Unlike other students who went home over Spring Break, 12 students of Eastern’s Habitat for Humanity chapter decided to lend a helping hand by traveling to Guatemala to give two families a place to call their own.
According to President Matt Short, this is only the chapter’s second international trip since 1992.
The group worked on two individual houses in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, located along the beaches of the Caribbean Sea. There the workers sifted sand, shoveled and helped make concrete, Short, a senior accounting major, said.
Unlike builds in the United States, the focus was less on the construction of the houses and more on interaction with the families, who were at the site every day.
“The house was going to get built if we were there are not, but we were able to show these families love and compassion, and to show people do care about them, even from central Illinois,” Short said.
The group started their trip with a 17-hour airplane trip to Guatemala City, which Short described as “commercialized and Americanized.”
After driving past Guatemala City with its skyscrapers and McDonalds on every corner, though, the landscape of Guatemala changed dramatically.
“We went by so many shanty towns, which were built out of anything they could get their hands on,” Short said.
When the group arrived at the building site, Short saw his house was built to the level of the doors. By the time they left the site, the group had added eight layers of concrete block to the outside and six to 10 layers of concrete block to the inside walls.
Unlike builds in the United States, these homes were built with concrete blocks. Chainsaws, hammers or wood were not used.
While Short was working, he listened to the stories of the families and worked on his Spanish with them.
“I came to realize that even in the U.S., these houses are going to get built for the people. But what really matters is forming that relationship with them and sharing the love we have for our brothers and sisters,” he said.
Emily Van Ostran, a senior geography major, also said it was OK not to be working on their house the whole time because they were listening to the families’ stories.
She said it was important to make a good impression to the families, because that area of Guatemala does not get many international builds and this was some of the families’ first real impression of Americans.
“I was setting the example of what they think of every American, which was powerful,” Van Ostran said. “It made me think about what I was saying.”
Van Ostran and Amber Kinzel, a freshman sociology major, said they spent a majority of their time playing ball and coloring with the children of the families.
Van Ostran, Short and Kinzel said they were all impressed with the sense of community among the Guatemalan people. Even though the families lived in slums, they were so happy and thankful, Van Ostran said.
Kinzel said they did make an impact by building the houses in Guatemala, but the group realized they could also help individuals in their own community.
“We realized what we did on the trip, we have right here in Coles County. A lot of families need homes out here and it opened our eyes,” Kinzel said.
Van Ostran said she initially presented the idea for an international build to the group back in the fall of 2011. The trip was planned out by Fall 2012, and the group began meeting in October to prepare. Many of the group members paid for the trip through scholarships and money out their own pockets.
According to Van Ostran, Guatemala was the first country outside of the U.S. for which the Habitat for Humanity organization built houses. The organization plans to build 50,000 houses in Guatemala; the number currently stands at 49,965.
“There are plenty of people who went to Florida and they have amazing stories and photos, but my heart got filled up instead,” Van Ostran said.