The College Celebrates 10 Years of Service Trips to Guatemala

In 2006, staff, faculty, and students journeyed to Central America over winter break, their suitcases predominantly packed with modest clothes and work boots rather than the usual vacation wear. These individuals formed the first group from Saint Joseph’s to participate in a service trip to Guatemala with Partners in Development, Inc. (PID), an organization whose mission is to help impoverished communities attain independence and better quality of life. Working alongside PID staff and other volunteers, SJC members constructed homes and provided medical care for the Guatemalan nationals while learning about the local culture and customs. Ten years later, and this annual tradition continues.

The College’s history of service trips—to Haiti and US cities, in addition to Guatemala—is in keeping with its foundation in the Mercy teachings. “[As the Sisters of Mercy foundress,] Catherine McAuley's legacy was providing housing for those who had none, caring for the poorest of the poor, and doing her best to meet their basic needs,” explains Steven Bridge, professor of theology, who has been attending and helping to orchestrate the Guatemalan trips since their beginning. “Personally, I can think of no better way to express the Mercy values. There's not a doubt in my mind that Catherine would be tremendously proud of SJC in this regard.” 

On Sunday, January 10, representatives of the College returned from the second of two week-long trips to San Bernardino, a municipality in the Suchitepéquez department of Guatemala. (A small group from SJC also participated in a PID program in Glendora, Mississippi, during the winter break.) As with past trips, they chipped in wherever help was needed: students dug foundational trenches and filled them with concrete mixed by hand, installed new cook-stoves, ran a daily children’s arts and crafts program, and distributed hundreds of pounds of humanitarian supplies. Those enrolled in Saint Joseph’s nursing program also helped to staff a local medical clinic, processing countless children for their well-child check-ups. 

And as with past trips, the work was as rewarding as it was challenging. Year in, year out, volunteers and locals are both changed through the reciprocal relationships formed during these trips. Explains Bridge, “Lives have literally been transformed—on both sides of the equation. The locals receive resources that have a transformational effect on their quality of life, and students have an experience that forever changes the way they perceive their place in the world. And I'm in the most enviable position of all: I get a front-row seat to watch both of these dynamics unfold!”

JRiely Guatemala testimonial 400 x 300Jimmy Riley ’16 (center in photo), a participant this year, echoed similar sentiments about his involvement. “I'm so glad that I made the decision to go on a service trip to Guatemala. Working alongside the poorest of the poor was truly an eye-opening experience that has made me appreciate so much. These types of trips change the lives of two groups of people: the students who take part and the villagers that are benefiting from the work that's being done.”

To critics who question the effectiveness of short-term service work, a decade of Saint Joseph’s participation in aid efforts to Guatemala proves what a positive impact these types of volunteer trips can have. This year, travelers got the opportunity to meet Felipe, the owner of the very first house built by PID in 2006, who decided to celebrate the anniversary with a lunch and traditional dance performance for this year’s group. In a speech he gave, Felipe explained how getting a new house allowed him to make his daughter’s education a priority; she was the first girl from their village to graduate high school and is now studying at the university level. He made a point to acknowledge Bridge and Dr. Sue Kelly, associate professor emerita, who were both members of the original team that helped construct his new home. 

“The transformation is so dramatic, that the original villages are nearly unrecognizable today,” says Bridge, reflecting on the impact PID has made in Guatemala since their work with Felipe. “Quality of life has also significantly improved over time. Malnutrition is nearly eradicated in these areas—many of the once-common diseases are no more, parasite counts are down, children are far healthier—and kids, especially the girls, are attaining ever-higher levels of education. There's still plenty of work to be done, but the progress we've made is considerable.”

Check out more photos from this year's trip.