Written by: Javier Garate Alfaro
The Business School
At the Camp Power To Be Literacy and Leadership Camp in Negril, Jamaica I made a friend who reminded me of a younger me. I did not spend much time with him because I did not want to show preference above all the other campers. However, every time I had the opportunity to talk to him, I shared as much advice as I could and asked as many questions as the time let me. I felt he is the kind of person that this world needs – he is part of the next generation.
One day he was unusually quiet. I just walked next to him without asking because I did not want to invade his privacy. He told me that his grandfather passed away a week ago and this was the reason why he was sad. I hugged him and told him that his grandfather is in a better place. I did not know what else to do. Then, he left running towards the rest of his friends: the Gorillas, as they named themselves. A lot of questions remained: Is he ok? How is he doing? Should I do something else?
A wonderful kid taught me how to grieve. I was supposed to teach him, but I was the learner. Jamaica has been a reminder that we must be humble and learn from kids and not to believe that they only have to learn from ‘grown ups’. There is also another message: Canada and its’ students can learn a lot from Jamaica. We must know that the world has a lot to share and they are willing to do so. Let’s open our senses and be humble always!
I cannot begin to describe how amazing my experience with Habitat for Humanity Yukon has been. I’ll admit, while filling out the GCELE form, Yukon was my last choice. I was a little disappointed when I saw the congratulation email saying I had been chosen to join the team going to Yukon as opposed to China or Costa Rica. I remember thinking to myself, “Ugh. Yukon? It’s in Canada, it’s going to be so boring.” Boy was I wrong. The staff members and other students were such a blast to be with, I would not have wanted this trip to be any other way.
Prior to the trip, there had been several meetings for everyone to get to know each other. My initial thoughts about the group were that we were all pretty shy and that getting comfortable with each other would take a long time. Also, my perspective on Yukon, and the trip in general, was very limited. I thought that the families we would be helping would be of native descent, I thought we would be staying in tents or a run-down lodge and I thought we would be eating at McDonald’s everyday. To say the least I was pretty ignorant.
There were many things that surprised me once we were in Yukon.
I didn’t have to sleep in a tent! The Yukon Inn was much more than what I had anticipated. The beds were soft, there was never a lack of hot water in the showers and not one bug or roach in sight! The television actually had good cable too!
I also didn’t eat McDonald’s for 8 days! I remember google mapping the Yukon Inn and noticing the McDonald’s across the street thinking I’d have to eat Big Mac’s and french fries everyday. There were so many different places to eat at that every dinner was at a new restaurant. Also, the Yukon Inn had such a wide variety for breakfast that you could honestly order something new every morning.
The families that would live in the duplex home we were building were not what I had pictured. I had expected people of native descent (tanned skin, long, dark hair, custom clothing). Meeting Jeff, Tanya and Brendan made me realize that there aren’t just natives who live in Whitehorse and that there are different types of poverty. GCELE – Team Yukon!
I used more than just a hammer! I was genuinely surprised when we got to use a table saw, a sawzall, an electric miter saw, a nail gun, etc. Habitat for Humanity trusted a bunch of college students, who aren’t even studying construction, to build a house… Thankfully we had patient leaders (Jean Marc, Jerome, Nico, Brendan and Stu) to help guide us the entire time.
We lifted 600+ lbs of wood! It’s amazing what teamwork can do. I never thought that I’d have to lift roof trusses, or even being able to lift them at all.
Bannock (specifically Shawana’s bannock) is to die for.
This once in a lifetime experience has given me a broader perspective on life. It has shown me what teamwork can do. It has introduced me to some amazing people I would have never talked to on my own. It has given me a better understanding about charity vs. social justice, and that more of the latter should be done. It has taught me to keep my mind open and not be so judgemental and narrow-minded. Thank you Centennial and Habitat for Humanity for giving me this opportunity!
Below is a short video I put together highlighting our trip. And by short I mean 19 minutes.. ENJOY!
As part of our GCELE experience we have to blog about our experiences in Costa Rica. The posts have be short which makes sense, so I picked 3 very specific topics. If you have any questions about things I didn’t cover, feel free to reach out @AmeliaR_N. These blogs will also be reposted on my personal blog.
Before Cano Palma people who knew me would crinkle their faces and respond with “Why are you going?” or worse, they’d smirk and say “You’re going to die.” I’m not very big on the great outdoors.
When I got back most people would say “You survived!?! Was it as bad as you thought?”
Here’s the thing. It was amazing and I’m extremely proud of the work I did there. That being said it wasn’t like I showed up and was greeted by a 5 star or even 2 star resort. Conservation work is extremely hard and when you Google ‘how many Sea Turtles are left?” or some other question, the amount of work that went in to that answer you searched in 0.40 seconds is staggering.
^As soon as I got WiFi I wanted to tell the world what was happening.^
Here is a list of some of the tougher things we experienced on our trip ( a small look at all the work conservationist do):
There was no hot water –ever. To conserve water you flushed by pouring half a bottle of rain water into the toilet. The water on base tasted heavily like metal. I used very little water to shower or brush my teeth (which I did in the company of giant bugs).
It was always hot in the rainforest and never dry. We had a fan we could use if Necessary. Since people worked all hours of the day and night, the rooms were almost always dark (so people could sleep whenever) and very quiet. We slept in bunk-beds which we had to cover with Mosquito nets. Those nets made it extra hot but it was either that or get eaten alive –your call.
The shifts were varied and 24/7. Patrolling the beach to protect Sea Turtles, Hiking in the jungle to track animals and record data, working in the community, tagging trees, maintenance around the station. The chores were endless, usually very physical, and never ending. We were told that Centennial’s presence was a big help because it allowed overworked-scientists to catch up on rest and recover from illnesses.
^Wearing dark clothes with long sleeves for the hot Night patrol (can’t scare the turtles away!)^
The Nature Thing
It was always hot and always wet. Clothes never dried. Shoes and feet were always damp. This meant you were always, damp, itchy and sore. Bugs might not be a problem for everyone but the bugs were huge. A bird flew in the room once which was cool until I realized it was actually just a big bug.^My regular walk from the dorms to the kitchen^
The Isolation Thing
WiFi was scarce and you were working nonstop but in the few off times you’d sometimes notice how out of touch you were with your ‘home-life’ and while it’s not always a bad thing, it can be lonely.^IT HELPED THAT THESE GREAT PEOPLE WERE HERE.^
Stay tuned to read about my favourite part of the trip!
Words cannot describe how amazing and humbling my experience with Habitat for Humanity PEI has been. This past week, I had the opportunity to work alongside some of Centennial College’s most hard-working, respectful and hilarious staff and students whom I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet outside of being selected for the GCELE. Additionally, I had the chance to meet and work with some of Habitat for Humanity’s most dedicated and inspiring employees and volunteers.
Prior to this GCELE trip, I had attended a HFH volunteer orientation session in Toronto a couple of years ago. I didn’t commit to any builds at the time so I wasn’t sure of what to expect on this trip to PEI. With this trip, I was thrown into close living quarters with 13 strangers. We had little Internet access, very few hours of screen time, communal accommodations and a structured schedule set by Habitat for Humanity.
Here are some things that I learned while on this GCELE:
Hearing individuals’ stories of hardship and perseverance make way for personal reflection and feelings of gratitude. One of the restaurants we went to during the week was Sadat’s Cuisine in Charlottetown. The Sadat family of seven came to PEI as refugees in 2007 (article here). And with the help of Habitat for Humanity, the Sadat family was built the biggest home on PEI to date to accommodate their large family. While Said Akbar Sadat was telling his family’s heart wrenching story about coming to Canada and starting over, his voice was filled with love and appreciation for the kindness and gifts they’ve received.
Teamwork, pitching in and cooperation are vital interpersonal skills – especially when drywalling! We were there to help build a house for a family in need – there was no room for people to slack off and not participate in the daily tasks assigned.
You are bound to experience discomfort and inconveniences – you’ve just got to suck it up and stick it out! I can confidentially say that I had the most mosquito bites of our group on this trip. My left eyelid was swollen for the first half of the trip with a bug bite below my brow line and one under my eye making me look like a female Quasimodo without the hunchback. Showers, bathroom and the kitchen were shared spaces so you had to be mindful of others. There may be snorers amongst the people that you’re sharing a room. Your everyday comforts and luxuries are not always readily available, so find better ways to spend your time. Another takeaway from this point? Bring lots of insect repellent and ear plugs.
I had a wonderful time in PEI and I am so grateful to have experienced it through Centennial’s amazing GCELE program. From my experience, Islanders are very friendly and gracious people. The lifestyle there is very relaxed compared to Toronto and there’s very little traffic on the roads. There’s a strong sense of community and pride in PEI… I mean it is the birthplace of Canada after all.
Children’s Media post-graduate program
PEI TEAM #2
I met Emma at her Jr. High School in the mountains of Butuo County. At almost nineteen years old, Emma is the eldest of her class. I remember that she is shy, but has the kindest smile and the strongest singing voice. She impressed me by saying that she wanted to be a photographer or journalist. To me, these seemed to be out-of-the-box professions, as her classmates wanted to be doctors, teachers, or famous singers. As I helped her fill out the Goal Worksheet we distributed to her class, she told me that she loved watching the news reporters on television. She wanted to see the world and take photographs of her travels.
Emma had lived a difficult life and still dared to dream. Her hopeful and resilient spirit humbled and inspired me. We spent the rest of the day by each other’s side. She held my hand as we said goodbye; I didn’t want to let go. I reminded her to never give up on her dreams and to always keep smiling. She asked me to never forget her, and I certainly never will.
Later, I learned that Emma’s mother had pulled her out of school three years earlier. Her mother had arranged a marriage for her, and she was engaged to a man from her village. Emma’s family had already paid a dowry to the man’s family. Her mother insisted that she give up her education so that she could return home and get married.
Fu Hui Education Foundation negotiated with Emma’s family in order for her to return to school. They made a contract that would allow for Emma to attend school for another three years, until she finished Jr. High School.
Unknowingly, I met Emma while she was in the last days of her formal education. Summer was fast approaching, and Emma was due to return home and get married. She would never be able to attend high school, graduate from university as a journalist, or travel the world.
I can’t describe the feeling I felt when I learned the truth; perhaps I could say disappointment, or sorrow; burdened, or heartbroken. Perhaps a mix of all of those. One of the kind Fu Hui volunteers comforted me with this: that although Emma would not be able to continue her education, she would return to her village as an educated woman. Emma has received endless benefits from her education, and she would share these with her family, her future children, and others in her village. She will be a beacon of light, a carrier of knowledge that can lead to hope for a better life.
“If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a village.” – African Proverb
Nicaragua has been one of the most incredible experiences in my life that I will cherish with me for the rest of my life. I am so happy to have had the chance to take part in this amazing opportunity. I was able to educate the community and receive a deeper connection with the people of Nicaragua. I was blessed to have made great connections and relationships with many individuals. I will always remember the impact I had created in others but also the impact they had on me. I am able to picture the faces of the massage therapists when they were learning new techniques and learning business skills. I am also able to picture the faces of all the children whom were interested in the topics being taught to them like hand hygiene, oral hygiene, physical health and more. It is also such an amazing feeling to be able to imagine their faces every day of my life now here in Canada, of how happy everyone one was, how happy they were to learn, how happy they were to play and how happy everyone was to connect as a whole. I greatly admire Waves of Hope and El Coco Loco for their initiatives and their outstanding impact on the community. They made my experience very enjoyable and inspired me to continue mission work. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
I knew that going to a new country and communicating with a language barrier would be a challenge. I will admit that I was worried about it. How am I going to connect with them? How will we build a relationship if we don’t understand each other? I wasn’t too anxious about it, but these thoughts were certainly on the back of my mind.
To my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had imagined! We did have the help of translators when we were presenting health information to a group but for one on one things we often did it by ourselves. It was a very interesting and enlightening experience because for the first time in my life, I was listening with my eyes. People would explain their body aches and pains and instead of listening to the words they used, I was listening to how they told their story, when they used inflictions to emphasize a point, or when they used gestures to explain that something was important. I have always been a good listener but I have never consciously noticed how much people speak with their bodies. Through these expressions, gestures and varying tones of voice I was able to understand what was being said to me, as well as communicate back. By the end of the trip I had learned tons of techniques for communicating across a language barrier, and realized that I had nothing to worry about in the first place.
GCELE China 2015 took me to Butuo County, in Sichuan Province – China.
It started with a very bumpy 4.5 hour ride through a dirt road to get there. It was totally worthy. While in the mountain, we had our first contact with the Fu Hui children. First thing, we went hiking up hill for an hour, this is when I realized that I’m not in shape and I shouldn’t complain about my commute to college ever, as some of these kids walk for hours everyday to get to school, we witnessed small children walking on the side of road in the middle of nowhere in uniforms and their backpacks.
There, we had a home visit to one of the girls, we found her grandmother outside of the house, she walked to the house and used her key on the lock. Yes, a lock, no matter how much or how little one might have, there is a sense of belonging and ownership, that need of protection over your home. Coming from a Latin American country and previous volunteer work, I’ve seen poverty at first hand before. However, I had not seen such low living conditions, ever. It was heartbreaking, to say the least. Yet, this girl had a smile for us at every glance. To me, as a friend said during a reflection session, it was not an eye opener, but a reminder to refocus priorities and be grateful.
While visiting the schools, we had a chance to see the children and girls in their everyday environment. Everyday, they shared part of themselves and their culture with us, without any restriction nor fear, they gave us all they had and then some, they surprised us their strong views, the way expressed and saw themselves. Moreover, their excitement, their smiles and their happiness, that broke any language barrier we had. Sharing those few days with them and seeing such joy in them… It was priceless.
I was thrilled to hear my professor Marg announce that she would be going back to Guatemala to continue her work. I submitted my application on the very first day, and was already planning my trip before the acceptance letter. A few months later, I landed at Flores airport. That was unreal.
The purpose of our trip was to teach the local midwives how to use a birthing simulator MamaNatalie, teach the local women how to make reusable menstrual pads, and provide First Aid training to the local health promoters. We visited six different communities throughout our stay, and each community was unique in its own way. Most of the communities we visited are Q’eqchi’, the Maya people, hence it requires double translation from English to Español, then to Kekchi. It was challenging, but in a positive way.
I didn’t really experience “culture shock,” definitely some “culture surprises” during our stay in Guatemala. Photos speak a thousand words, hence I will walk you through our wonderful journey through photos. Have some tortilla chips ready, sit back and relax.
Day 1:Our flight is TO -> Miami -> Guatemala city -> Flores, then finally a two-hour bus ride to Sayaxche, It was tiring, but we were warmly greeted by the heat wave in Guatemala.
Day 2: Flores -2 hours smooth bus ride to Sayaxche
Meeting with Apidec (Programa Integral de desarrollo Christiano) & World Renew staffs. Had a crazy ride in a “cage” to our first village. I was chosen to be the first to do MamaNatalie (meaning I have to fake birthing). I knew I did an awesome job because everyone outside heard my screams from the classroom. Some said my hysterical screams scared some babies and kids oops. There is no bridge to cross the river in Sayaxche, so we had to take the ferry. Unfortunately on our way back to the hotel, a truck was stuck on the ferry and we waited for an hour before crossing a small river. Apparently the government made big profits from the ferry, so bridges are unnecessary. We had to hide in the jungle for toilet break! We were still full of awesomeness but began to feel the heat wave eating away our energy.
Day 3: Meeting with the Ministry of Health of Guatemala (Gobiernode Guatemala Ministerio de Salud Publica y Assistencia Social) in the morning. Visited our second village “San Juan Acul” in the afternoon. This village has a huge shelter outside. Sweat was pouring down, but the hot & humid breeze meant so much to us! I’ve said “mi nombre Beidi” so many times. Awesome but the heat was unbearable. We definitely had an awesome time at this community all thanks to the shelter that they have.
Day 4:Third village “Herencia Maya” meaning Heritage Maya. Most residents only know Kekchi, a Mayan language, so we have to translate from English to Spanish then to Kekchi (most communities we visited are Q’eqchi’ so triple translations hence triple the fun, and most of the communities were receiving visitors for the very first time, not to mention first foreign visitors). I used leftover fabrics to make♥and stars to the kids and they love it so much. This heat was overwhelming… people were starting to get sick😦
Day 5: Visit to Tikal, the Mayan ruins! Everyone was excited though we were not feeling well. The heat was not bad, bearable. Awesome day!
Day 6:Boating to the zoo in the morning, and had a fabulous view of Flores from far. Was a little upset that we had to cancel our afternoon trip to another ruin😦but at least we went to a good restaurant and I got a super yummy chicken sandwich and a Jamaican Rose drink. Got a super-itchy spider bite, and the rash was crystal-like. Finally started raining on the way back to Sayaxche, it cooled down the heat.
Day 7 & 8:Can’t remember what exactly happened during these two days. I was drained, and totally shutting down. I remembered the tables were so small and low, I have to bend down all the time while surrounded by groups of women and children. The noise, the heat, and the environment was sweeping over me like waves after waves. Due to the heat and long bus ride, more people felt unwell. I forced myself to drink lots and lots of water, and I survived the hardest period during this trip.
Day 9:Visited the last community! The kids there were overwhelming. They dragged you everywhere, touched your hair, put their little hands in your pocket digging for stuffs. I went to the bathroom with ten kids surrounding the door. Last time using MamaNatalie, my energy level left only 10% while doing it. A long day ended with kids holding my hands, grabbing my leg, and singing my name.
Day 10:Meeting with Ministry of Health again with reporters, and many cameras. Seemed like we’ll all be in Peten news! Our efforts had been paid off. Our MamaNatalie, menstrual pads, and First Aid sessions benefited the locals so much that the MOH will continue teaching the midwives and women with MamaNatalie and menstrual pad making. I felt so grateful. Drove back to Flores and finally SHOPPING TIME!!! (didn’t buy a lot because I was… exhausted). Day ended with a two-dollar ice cream.
Day 11: Guatemala City was raining and flight was delayed. Almost missed our Miami flight back to Toronto because of that. One American said “look at those crazy Canadian girls running in airport.” First thing back home is feeling extremely cold in 20ish temperature, but home sweet home :”)
I have to thank Centennial College for this amazing opportunity.Thank all the staffs from World Renew. Thank you Marg, Roya & Jo! Although we faced many ups and downs in this trip, extreme deprivation of veggies, tears and laughter, it was an experience that could only be experienced. It made me question my values, tested my limits, and forced me to grow. Thank you Guatemala! Someone told me this quote during this trip “You have to do other won’t, so you can have other can’t.” and of course my own quote “IT’S ONCE IN A LIFETIME!!!”