June 12, 2008
Work, Friendship, and Love in the Guatemalan Jungle

By Jamie Petrik, Lees-McRae Volleyball Coach

The thermometer read 115 degrees and we were not shocked. Today seemed hotter than ever as Lees-McRae staff and students rotated playing ultimate Frisbee and jump rope in the shadeless field with the village children. Pato, pato, ganzo (duck, duck, goose) was moved from the field to under the large tree that helped shade our parked mini-bus. The bus was our refuge from the sun and the children, but sitting in a hundred degree bus seemed light years away from the cool summer breezes of Banner Elk.

Our journey to Guatemala was full of joy, love, and unexpected twists. This year twelve of us from Lees-McRae College worked with a group of nine UNEC volunteers (see end of story) from Guatemala. We helped dig a well, operated a medical clinic/pharmacy, led Vacation Bible School (VBS), and played organized games. I prefer to skip through the numerous planning meetings of our crew, the vast purchasing of $600 of food and supplies two days before, the short flight, the two days of training in a gnat-infested camp, and the 8-hour drive to our home base in Flores. As country singer Kenny Chesney writes, this article will focus on the "good stuff," our time in the village of Chinatal.

Since half of our group was returning for the second year in a row, our anticipation of seeing the children was met as they ran out a good half mile from the village to greet us. Freddie (a seven year-old boy from Chinatal) jogged alongside us in tears as a few of us joined him in the Hallmark moment. After our group was swarmed by the 70+ children, we participated in a welcoming ceremony with music, greetings, and messages in 3 languages (Spanish, English and Kekchi, their native language). Many children adorned our laps, and with Freddie on mine, found awe in the fact that my watch lit up if he pressed a certain button.

By this time it was 12:30 p.m., and the village had graciously made us lunch. Because of parasites and other health concerns, the gringos went to the bus for cold water and Barbara's PB&J sandwiches while the UNEC group accepted their offer. Our VBS leaders then split the kids into groups (a singing/story group and a craft group), and two hours later I watched as two little girls proudly showed me their white paper plates neatly designed into fish.

Last year I was assigned to the roofing work crew and I felt worthless on the first day as we spent 3 hours handing out aluminum roofing to the town. This year I was welcomed to miracle #1; the well was nearly dug. It was 30 feet deep, there was water, and I was shocked. It needed to be 10-15 feet deeper but a majority of the work was done. Today's big decision was which way to run the piping trench to the main water line. The elders decided, to the chagrin of our group, to run it through a field to a pipe that seemed a good half mile away. We wanted to run it 500 feet to a closer location.

So, with five guys, four machetes, and an idea of where we were going, we set off into this field. I was excited because they said there were pit vipers (poisonous snakes) in the field. About fifteen minutes into the task, I noticed ten more men had joined our machete crew. Thirty minutes later, there were thirty of us. While I was pleased to see the teamwork, I realized that, two hours and no pit vipers later, we were well over (no pun intended) a mile away from the well. Our water pump would not be able to push water that far so all of us were relieved when the elders said the trench would not be built that way. The bright side was that we made a nice path and that Luke was now a champ with a machete.

As the mini-bus approached the town, we were shocked to see miracle #2 - the new trench was completely dug. The elders decided to use the shorter route and the thirty men dug a trench 500 feet yesterday. So Brad, Luke, the UNEC guys and I spent the day working at the well. The Chinatal men had constructed a simple 3-post frame. Two posts (tree limbs) were dug into the ground beside the well and one post linked the two above the well. Two or three men would dig and fill buckets in the well and we would pull up the buckets on pulleys and dump them fifteen feet off to the side. The village men were amused at the strength of the young gringos because they would use one arm to grab a full bucket when it reached the top and the others would struggle to carry a bucket with both arms.

Freddie was one of the children (about half) that did not go to school. So from 10 a.m. to noon, he played numerous games with our crew. At noon, all the village children were supposed to go home and eat, but at least twenty of them hung out near the bus, skipping lunch. VBS again split the large group into two, and Freddie went to the singing group first. He was not happy and at 1:30 p.m. Tonya watched as our angelic Freddie climbed the barred windows, slipped through the bars, and jumped into the craft group making puppet cotton ball sheep with brown bags.

After a day hiking in Tikal, the Mayan Ruins, day 3 found us one down (Grace stayed back) and many more churning. Brad, our first aid man, was busy with varied cures for the crew-Pepto Bismal was the drink of the day! Day 3 also brought seventy patients to our two volunteer Guatemalan doctors, Alex and Angie. They treated many cuts, ear and parasite infections, malnutrition, etc. Most of the children's ailments stem from their exposed feet, for all of them live in dirt floor shacks where animals and insects have free reign. Only two of the fifty homes have outhouses, so their yard is the Baño for humans and animals alike.

The piping was laid in the trench and the digging continued. Smokey, a horse, helped pull up buckets and men via his owner's beckoning. Today's bucket fair was muddy rock and water, so we came back to the bus speckled in what looked like milk chocolate.

VBS went great, but recreation sought overtime pay as our bus driver discovered a flat tire at our 3 p.m. departure time. My discovery, for the next hour, was "Wow, Megan and Luke taught Frisbee really well to these kids - they are good." I also learned that stage 1 of milk chocolate removal from pants involves two boys using their finger nails to clean them while playing Frisbee.

Some like it hot but we did not. 115 degree weather found us rotating games to the shade though Freddie wanted to play soccer in the open field. VBS was depleted of staff because Krista and Audrey (Presbyterian USA young adult volunteer) helped me measure each child's foot size. Churches and schools had donated over 200 pairs, but we wanted exact sizes, with names, for the future. Next door, the doctors treated another fifty patients. With the heat and lack of staff energy, only the Guatemalan men helped at the well as Luke rotated in with recreation and Brad helped the doctors.

The big hit/chaos of the day was the picture frames. When the children and mothers walked in to VBS, Daviana told the story of the wise men bringing presents to baby Jesus. But the children's eyes were glued on the wooden picture frames as if they were gold. The frames were handed out to decorate, with stickers and markers. Some moms even hid an extra frame in their shawls! With both groups decorating (the moms loved to color), FreDrica helped form a single line and Renee took Polaroid photos. In the end, the kids and moms were proud of their new frames and photos. The oldest couple in the village showed up right at the end all dressed up in their Sunday best and asked if they could have their picture taken. We were honored.

Because four of our UNEC guys left the night before and because I could not bribe the referee with enough Quetzals, we lost 4-1 to Chinatal in the 2nd annual soccer game on the final day. We could not blame it on the heat because it was a mere 100 degrees F. Luke needed twenty minutes and a gallon of water to cool down before the most joyful moment of the trip: he gave the town a juggling show. Not only did the kid's faces light up, but the men of the village were cracking up as numerous high-pitched laughs came from their mouths. Immediately after Luke's act, Megan and Kathy coordinated the distribution of koosh balls to the kids and within seconds we watched "Luke want to be's" burst into action.

The final two agenda items, labeling the kid's shoes and participating in a closing service, took a bit longer than expected. The shoe labeling took two plus hours as Krista, Megan, Audrey, and Tonya managed that task. The elders were going to hand out the shoes to the families after our departure. We also left behind donated clothing, school supplies, over-the-counter medications, and recreational equipment.

The closing ceremony was organized at the last moment. It opened with a few songs in Spanish and Kekchi. I had the honor to talk about the 11th commandment in John 15: "How we should love each other. " I was proud as I witnessed numerous gestures of love all week, from a simple refilling of a water bottle in our group to a hug from one of the children. My simple message was translated into Spanish and Kekche, and then our group ended by singing "Open the Eyes of My Heart" in Spanish and English.

The hugs and tears as we left are forever etched into our hearts. Things ended just as they had begun. We drove off, with more tears, watching our kids, Freddie included, running after the bus in tears.

And, now, we return to the USA to reflect on this experience and to prepare for our next trip to Chinatal in January 2010.

A Short History of the UNEC/Lees-McRae Partnership
A brief history of the relationship between UNEC and Lees-McRae College- Four years ago, Kathy Campbell and Barbara Hosbein went to Guatemala to meet with the UNEC Officers who are the young adult leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala. They thought we were coming to set up an educational /travel experience for our students. When the UNEC Officers realized that we wanted to partner with them in service, they were astounded. They chose one of the most remote and poverty stricken villages they had visited and asked us to join them on their mission trip to Chinatal. Four years and three shared trips later, God continues to bless our partnership with UNEC, Lees-McRae College, and the village of Chinatal!

The annual cost for this partnership is $35,000 raised through the generous support of foundations, congregations, judicatories, service groups, schools, and friends. If you would like more information about our Guatemala Partnership and how you can support this ongoing program, please contact Kathy Campbell at

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