So What’s It Like To Volunteer?

Todd and I had long talked about combining travel and service and the Rotary Club provided a great opportunity. When Albany Rotarian Ellen Davis and her friend Mykell Winterowd gave a presentation about Partner for Surgery/ACPC and the important work they do in Guatemala, we were ready to hear. They had both participated in medical missions and Mykell is on the board of directors of ACPC. If they thought we could do it, well . . .

Still, it was a leap of faith.

I don’t speak Spanish, and frankly I was embarrassed by that. But in fact it wasn’t an impediment. My job was to photograph the mission and there is a universal unspoken language for that. A raised camera and a cocked eyebrow is pretty easy to understand. So is a frown and a shake of the head. Or a nod and a smile of the eyes. Wordless connections can be very strong. Todd speaks some Spanish and he tried very hard to learn more, but I think he too felt the non-verbal communication.

We also felt it from the ACPC staff on the mission. About 60% of the group were Guatemalans, and their fluency in English ranged from perfect to about where Todd was with Spanish. But we all tried and we all laughed and we all found a way to understand each other. The most important thing was the job we all came to do, and we found ways to get it done.

This was a self-selected group after all. It is unlikely that a true jerk would want to spend a week in rural highland Guatemala doing the work we did. There was a kindness about the folks on the team that was infectious. I think all of us were also affected by the stoicism and grace of the patients we served. The days were long, but how could we possibly whine about it?

That attitude was occasionally tested by long hours in the van. The roads in the areas we traveled were something to experience, what with potholes, and mud, and thunderstorms, and chicken buses barreling toward and around us, and the dark of night. Did I mention potholes? One detour took us along a “challenging” back road that had two of us North Americans resigned to the fact that we were lost forever. But we weren’t. Our driver, Edgár, is a master behind the wheel and should have earned many medals on this trip. He got us there safely every time.

At the end of the days of working and driving, “there” was a lovely hotel. We stayed in two — two nights in the first one and three nights in the second one. No matter how late we arrived, a hot dinner was waiting for us. Beds were comfy and morning coffee was hot and plentiful. (if you know me, you know how important that last one is). After an early breakfast, we were refreshed and ready to begin again.

It isn’t accurate to say our accommodation exceeded our expectations, because we didn’t know what to expect. But we really appreciate being so well cared for when, after all, the week wasn’t about us. This wasn’t a tour. It speaks to the remarkable organizational skills of Director of Operations Ariel Marroquin. How he was able to keep all those plates spinning is beyond me. He controlled what he could, rolled with the unexpected, and managed to herd all of us kittens with unfailing good humor. There has got to be a medal for that too.

The truth of the matter is we had a wonderful time. We learned a lot and did some good. We had fun. There were poignant moments, and silly ones, and chances to bond over the World Cup. On our final day we took a field trip to a Mayan ruin where many of us demonstrated mountain-goat-level climbing skills. We made friends, and we made memories that will resonate for a long, long time.

This was a stretch. For us, it was big. We got so much more than we gave, but I feel proud of our small contribution. Thank you, Partner for Surgery and ACPC. We will return.

You can find out about volunteer opportunities here.

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