Tag Archives: summer trip

Meet our newest volunteer, Sarah!


Sarah Lewis is from New Jersey and a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in Psychology and minor in Public Health. She intends to pursue an advanced degree in Public Health (eventually), but meanwhile she’s volunteering with Voces y Manos! Get to know her below.  

What inspired you to work in Guatemala, and specifically with Voces y Manos? I am very passionate about global social justice and public health issues and intend to study these issues in the future. I also have previous volunteer experience in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. I worked with an amazing organization in Nicaragua called Outreach360, so I searched for another organization with similar values. I loved that Voces y Manos supports youth in creating their own projects, rather than sending in volunteers to create projects. No one knows the community better than a member of the community themselves.

How did you get involved with Voces y Manos? I searched “public health internships Guatemala” on Google and went immediately to the sixth or seventh page – I wanted to work with a smaller, yet well-established organization. I found Voces y Manos’ website and loved their values and type of work. I applied, and now here I am!

What do you do when you’re not volunteering? I am obsessed with yoga! I’ve been practicing for the past five years and teaching for three. If you can’t find me, I’m probably in a handstand somewhere. I also enjoy reading and writing.

What’s next after Voces y Manos? After spending a week home in New Jersey, I will be traveling to Chile to teach English with the government-run program English Opens Doors until the end of November. I also applied to the Peace Corps and, if all goes well, would be leaving next February for the Dominican Republic as a literacy volunteer. If not, I’ll see where life takes me.  

What would you tell someone who’s thinking about volunteering abroad? Do your research! There are a lot of organizations out there, and they vary in quality. First, identify your own values. If you don’t know much about international non-profit organizations, read about them! Here’s a great place to start. I also recommend the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Carol WuDunn. Then – this is the research part – find an organization that matches those values and holds themselves accountable for their work. Great organizations can be tough to find, but it’s important if you really want to make an impact with your work. Once you’ve chosen an organization, go for it!! Traveling abroad can seem scary, but it’s rewarding and transformative. And once you travel abroad, go with the flow. Life as a volunteer abroad is anything but predictable.


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Meet the summer 2011 volunteers!

Meet the volunteers for the 2011 summer Guatemala trip!

Sunthree Acosta

Summer 2011 Rabinal VolunteerSunthree Acosta is a Chicana educator who teaches Intensive Literacy and Reading Enrichment in South Central Los Angeles, the land saw her grow into a passionate woman.  As a Chicana who grew in Watts, Sunthree overcame many boundaries to earn a Bachelors Degree of Arts in English and Master’s Degree in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.  From her small classroom, she advocates for social justice and educational equity for people of color. She eagerly took the opportunity to travel with Voces y Manos to Guatemala in an effort to gain a personal understanding regarding the indigenous roots of her people.   Although Sunthree arrived in a different country than the land that gave birth to her ancestors, Mexico Querido, this adventure has expanded her knowledge about the indigenous suffering, deculturalization, customs, beliefs, and resistance.  Sunthree expresses that she is forever grateful with the people in Rabinal for opening their homes and hearts, as these actions enable her to learn so much regarding the indigenous struggle for social justice.

Amy Yam

summer volunteer medical student guatemalaAmy Yam’s history with Voces y Manos began in 2008 as an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego.  Her previous volunteer work in Honduras, combined with her interest in health, drew her to classmates Michael Bakal and Jessica Nicholas to form the organization.  Amy’s first experience working in Rabinal with Voces y Manos not only affirmed her desires to stay actively involved in the organization, but also to pursue a career in medicine.  Now as a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she has remained an active member of the Voces y Manos Executive Committee as well as an active participant of the summer volunteer program in Rabinal.  This is Amy’s third time in Rabinal, and she is ecstatic to return to the communities that Voces y Manos serves.


Cynthia Garcia

summer 2011 volunteer teacherCynthia first heard about Voces y Manos two years ago and was immediately interested in volunteering with the project’s youth component.   However, it was not till this summer that she was able to travel to Rabinal, Guatemala with the rest of the Voces y Manos team.  Cynthia is an Indigenous Chicana educator from California, where she grew up in a socio-economically disadvantaged community.   She is not foreign to the rural life and its hardships, she  grew up in a small pueblo in Guerrero, Mexico and has been able to relate and identify with the youth’s experiences in Rabinal.   Cynthia is thrilled and feels blessed to have had the opportunity to  travel to Guatemala  and learn about the history, culture, struggles and the people’s continued resistance against oppressive conditions.  Cynthia has found a home and a family here and is greatful to her host family.    She is inspired by the people of Rabinal to continue her work as an indigenous educator in California.


Josh Hoeger

Josh medical student volunteer guatemalaJosh is a 23 year old, once-and-future student with a penchant for the finer things in life (a bowl of atol de helote and a stick of sugar cane). He joined Voces y Manos in the summer of 2009, and has spent the last two years learning about health in the underserved and marginalized communities of Rabinal. During this time, Josh has been deeply inspired by the Guatemalan health care workers and students with whom Voces y Manos collaborates, and he is dedicated to continuing efforts to improve the quality of life in Rabinal.

Josh is currently applying to medical school and is becoming accustomed to working on applications by candlelight, during Rabinal’s frequent power outages. Despite this being his second Voces y Manos bio (and second summer working in Rabinal), he is still unused to writing in the third person.

Michael Bakal

volunteer educator guatemalaMichael Bakal first travelled to Rabinal in 2007 as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service.  The opportunity to work with and learn from the students, teachers, and staff of Fundación Nueva Esperanza was a transformational experience for him, so much so that inspired him to co-found Voces y Manos with Amy Yam and Jessica Nicholas in 2008 during their senior year at UC San Diego.

Since 2008, Michael has acted as the lead instructor for Voces y Manos’ youth leadership program, and overseen the growth and development of Voces y Manos’ scholarship program.  In 4 years of close collaboration with Fundación Nueva Esperanza, Michael has seen the scholarship grow from a 5-student pilot initiative to a comprehensive scholarship program reaching 33 students.

Outside of his work with Voces y Manos, Michael spent the past two years working as a high school biology teacher at Animo Locke #3 Charter High in Watts, California.  At Locke #3, Michael worked with an inspiring team of social justice educators, and amazing students.  Although it was a difficult personal decision to leave the Locke #3 community, Michael resigned from Locke in 2011 in order to be able to work full time for Voces y Manos.

Michael holds a Master’s Degree in Education and Bilingual teaching certificate from UCLA.  In his free time, Michael enjoys playing basketball and the conga drums.

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Week 3: The Mayan Ceremony, and Starting to work on Community Projects

Our third week in Rabinal began with a traditional Mayan Ceremony.  At 5:00 AM on Sunday, July 10th, our group of 5 volunteers, 10 current youth participants, and 8 former youth participants met in the dim lighting of Rabinal’s plaza to ascend to the sacred site of Kaj’yup, where the ceremony was to take place.

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Voces y Manos students and volunteers together at the top of Kaj Yup

After an hour of hiking, we arrived our destination, where, according to legend, Rabinal Achi (the Patron saint of Rabinal) fought off Varon Qui’che (the patron saint of the Qui’che people) gaining the Achi people their independence.  To this day, Kaj’yup remains one of the most important cultural and spiritual locations in Rabinal.  For me, the Mayan ceremony is always a special part of our program, as it is one of the few times when past scholarship recipients and current participants can get together to motivate one another to continue their academic pursuits and affirm their commitments to betting their communities.

Once our entire group had arrived the top of the mountain, our guide, Profesor Manuel, led us to the top of a small pyramid.  There, he lit a few candles to request permission for us to start the ceremony, then addressed the group: “It is privilege for me to be back here with you all.  Many of you I know because I was your teachers, for others, it is a privilege to meet you for the first time.  I would like to invite everyone to be fully present in this ceremony.  Being present does mean only being here physically, but also to be present mentally, even though it is only 6:00 in the morning.”

guatemala volunteer program

Josh Hoerger and Cynthia Garcia listening to Professor Manuel as he discusses the Mayan ceremony

Manuel went on to explain that the Mayan Ceremony is not a religious ceremony but a spiritual one, and he welcomed people of all different faiths to fully participate in the event.  For the next hour, Manuel explained to the students about the various Nahuales, guardians that comprise the Mayan Calendar.  Embedded in his descriptions were countless life lessons: Appreciation for what one has in life, respect for nature, the importance of community, and the necessity to maintain and develop one’s cultural identity.

As the ceremony drew to a close, I looked into the faces of each of the students who were present, and felt a great sense of gratitude for the community that we have developed over the past four years.  Represented in our group were students from all four years of the program: some who are on the verge of graduating, others who are just beginning their careers in higher education.  All the students are united by a vision of bettering their communities through education, and direct service to their communities.

This unity, and this vision of building community carried over into the next week.  It was with a mixture of nervousness, and excitement that students received the news that in week 3, they would begin the process of developing community projects.  On Monday, we trained students in how to conduct interviews, and on Tuesday, 2-person teams of students dispersed throughout the city to interview the various organizations involved in health promotion in Rabinal.  Initial nervousness was overcome when students were welcomed by organization representatives.  Immediately following the interviews, many of the students began thinking about the types of community projects they might want to undertake, and which organizations they might turn to for support.

The following day, Wednesday, teams of students travelled to their home communities identify crucial community health needs, and the assets they can utilize within their communities to address these needs.  Conducting interviews with their fellow community members, students were truly in their element.  Many of the students spoke to their fellow community members in Achi, translating for us volunteers after each interview.  Neighbors, friends and family members welcomed the students into their homes, and delighted in the fact that these youth were taking proactive measures to address the community’s most pressing needs.

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Students Maynor & Mardoquello take off for their community interviews in Nimacabaj

As the students were preparing for their own community projects by listening to the perspectives of community members, so too are we preparing for our next phase of engagement in health promotion.  As we have discussed below, this year marks a turning point in the work of Voces y Manos, as we temporarily suspend our direct health programs (the community health fairs) to first listen to the voices of community members and partner organizations, in an effort to guide the future directions of our work.

When we were not working with the youth, we have been working closely with our partner organization ASECSA to lay the framework for the “Listening to the Community Assembly”, scheduled to take place next week.  In this assembly, health promoters, and traditional midwives, nursing students, and doctors, youth leaders, and community elders, will come together to share their perspectives on health in Rabinal.  We do not know what will be the outcome of these assemblies, but we are excited to start the process, and eager to put into practice one of the key lessons we have been emphasizing with our students: before undertaking any initiative to promote health, one must begin by listening to the perspectives of community members.

Written by Michael Bakal

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Michael Bakal instructs students on their community projects

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Sunthree Acosta and Michael Bakal working with their student pair, Benjamin & Glenda

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Amy Yam works with her student pair, Mardoquello & Maynor, on a reforestation project

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Cynthia visits the Biotopo de Quetzal (a national park dedicated to the national bird of Guatemala)

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Volunteers planning their lesson plan for the day

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Lasting Impacts from Week Two

This is how I knew Maynor Rocael last year:

 guatemala tonsilitis

Our introduction was brief, as Guillermo (the former director of La Fundación Nueva Esperanza) had simply brought him to show us the status of his tonsils.  I remember he was a shy, quiet boy who smiled politely as Guillermo raved about how great of a student he was and how he had been in a great deal of pain for months.  Yet if you were to ask me last year who Maynor was, my description of him would not have extended past his medical condition.  

 This is the Maynor Rocael I know now:

 guatemala youth education

I was thrilled to see Maynor in our classroom on the first day of lessons, beaming as he sat there with the rest of our scholarship students.  Voces y Manos had raised enough funds last year to pay for his surgery, yet I never had the chance to personally follow up with him.  Having the privilege of getting to know Maynor through our youth scholarship program, I can now tell you much more about him than merely what his tonsils looked like.  Over the past two weeks, I have seen how deeply he cares about his culture, his environment, and his classmates.  He is undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic participants in our program.  Building my relationship with him as well as the rest of the students in our program has been by far the highlight of my summer. 

Needless to say, our youth scholarship program has been running fantastically.  After covering the topic of interculturality with the students last week, we moved on to discussing colonization and its effect upon various Indigenous groups in the Americas.  Our most poignant session occurred last Tuesday, when we took a field trip to the local museum dedicated to the victims of the massacres that took place in Rabinal during the 1980s at the height of Guatemala’s civil war.  Students personally identified how their community’s history had been shaped by colonization on a cultural, ecological, political and social level.  Moreover, it made a profound impact on all of us volunteers as we saw our students identifying pictures and telling stories of their own family members featured in the museum.  The theme of colonization was followed by an all-day leadership training, where students learned what makes a leader successful and examined how participatory community leadership was exercised in Sipakapa,Guatemala against an invading mining company 6 years ago.  Finally, our week was closed with a traditional Mayan ceremony held at daybreak on the sacred grounds of Kaj’Yuup (located at the top of one of the tallest mountains in Rabinal).  We are excited to finally begin placing these lessons into the context of community projects that students will be conducting this summer.

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Student Mardoquello wanders through the museum dedicated to victims of the massacres that took place in Rabinal during the 1980s

Aside from working with the youth, this week was most significant for me in terms of planning our health project.  Each year that Voces y Manos has been in Rabinal, we have worked with local organizations to put on at least one health fair that distributes both curative and preventative health services to communities with limited to no access to health care.  Intending to carry on with this tradition, as Josh had mentioned last week, we were hit hard after learning that Funcafé, our main curative partner organization, had left Rabinal entirely.  Furthermore, the lack of governmental funding allocated to El Centro de Salud (the main health center in Rabinal) has caused resources to become extremely scarce.  Given that our major contacts for coordinating a curative health fair have essentially vanished from the area, and given that other local organizations have taken on a greater role in providing preventative health services for communities in Rabinal, it seems as if a health fair isn’t practical or even feasible for Voces y Manos this year.  This decision was extremely difficult for us to make as an organization, but we must respect the changes that arise in Rabinal and remain dynamic in designing of our health projects in order to best serve the needs of the community.

 At first, letting go of the health fairs affected me on a very personal level.  My identity with Voces y Manos began in 2008 when our major project was essentially only health fairs.  The experience I had that particular summer was extremely inspiring and played a strong part in my decision to pursue medicine.  Yet as Voces y Manos has matured over the past few years, our mission as a health organization has become more centralized around addressing the root causes to medical problems in Guatemala, which ultimately stem from poverty and oppression.  While a project such as health fairs does provide important curative and preventative services to many on the one day of the year it takes place, it ultimately does not make an impact in a broken health care system that people suffer through year-round.  Thus in order to truly impact health within Rabinal, we believe our work should be focused on constructing programs rather than completing projects.  That is to say, Voces y Manos recognizes it is only through sustainable, long-term investments in the community that such health disparities can be overcome. 

Given our decision to not continue with the health fairs, my reflections this week have been consumed by where we, as a health organization, stand within Rabinal to make a meaningful impact.  To start, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what health services are being provided by which organizations.  Josh and I plan to observe as many events as we can this summer to get a first-hand glance of how exactly these projects are being implemented.  We began this process last Wednesday by accompanying a nurse from organization Fundameno as he saw patients from the community of Nimacabaj at the Puesto de Salud (the community health center). We plan to visit more Puestos de Salud with Fundameno later this month, as well as observe Fundameno’s trainings given to health promoters from various communities. 

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Josh Hoerger riding in the back of a pick-up truck after visiting the Puesto de Salud in community Nimacabaj

It is only after we fully understand how health care is being conducted in Rabinal that we can then begin thinking how Voces y Manos could possibly fit into the picture.  Our next step in determining an appropriate health program for our organization to implement will be listening to the concerns and desires of the community.  This summer, we will have the privilege to work with Dr. Linda Walsh, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, who will be leading focus groups to gather these comments in Rabinal from various community members.  I am eager to hear these responses, which will ultimately shape a health program that best suits the needs of the community.

Overall, last week’s critiques and decisions regarding our organization’s mission for community health was extremely invigorating for me as a volunteer.  I feel very fortunate to be a part of a group that is constantly evaluating itself in how it can best support the people with whom it works.  The fact that we are willing to sacrifice projects we may feel very comfortable in executing, such as health fairs, so that we remain flexible towards the ever-changing needs of the community highlights what is truly special about Voces y Manos.  This is my third summer returning to Rabinal, and already I can honestly say that this has been my best experience with Voces y Manos so far.  My reflections and participation in this organization have shown me how much I value working as an activist for community health, which I know will ultimately influence my career as a physician.

 Written by Amy Yam

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Leadership Retreat: Voces y Manos volunteers pictured with current and past participants of the youth scholarship program

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Volunteer Cynthia Garcia discusses the impact of colonization after showing students video clips from El Norte

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Volunteer Amy Yam steps in to work with students at La Fundación Nueva Esperanza on a landscaping school project

Volunteer Sunthree Acosta leads a dicsussion on the effects of globalization in the Americas
Volunteer Michael Bakal rests with students after a long hike up to Kaj’Yuup
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Back in Rabinal, At Last


            Time seems to flow with odd irregularity in Guatemala. Back in the US, we spent 10 months laying out plans for this trip—10 months followed by a six-hour flight across 4,000 miles and four hours driving the final 100 km to the center of Baja Verapaz—only to arrive and find that not a day has passed in Rabinal since I left, almost two years ago. The same vendors still sell tortillas and fruit from market stalls, the friends I made and left behind bike past on their way home from school and work, the corn grows green under the same hot Guatemalan sun. On the steps of the Catholic church, which has marked the center of town for the last 150 years, masked dancers perform the Mayan Rabinal Achi religious ceremony that hasn’t changed in nearly half a millennium.

Voces y Manos

The traditional dance ¨La Costeña,¨ performed in the center of town

            It’s the sunlight however, that must be responsible for casting Rabinal in such a nostalgic hue. Sometime during our first night in town, the storm clouds rolled in, and through the next day’s downpour, we got our first clear look at the sweeping changes that have taken place in Rabinal. Guillermo, our long-time collaborator/advisor/friend and director of Fundación Nueva Esperanza has departed on a one-year leave of absence (of which we were previously aware, but disappointed all the same). We met instead with Sandra, his replacement at FNE, who filled us in on the some of the discouraging developments that have recently taken place in the health care of Rabinal.

            In the last year, the Guatemalan Ministry of Health has whittled funding for health programs down to a small fraction of its already inadequate former level. In the wake of these cutbacks, many of the groups with whom we have collaborated on our annual health fairs have switched from providing curative services to purely educational and preventative care. Fun Café, an organization whose doctors provided both check-ups and follow-up care for patients at our health fairs, disappeared completely—almost overnight. The Centro de Salud clinic, which ostensibly provides free care to anyone who can afford to make the trek from the outlying villages to the central town of Rabinal, is under-staffed, under-supplied and overly-full. The poor ability of the Centro to address the health needs of these satellite communities (where the majority of the people in Rabinal’s municipality reside) has undermined much of the confidence that the residents of these communities have in the remaining health care providers, yet even the reduced flow of patients is overtaxing the medical infrastructure.

            We on the VyM team, are in the process of meeting with our community partners and contacts to evaluate how we can best utilize our resources to address the newly-widened gaps in the medical landscape of Rabinal. The reduced number of health care providers that remain in the municipality has seriously reduced, if not eliminated, our ability to host a health fair with curative services, for the time being. We remain committed to maximizing our ability to serve those who are in the greatest need, and we are working to determine the format that is best suited to the current circumstances.

Volunteer Group Rabinal Guatemala

Michael Bakal leading the first Voces y Manos focus group session for past recipients of the scholarship program

            However, if there is anything that can mitigate our disappointment at the setbacks in health care in Rabinal, it is the confidence we maintain in the abilities of youth to be incredible agents of change. On Tuesday, we met with the incoming group of students who will make up our 2011 Scholarship Program, and though it seems to have become our annual refrain, it is impossible to overstate how impressed I am with these 10 young men and women. The confidence and insight they brought to our discussion of inter-culturality demonstrated a degree of both self- and global-awareness that utterly surpassed our expectations for a group of comparable age with US high school sophomores.  I am incredibly excited to watch these students over the next five weeks, as they develop their community projects, along with skills in critical thinking and assessment. We can only wait to see the greater influence they will have on their communities followed by the changes they will effect in the region at large.

Written by Josh Hoerger

Volunteer Guatemala Education Interculturality

Sunthree Acosta stands with students Griselda and Benjamin as they explain interculturality

Rabinal Culture

Student Griselda and her mother present a piece of pottery as a representation of their culture

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Josh Hoerger stands with students Glenda, Irma, and Selvin as they discuss what makes their culture unique

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Amy Yam is reunited with her host family

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Students Mardoquello and Horacio work on a poster that illustrates their culture

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Students playing soccer at La Fundación Nueva Esperanza, the high school that Voces y Manos works closely with

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Voces y Manos volunteers returning from a day´s work of teaching students at La Fundación Nueva Esperanza

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