It's 3:30 in the morning, two days after Christmas. Where would you expect most high school teenagers to be at that time of day? Asleep, correct?
That was not the case for myself and 43 of my fellow Clearfield Falcons, along with 12 adult chaperones, as we were all at the Salt Lake City International Airport at that exact time, waiting for our flight to leave for Houston and then on to Guatemala.
We were to stay in Guatemala for two weeks, including New Year's Eve and New Year's Day plus an entire missed week of school. A sacrifice? Of course. Was it worth it? Definitely.
Our task was to begin construction of a new day care building in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, the second most populous city in the country. It was a very interesting experience walking the streets of this city, as it is completely different than anything here. Rather than the wide, two- or four-lane roads for vehicles to drive, Quetzaltenango (or XelajAo, according to the natives) boasts small, narrow, one-way roads with barely enough room for one car to squeeze through.
Another cultural difference is that rather than disposing of garbage by throwing it away, the people burn it. In fact, they burn pretty much anything, which caused superfluous amounts of smoke floating through the air.
The construction site was on the outskirts of the city, and the poverty of the area was almost overwhelming. The people lived in tin lean-tos, and one was considered blessed if they had concrete walls instead of tin walls. Our purpose in building this day care was so that single mothers could leave their children in trusted hands as they went to work.
However, much more was done while our Clearfield High group was there. While we did construct much of the day care before we left, many of us were able to do other service-oriented activities. Some painted, some visited the already existing day care, and others helped hand out donations to needy families.
Building the day care was definitely an adventure. Being behind on our agenda due to shipping problems regarding the container carrying all our tools was only the beginning. Once we began truly working on the building, things got a little more difficult.
Trenches needed to be dug for a perimeter fence, while deep holes were dug for the placement of the new day care columns. Once these were finished, a few young men including myself were privileged enough to learn how to mix concrete. Bucket after bucket of concrete and sand was poured into the gas-powered cement mixer, and then poured onto the ground, both cementing in the columns as well as creating a new concrete slab for the internal flooring.
Once this was finished, Styrofoam panels reinforced with wire were slid in between the columns to create walls. Almost an entire day was spent then tying all of the panels together and to the columns, and many of the kids learned how to expertly twist and tighten the tie-wire.
As the week ended, we began stuccoing the walls to reinforce them even more. While some teens learned how to do this, others spent their time mixing more cement to stabilize the new fence posts. Although we did not completely finish the day care, we put up the columns and walls, finished most of the "scratch coat" of stucco, put up the fence posts for the welder to weld on the rails, and painted new murals for the children.
Making life work
During our time in Quetzaltenango, we also handed out many of the 500 boxes of donations that we had brought. Even though I personally spent most of my time helping build the day care, I also helped with this donation process. It was one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my life.
Families would walk in wearing the only clothes they owned, and humbly select two outfits, two pairs of shoes, a backpack with hygiene supplies, and a blanket, and walk away with much more than they had to begin with. What really struck me about these humble Guatemalans was that while they were not completely happy, they were still very content with their lives, even with the little that they had. I believe there is a lesson to be learned here, especially to we who are very fortunate: we should be more grateful for all that we have.
Here in the United States were are privileged to have easy access to technology, indoor plumbing, heated houses, food and other basic luxuries. In the area of Guatemala we visited, this was certainly not the case. However, the people there found a way to make life work.
Perhaps having less means that there are less distractions and more opportunities to spend time with loved ones. Maybe it means they don't have to worry about payments or things like that. Whatever the case, these humble people who live simple lives taught me through their actions that it doesn't take a mansion or a fancy car to be happy or content with life.
Another interesting thing was that Guatemalans in general are much more friendly than people in the United States. In passing, many would give a broad, genuine smile, and say "Buenos Dias," meaning "good morning" or "good day." Also, people would engage in conversation much easier and actually try to listen to everything we had to say.
Now, I'm not saying that people here in Utah don't do that, but it's a lot less common. I found this to be another lesson to learn, to be kind to everyone and to try and make somebody else's day a little brighter.
Amerians have so much it's sometimes hard to imagine what life would be like without our car or our cell phone or our iPods or our computers, but some people in this world live just hoping that they will be able to eat once a day and stay warm at night. My hope is that maybe we can start really appreciating what we have and looking at things from a different perspective.
My greater hope is that we can do something to help those in need. You don't have to travel to a foreign country to do this. All one has to do is look, because there are people like this everywhere.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." Whether it's in Guatemala or right here at home, together I believe that we can make a difference and make the world a better place.
Kimball Gardner is a senior at Clearfield High School. E-mail him at email@example.com.