Members of the PW Service Club from Plymouth Whitemarsh High School (PWHS) recently spent nine days of their summer vacation in a return visit to a rural K-6 school outside of Tecpán, Guatemala.
"I was very surprised when many of the kids remembered me from last year," said Ana Cwietniewicz, a PWHS senior and the only club member who was also on last year's trip. "Even though it had been so long, many students came up to me and asked about the volunteers from last year. It's crazy to me that even after a year had passed, so many of these kids still remembered our names."
Five PW Service Club members — Nicole Tier, Arya Venkat, Mei McWilliams, Rebekah Howard and Ana Cwietniewicz — along with club sponsor Katy Geare made the trip to Guatemala to help renovate the school's kitchen and teach English classes to children in grades 4-6.
"The most rewarding part of the trip, by far, was being able to see how eager the kids were to learn and how excited they were with the new additions that volunteers were making with the school," said PWHS Junior Arya Venkat. "I loved being able to share their love of school and learn more about their lives."
The club traveled through Squads Abroad and their partner organization, Cross-Cultural Solutions, who notes that the poverty rate in Tecpán is nearly 60% and approximately 33% of children drop out of elementary school to begin working. During their time volunteering at the school, the PWHS students saw evidence of the economic troubles firsthand.
"The trip to Guatemala has shown me a wide variety of lifestyles and emphasized that everyone's 'normal' is different," said PWHS Junior Mei McWilliams. "Many people do not realize how fortunate they are until they see the conditions of others, which I got to experience and learn through this trip."
"Everyone was so nice despite their suffering and lack of stability," added Rebekah Howard, a PWHS senior. "This experience showed me that, despite what I have going on, other people have it worse. It changed how I viewed my own problems."
In addition to teaching English classes, the PWHS students also learned how to mix cement, cut rebar and lay tile to create a sink, countertop and cabinet in the corner of the kitchen at the school.
"This experience has been so important to me; I learned so much from every aspect," said PWHS Senior Nicole Tier. "I learned kindness and humbleness from the kids. I learned how to make concrete, and every time I messed up, instead of getting angry, the construction worker helped me get better. I learned friendship from the other group members. I gained a sense of "worldliness" as I experienced many different cultures. I'm so grateful for this experience because it really shaped me through many different ways, more than I ever would've expected."
The PW Service Club members also had the opportunity to participate in several "cultural immersion" activities, including making their own Maya pottery, milking cows at a local dairy farm, and exploring Maya ruins and the nearby colonial town of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"I've grown as a person, and I know I'll definitely miss the friendships I've made, but the biggest thing I've learned was the power of volunteering," said Arya. "Whether it's through doing something local or international, helping others is the way to make the world a better place."