Members of Teenagers, Inc. and a family from Guatemala pose for a photo after completing their new home. (Second from left:Brennan O’Donnell, Claire, Mary and Anne Dwyer and Nick Crossan. (Photo courtesy of Teenagers, Inc.)

by Brennan O’Donnell and Liu Volpe

About two months ago, Teenagers Inc made its way south again to Antigua, Guatemala, with a group of 25 young people from the Chestnut Hill area. Many of the teenagers didn’t know one another prior to the trip and were unsure about how the trip would unfold. None of the teens, however, could have predicted just how life changing the trip would be.

For eight days, the teenagers performed various acts of service that most of the them had never done before. Building a small house with only simple tools, visiting a malnutrition center, spending an evening serving meals at a local homeless shelter, playing with children in an orphanage, and listening to families on social work visits became our everyday routine.

“Of course we would have lunch breaks at our host families’ houses,” said Liu Volpe, a rising senior at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, “but I think the best part of my day was being out there with my group and sharing this experience together.”

The experience, although fun at times, revealed all too many truths about the world from which we had been so shielded while at home. A particular occasion that was certainly eye-opening for every group member was on our first day. We had come back from visiting Casa Jackson, the malnutrition center, and were waiting in the Dreamer Center. We had just seen, first hand, the devastating effects and realities of malnutrition, an incredible problem in Guatemala.

Yet later we all found ourselves ravenously hungry and greedily awaiting our pizza delivery for lunch. That moment might have been the most embarrassing and shameful moment of our trip. During that lunch, on our first day, we all ate a bit more slowly and understood more fully why we were there.

With a deepened sense of humility and awareness, we spent our next few days committed to our service work. But, as most of us soon realized, this trip presented more challenges to overcome.

One of the many barriers we encountered during the trip was the barrier of language. Few of us had taken Spanish classes at their high school or college and only a handful of us were able to translate conversations for one another. Despite its difficulties, the translating brought us together in a particularly interesting way because we so often had to rely on one another.

“It was difficult attempting to speak to Guatemalans,” said Brennan O’Donnell, a rising junior at LaSalle College High School, “but it was enjoyable when they understood you and you could understand them.”

Even though most of the children at the Dreamer Center didn’t know a word of English, it turned out we didn’t need to speak Spanish, and they didn’t need to speak English. As someone once said, “All people smile in the same language.” Almost all of us thought playing with the kids at the Dreamer Center and the Orphanage was by far one of the best parts of the trip.

During our time at the Dreamer Center and the Orphanage, as we gave out the toys we had brought down with us, we realized just how precious a small animal figurine is or how magical it is when a Suction Cup Popper bursts into the air.

“It was amazing,” O’Donnell said. “The simplest toys that many Americans take for granted made the Guatemalan children light up with joy and feel so blessed.”

These children reminded us of our younger siblings or people we knew, which made our awareness of the neglect and abuse these children had survived all the more difficult to accept.

Tiring as our trip had already been, as we neared our first day of building, everyone surged with renewed energy. The night before we were encouraged to read stories about the families for whom we would be building a house. We were excited and nervous to begin. Our excitement and enthusiasm remained throughout the course of our three days of building, but the nervousness we had felt melted away once we had stepped onto our worksites for the first time.

Most worksites were empty spaces a couple of feet from the family’s current home. We witnessed the “self-made houses” in which many Guatemalans live. Such houses consist of bamboo walls and a metal sheet over the roof. No carpet, no bathroom, just a 10- by 15-foot room for an entire family. Each team’s mission was to build its family a house with concrete floors to decrease exposure to parasites and with a strong foundation to shelter the family and stand up to Guatemala’s rainy season when torrential rains cause flooding and create powerful mudslides.

Although much of this year’s team was new to the experience of building, everyone embraced the new experience, working hard and cooperatively with their team.

“The first day was the hardest,” Volpe remembered. “We mixed and laid cement for seven hours. I never thought I’d despise cement so much as I do now.”

Because of the physically demanding tasks and unfamiliar procedures, veterans of the trip led their teams through the days of building.

“It gave us the opportunity to lead those who had never been before,” said three-year veterans Brendan and Michael Dwyer and Pat O’Donnell. “Whether it was addressing their concerns, giving advice or providing direction during the building of the houses, we fully embraced our roles as leaders”

By the end of the three days of building, everyone’s work gloves and clothes were saturated with cement, soil and hard work. Haley Cranch, a junior at Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School, remarked, “The people we helped were grateful and appreciative of our service, but more importantly we gained life lessons in return.”

Throughout our other service work, especially house building, our teams formed personal bonds with the people they served and the host families with whom they lived “Everybody was fully immersed in the culture of a third-world country, and it was not always easy,” Brendan Dwyer said. “The food was different, living conditions were different and the way of life was different.”

Everyone gained a new perspective on their own lives and the lives they had touched through their service. Nearing the end of the trip, we had all become assimilated to the pace of life in Guatemala and had become familiarized with our service work. Everyone expressed interest in doing the trip again, because everyone found it to be transforming.

Alexis Zollo, junior at Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School, reflected on her experience:

“There are no words to properly explain the effect Guatemala has had on me. Every person I met opened me up to a world that I never completely understood. Sure, I’ve heard all of the sad stories of starving children, but standing in the “house” of a family that is barely surviving, I learned to appreciate even the smallest things in life. Although we went to Guatemala to help others, they ended up helping me on a much grander scale. I cannot wait to go back next year!”

All 25 of us agreed that to donate money or material items or to talk about affecting change can only do so much.

“Everyone should experience it,” Brendan Dwyer said.