Students Reflect On Service Work in Guatemala During Tropical Storm
Eight Nebraska Wesleyan University students left for Guatemala in late May expecting to spend 10 days building a house for an impoverished family.
“We mixed cement, carried cinder blocks, moved piles of sand, and some of us learned how to lay bricks,” said Meera Bhardwaj, a recent NWU graduate and member of the student organization Global Service Learning.
Just days before the group’s return home, Volcano Pacaya erupted, spewing rocks and ash over Guatemala City. Then Tropical Storm Agatha landed on Guatemala’s shores, causing rivers to swell and burst their banks; mudslides buried homes in towns and cities alike. The two natural disasters claimed the lives of 184 people.
The natural disasters also prevented the eight NWU students and two advisors from returning home as planned.
“Once we saw what had happened in some of the communities surrounding Antigua we had to keep going back and helping,” said senior Kaycie Rupp.
With Guatemala’s international airport closed, the group immediately made the most of the situation and helped with clean-up efforts in areas hit hardest by mudslides.
“Once our flight was cancelled we decided that we had a moral obligation to try and help,” said Bhardwaj.
Together they picked up shovels and formed assembly lines to pass buckets of mud out of houses.
While this marked the first time that Global Service Learning was affected by a natural disaster during an annual international service trip, students said they felt prepared for the challenge.
“We’ve been taught to be flexible and more calm in the face of a devastating situation,” said Bhardwaj.
“The things we saw in Guatemala are also things we can see back in the United States because poverty and death are universal,” she added.
While cleaning up mud-filled houses, the students thought often of past service projects. In January the group traveled to Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where they cleaned out a house destroyed by fire.
The students admitted they were moved to silence the first time they saw a mudslide that raced through and devastated a nearby neighborhood. They faced sadness when they removed mud-covered teddy bears and rubber ducks from a school teacher’s house, but they also experienced laughter as volunteers and residents worked together.
“We’ve loved seeing the attitude of the community of people who weathered the storm together,” said Bhardwaj. “We’ve seen houses filled with mud the consistency of chocolate cake, but we’ve also seen entire communities coming together forming lines to move the mud out while joking with each other.”
In the days preceding the volcano eruption and tropical storm, the NWU students built a house with Constru Casa, a non-governmental organization. The beneficiary family participated in the construction alongside the students.
The students flew home a week after their scheduled return.