, had packed the room and were standing in line for the recycled, used hotel soap Clean the World had provided.
A sea of color was standing before me. Many women, most of Mayan descent and probably indigenous Kaqchiquel, wore long, hand-woven skirts and colorful shirts in a variety of patterns and vibrant hues.
Others wore Western wear and by that, I don’t mean cowboy hats and leather vests with dangling fringe. I mean clothing probably donated by good-intentioned Americans. One of the few men I saw wore a New York Giants Super Bowl T-shirt while a woman wore a white T-shirt with red lettering stating something like “President George W. Bush is hazardous to women’s health,” along with a pair a jeans. (Which couldn’t be further from the truth – about Bush – and very soon I’ll get the recap of Former First Lady Laura Bush’s lecture posted which touches on their effort to assist women around the globe.)
Interestingly, several women had the most beautiful gold crowns and caps on their teeth which made me a bit jealous. My Grandma Huber had a gold tooth which I was always fascinated with. Last year I chipped a bottom tooth and asked the dentist for a gold crown. Unfortunately he won’t do anything until I get braces to straighten my top teeth. *sigh*
Let me continue with the soap distribution experience…
Blinking back tears as soon as I saw the packed room, I sucked it up and mentally prepared for my purpose for being in Guatemala – to distribute soap, educate people on the importance of hygiene, and build pockets of peace.
Responsible tourism is important to me. I’m selective in the organizations I engage with and being an unofficial ambassador for Clean the World makes sense. My adult life has revolved around the tourism industry and what the organization does is recycle used soap and hygiene products from hotels and gives it to people in need.
Specifically, soap and hygiene kits are distributed in regions with high mortality rates due to the two killers of children worldwide, diarrhea-related diseases and pneumonia. Daily, approximately 5,500 children from around the world die from preventable hygiene-related illnesses. During this mission trip, a doctor in a rural Guatemalan community said she can already see a positive difference the soap and hygiene education, which was introduced before my visit, is making in the patients she serves. Indeed, soap is saving lives.
In addition to recycling soap and other hygiene amenities, Clean the World’s program helps hotels reduce their waste by diverting these products from landfills. Green and clean. My kinda organization.
I felt a little guilty as I handed out a clear, plastic bag with three bars soap to each family and hearing them thank me. I mean, in no way did I make that soap happen. Okay, I’d like to think when I shared my 2011 volunteer experience I inspired others to volunteer or encouraged a hotel or two to join the program. But, I know the reality is the soap I distributed in those two days had nothing to do with me.
Over the two days, we distributed 12,000 bars of soap. For the month, Children International was scheduled to distribute 124,000 bars of Clean the World soap as part of the month-long hand washing campaign.
In addition to this facility in a rural community about an hour from Antigua, we visited families in their homes, as well as a school and the Children International facility in a Guatemala City suburb. Reflecting on the home visits, I didn’t feel sad about their living conditions.
Because I’m heartless? No, because the families didn’t seem sad.
The families the group visited are in the Children International program. This means each sponsored child receives a host of services including health care, education, life skills training and athletics. The entire family benefits by receiving tangible goods and services through having a sponsored child.
As I stood in homes with dirt floors, some with chickens strutting in and out, I noticed flies carpeting ceilings, gaping holes between the corrugated metal sheets exposing the outdoors, and realized there wasn’t running water inside. The smiles on the hosts’ faces lit up their respective homes.
I hope it wasn’t part of a dog and pony show, but I didn’t hear people playing the “pity me” card. They knew where they currently stood in society yet had hope for a better life.
Through a translator, I asked a single mother of two, (she was abandoned by her husband) what Children International sponsorship has meant to her family. My eyes filled with tears listening to the response not because it was sad but because it was inspiring.
She was thankful for the opportunities and better life sponsorship is giving her children. This mother also cares for her father and has a baking business. It was easy to see her daughters are her world. When asked if she would be okay if her daughters went to college and left, she responded “yes” and added she wishes a better life for them. Her eldest daughter, who plays soccer, aspires to be a doctor.
I viewed my purpose on this mission as an ambassador for Clean the World and the United States. I was a face for CTW and helped spread the message – through a brief skit, song and one-on-one interactions – about the importance of hand washing. I was also a representative of the United States to show a few thousand Guatemalans what a face of an everyday American looks like. Importantly, by showing respect and sharing smiles, I created pockets of peace.
Although brief, my traveling companions and I took time to learn about the personal lives of others. We fostered some understanding between the American and Guatemalan cultures. Can you imagine what a better world we would have if we all took the time to learn and appreciate just one thing about someone we just met? I mean, how many times have you learned something about someone you already know and it changed your perception?
Now that I’m home, it’s my job to share the experience and continue being a cheerleader and ambassador for Clean the World and Children International. My goal is to recruit at least one hotel to join their program by becoming a partner and give at least one presentation about the trip and Clean the World.
View photos from my trip on Flickr.
Recap video of my trip: