Friday, 23 January 2009

How to…volunteer in Guatemala

Let’s face it, travellers are masters of time; no alarm calls, no deadlines, no chores. When the biggest task of the day is deciding which restaurant to eat in perhaps it’s time to seek out something else to do instead.

After seven months of travelling I was feeling the urge to get off my bus-sore bum and do something useful; to get a deeper understanding of the country I was visiting and, hopefully, be of some help as part of the deal. Guatemala is full of opportunities to get involved with the local community, not in the ´pay three thousand pounds and you can help’ way, but where there are minimal, or no, admin overheads and you just have to give your time.

There are a number of websites that list some of these volunteer opportunities in Guatemala and most spanish language schools have links with local projects:

I was fortunate to get hooked up with Los Patojos ( through my language school.

“This is my revolution," declared Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, the Director of Los Patojos, as he proudly gazed over the brightly painted yard full of children running, laughing and generally creating havoc.

This young revolutionary has transformed his house in Jocotenango, on the outskirts of Antigua, into a school for los patojos (meaning ´the little ones´) from less privileged households.

Starting with just three pupils the school is now bursting at the seams with over one hundred children. Many of the pupils found their own way to this school, its reputation spreading through the children’s gossip. They come because they want to learn and because their parents lack the will or the money to send them to public school. Although school is free in Guatemala, many children don’t attend because their families cannot afford the books and pens or because their family needs them to work. The streets of Guatemala are full of children selling chewing gum, fruit and offering shoe shines. I even met an eight year old running an Internet cafe. To give children the opportunity to go to school as well as work, some of the public schools run in the afternoon. Los Patojos is also open for education in the afternoons only. The children stream in from 2pm and run around for half an hour before being served a nutritious lunch followed by a tooth brushing session. Lessons follow and when the work is done there is more play time.

There is as much, if not more, emphasis on social interaction and fun as there is on lessons. The school aims to build the self-esteem and abilities of the children, teaching them to believe in themselves and make the most of their lives. If there’s a lack of love in the home, it is given in double doses in the school. It’s a wonderful project. I am not qualified to teach but I could make the lives of the teachers easier. For a couple of afternoons I helped make musical instruments out of drinks cans and beans for the children to decorate, and prepared exercise books. Easy stuff, but it frees up the teacher’s time to concentrate on more important things. And everyone gets involved in the rough and tumble of playtime at the end of the day.

The Patojos website proclaims, "We are powerful because we are children,” and witnessing the energy in this school, I believe it. So if you ever find yourself in a dilemma unable to decide between going to a cafe to read or mooching around a museum and fancy doing something different, get in touch with Juan Pedro (, or one of the many other volunteer organisations listed above, and go and help out.

1 comment:

Usagi Kachalal said...

That was a great thing for you to do. Volunteering is an amazing opportunity to grow and become a better person.
I will be volunteering at Los Patojos this summer, I'm so excited!
I hope my experience is as good as yours and even better.
Take care and thank you for making a difference in my beautiful country, Guatemala