After months of group bonding, text study, and conversation deep-rooted in Jewish values, UCSD students from across the demographic map ventured to Comalapa, Guatemala for the trip of a lifetime. The purpose of this Alternative Spring Break experience was to use vacation time from school to do good in a part of the world very different from UCSD. Participants worked on a construction site run by Long Way Home that serves as a school for the community of Comalapa, Guatemala. According to Long Way Home, the average level of highest education in Guatemala is the fourth grade which drew them to work not on building homes like many community service organizations but instead on building a school.
The presence of this school in Comalapa, which is in use while under construction, has increased the academic retention of its students, and also employs local construction workers and teachers. After the school site is complete, Long Way Home plans on opening a vocational school for its high school graduates to train construction workers, electricians, and plumbers in the sustainable building practices they have developed during the school building process. The entire school is built from recycled trash that otherwise gets burned because of lack of infrastructure and education about environmental and human health. Part of each student’s tuition for attending the school is to bring in their own family’s trash to contribute to the build which extends the values of sustainability and environmentalism to the homes of all 120 students. The nine UCSD Hillel students got to be a part of this trash collecting process as well- their work quite literally will remain a part of the school long after their own time students.
Since starting this building process four years ago, Long Way Home has been commissioned by governments of other cities around the world to lead similar building projects in under served communities. Local Guatemalan construction workers who have been trained by Long Way Home, most of whom have never left Comalapa let alone Guatemala, are getting to see the world through their work helping other communities with sustainable building practices. Like them, the Alternative Spring Break participants experienced an environment very different than their own while discovering their role in the global community through service work.
Throughout the ASB process, students discovered the relationship between their life experiences, identity, and perception of culture. They unpacked the true meaning of poverty and its connection to (lack of) human rights. They manifested Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam, understanding the true impact and limitations of their work both in Guatemala and on campus. Finally, they put into perspective their ability to make positive change in the world and continue to apply their knowledge upon their return to UCSD’s campus.
“I am grateful that going to Guatemala with ASB allowed me to have an immersive experience in a community that is hard to access and experience without such a program. I got to see a side of the culture, economy, and people of Guatemala that I don’t think I would have been able to otherwise. It was humbling to know that where we were staying had some of the best facilities in the town, such as running water, but still it was very difficult for many of us to accustom ourselves to leaking pipes, the water sporadically being shut off, not being able to flush our toilet paper, and so forth. I realized how lucky we are to have functioning day-to-day utilities so that our days are not consumed by fetching water, washing clothes, and so forth. More so, I was struck by how big a difference it makes in our lives to have organized societal programs such as a waste management system and how often I take that for granted.” — Gabriella Fleishman
“Rural Guatemala was quite an eye opening experience for me. I was amazed by how different their culture was compared to ours and how simplistic their way of life was. Guatemala seemed so lax compared to our everyday fast pace life styles. I found a sense of calm and peacefulness as I saw different aspects of the country and as I was immersed in the Guatemalan way of life. I highly enjoyed this trip, and I would recommend it to anyone who seeks to understand life beyond a textbook or computer screen.” — Adave Cohen
“My experience in Guatemala was amazing. Seeing the school made of trash and tires astounded me. Just the fact that someone has created such an innovative and clever idea to get rid of trash I think is wonderful. Volunteering and working in Comalapa helped me gain some perspective of my own life as well. It helped me understand the different levels of poverty that exist in the world and get a first-hand view of it myself. It has made me much more appreciative of my own life and what I have in it, as well appreciating the wonderful and supportive community I have that has allowed me this opportunity. The travel we did in Guatemala was also amazing. The day we spent in Antigua was such a wonderful experience and so culturally immersive; it was one of my favorite parts of the trip.” — Matia Saeedian
“The Alternative Spring Break trip to Guatemala was an experience I will never forget. The moment we drove away from the airport in Guatemala City to head to our home for the upcoming week, I realized how powerful it is to travel to a country to make a true impact. When we arrived in the small town of Comalapa, I knew this experience would be unlike any other I had before because we were completely immersed in the native culture, not surrounded by tourism. Learning about the town and the impact we made as we helped build a school out of sustainable materials was very powerful and memorable. One of the memorable experiences I had while working at the school was when I helped to dig dirt to create a driveway with one of the workers who only spoke Spanish, a language I do not speak. He asked me a question, and I was able to communicate with him, although briefly. Getting to connect through community service despite the language barrier was extremely rewarding. Later in the trip, we even got to hike an active volcano and explore the city of Antigua. By the end of the trip, Guatemala did not seem foreign anymore, but rather like a place I had grown accustomed to and appreciated. I always think about the inspiring experience I had, and I cannot wait for more opportunities like this in the future.” – Rachel Finerman