Students and Staff Reflect on Their Service Trip to Guatemala

Published on Mon, July 16, 2012

By Kenny Luck,

From a first-floor office window overlooking pristine, landscaped lawns and gardens outside of Marywood's Swartz Center, a young woman sits at her desk, working. She recently returned from a more than three thousand-mile sojourn, bypassing the entire country of Mexico and landing in its southern neighbor, Guatemala. Ann O'Brien, assistant director of service-learning and community service, is that young woman, and she spends the next hour recalling her chaperone experience in Central America.

"It was quite an experience to be there," she says. "Volunteering in another country really broadens your perspective."

O'Brien accompanied nine undergraduate students and two additional Marywood staff members to Guatemala in May. Although international service trips have become the norm for the Marywood community in some ways, this trip, she says, was different. Allowing students and staff to practice the university's core values in an international context, volunteering in Guatemala presented opportunities and challenges for all involved, ultimately changing minds and affirming faith.

A Helping Hand

"The students are willing to do anything that is asked of them with such enthusiasm and maturity," O'Brien says. "They represented the university so well, and it makes me proud to be a part of this."

One of those students was Daniel Sputa. Sputa, who is originally from the Czech Republic, lives in Scranton and recently graduated with his master's degree in Financial Information Systems. Days after he walked across the stage to receive his diploma at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, he boarded a plan and headed to Guatemala. Upon arriving, Sputa recalled how difficult it was to communicate.

"There were language barriers," Sputa says, "and we had to learn how to communicate with [the people]. We had to rely on universal hand gestures to get our points across."

While in Guatemala, students and staff worked closely with the indigenous population, helping to aid reforestation projects, education initiatives, and other projects sponsored by the San Lucas Mission. For a few days, the Marywood group traveled to Chichicastenango— a town in central Guatemala known for its marketplace and traditional Mayan Culture—where they visited an all-girls school.

"The Saint of San Lucas"

It's hard to understand San Lucas without understanding the man who gave the town its identity, San Lucas' founding father, Father Greg Schaffer. A priest from New Ulm, Minnesota, Fr. Greg was sent from his diocese decades ago to San Lucas to work with the local community. Soon, he began buying plots of land from the Guatemalan government and distributed that land back to the people. For years, Fr. Greg was a community organizer and activist, a spokesman on behalf of the San Lucas community, who some would nickname "The Saint of San Lucas" for his hard work and dedication.

Sadly, however, after decades of service in Guatemala, Fr. Greg passed away the same week O'Brien, Sputa and the other Marywood volunteers were in San Lucas. O'Brien says the town nearly came to halt upon hearing the news of Fr. Greg's death.

"People began pouring out into the streets to celebrate this man's life," O'Brien recalls. "A crowd formed at ten o'clock in the evening at the church in San Lucas. Everyone was holding candles and singing prayers. It was a powerful experience to witness."

Much of the work the Marywood volunteers had completed would not have been possible without Fr. Greg, says O'Brien. He had set a precedent others would follow for years to come.

Live Simply, Be Grateful

Although it has been a few weeks since returning from Guatemala, back at home in Pennsylvania, the memories of San Lucas are still fresh for O'Brien and Sputa. They've returned, engrossed in their day-to-day lives, perhaps, though, transformed by their experiences. The take away message is a surprisingly simple one: live simply and be grateful for what you have.

"In some ways the people of Guatemala are richer than we are—not economically, but spiritually," O'Brien explains. "It is always eye-opening to see how blessed we are here in the United States."