August 21, 2012
I first came into contact with Avivará two years ago while studying Spanish in La Antigua, Guatemala. Before arriving, I had searched the internet for a non-profit organization with education as its main focus and was directed to Avivará. When I responded to the "Communicate with Us" with my email address, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back the next day from Ann Austin, one of the founders of the organization. We quickly worked out the arrangements so that we could meet when I got to Antigua. Being an ELL/ESL teacher, I was delighted to learn that I could volunteer in the after-school program that Ann and Gustavo Valle, both teachers, were running in a nearby village. I loved my time with the children in La Escuelita, but Ann and Gustavo also brought me to several rural schools supported by Avivará. This experience touched my heart in a very powerful way because I saw the harsh realities of life- and school- in the Guatemalan countryside.
I also learned about Avivará’s scholarship program, and how they provide supplies to schools based on what the teachers themselves rate as their most urgent needs. While Ann and Gustavo do most of the teacher and school interaction, Gary Teale, Ann’s husband, is in charge of financial oversight and accountability for Avivará. Together, the three have created a highly effective organization for achieving their mission to support the needs of rural schools. This was a short but very powerful introduction to the mission of Avivará, and I knew that this was just the kind of organization I wanted to support financially, as well as with more volunteer work in the future.
This summer I was privileged to return to Guatemala for five weeks and again work with Avivará. During my first week, I helped in the after-school program and attended scholarship meetings with Gustavo and Ann, the students, and their parents. These meetings were emotionally very moving as both students and parents shared their hopes and dreams for the future as well as the hard work, the challenges, and the sacrifices required to pursue an education that we in the United States often take for granted. I saw clearly how valuable the scholarship program is, and also the student accountability mechanism that Avivará has built into its program through these meetings.
The highlight of my stay was volunteering in the school in El Yalú. I spent one week in a first grade classroom assisting the classroom teacher and familiarizing myself in general with the teachers and students and the school day. After my orientation week, I began teaching English classes in the third through sixth grades. Students and teachers were very friendly and eager to participate and made me feel very welcome. The teachers also showed me the areas in the English curriculum in which they wanted me to focus, which made lesson planning much easier. I felt that the school community, including the director, the teachers, and the students, had enthusiastically embraced me and made me feel welcome. I can honestly say that my experiences in the classroom were joyful, and I felt a real sense of sadness when it was time to say good bye.
For me, the heart of successful volunteer work is knowing that we receive much more than we give as we meet new people, different cultures and languages, and enter into new situations. I experienced a dedicated teaching staff working in a remote location, enduring a lengthy daily commute by bus, working with meager resources and students who have huge learning obstacles to be overcome, and doing all of this with a cheerful, loving, and positive spirit. They taught me, not only strategies for keeping students engaged and the power of handmade teaching materials, but the power of the human spirit to transcend difficult circumstances. For all that I received this summer, I say a heart-felt thank you to the El Yalú community and to Avivará for bringing us together. I know that I have grown so much, not only as a teacher, but as a person, and I hope very much to return next summer and continue what I have begun. ¡Muchísimas gracias!
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