By Bernice Kita, MM
For the last several years, Maryknoll Sisters in the Guatemala towns of Lemoa and Chajul have hosted a group of freshly-graduated high school girls from Colegio Monte María in Guatemala City. They come as rural missionaries during school vacation in the month of November, when it’s summer in Guatemala. Each group quickly develops its own unique communal personality – no two groups are alike!
Those assigned to Chajul, a distant mountain town, are brought by their parents in vehicles filled with teaching materials, toys for children, enough food for a month, and their favorite pillows. These Monte Maria graduates, now college students in Guatemala City, volunteered in a spirit of adventure and service to help Ixil-speaking children in Chajul learn how to speak and read Spanish.
Last year, I had signed up 30 first-graders, 30 second-graders and 20 sixth-graders for remedial classes in Spanish and math. The volunteer mentors quickly organized themselves into a teaching team covering five days a week for four weeks. In addition, a few went with our priest to a distant village where they sloshed through mud, ate unfamiliar food, and witnessed the hard life of the people in the rugged countryside. All of them caught a variety of colds from their students. One sprained a ligament in her knee after too much mountain climbing. One had a few spontaneous and scary nosebleeds. And all took turns cleaning toilets, sweeping and mopping floors, washing dishes and cooking supper. In return for their volunteer service, the volunteers eagerly learned from their pupils how to speak a few words of Ixil and set themselves to learn to weave from some of their older students.
Before leaving Chajul, the group sat around my kitchen table talking about their experiences and a few shed tears. They had never seen such poverty, much less experienced it firsthand. They admitted to being deeply touched and permanently changed in those few weeks. Comparing their privileged lives in the capital with the lives of the children of Chajul, they wondered aloud how they could help them once they returned home.
In my kitchen that evening was born a project: to contribute during the next year to the education of six of the children. With very little free time left, these determined young women made arrangements with the children, the parents, the schools, and the banks to make their plan a reality. Several months later, the project was continuing as planned, and the Monte Maria graduates, now college students, were keeping in touch with their protegées in the countryside.
The volunteers from Guatemala City added a whole new dimension to my ministry with their one-month mission to Chajul. Each year, they had collected so much learning materials from other Monte Maria students that, when each year’s new group of volunteers arrived, they brought children’s books, loads of paper, games, paints, and lots of other materials. Each year I had to add more shelves to store everything they left.
This year in June, two of the Monte Maria graduates who served last November wanted to come back for a week during their vacation and plunged right in where they had left off.