Villanovans serve in Guatemala



Princess Garrett

Every fall, winter and spring break, the University sends students to various locations for a week in or out of the country to participate in different service projects. Past locations include Selma, Alabama, Asheville, North Carolina and Costa Rica. Service ranges from building houses to working with at risk youth in afterschool programs. All of these service break trips are run by Campus Ministry, which also provides students with many opportunities to get involved with service outside of campus, as well as providing students a safe space to reflect on faith and values. 

Twelve students and two faculty members at Villanova received the opportunity to serve in Antigua, Guatemala. They worked with an organization called “BuildinGuate,” whose mission is, “helping the poorest of the poor by providing the necessities and foundation of a healthy life.” They did not know what to expect when traveling to this country. For many, it was the first time being in Guatemala. 

“I tried to keep an open mind, because I knew what I would experience in Guatemala would be like nothing else I had ever experienced before,” sophomore Nicholas Forelli said about traveling to Guatemala.  “I knew that in attending this trip I would gain a new understanding albeit not sure of what. I made myself ready to serve and open to others and moved forward with the plan.” Having an open mind and heart was essential to the immersion process, as the culture was very different from the life they experienced here in the United States.

The students arrived Saturday, January 2 and enjoyed sight-seeing in the city of Antigua. They roamed the streets, saw landmarks like “La Merced,” went to local eateries and shopped in the artisans market for one of a kind souvenirs. Construction of the new house began on January 4. The students woke up at 4 a.m. each morning in order to be finished by noon to avoid staying outside when it was hottest. Building a house was something none of them had ever done, and all had to work as a team to finish by Jan. 8. The students all took on various tasks to complete the house such as making cement, painting, drilling, sawing, digging and lifting heavy construction materials. By Friday, they had completed one house that could accommodate two families. By the end of that process they were sore and exhausted, but completing the house was a rewarding experience. Junior Max O’Conner describes the process of completing the house. “Building a house was a very different experience for me,” O’Conner said. “It made me appreciate the time and effort that goes into something that a lot of people, including myself, take for granted. Seeing a finished product was definitely gratifying. Knowing that something I helped with would be making a difference and helping a family was indescribable.” The families that would be moved into this house would be removed from living in the nearby garbage disposal unit called “Lan Estrellas Basurero.” On Friday after completing the house, students got to see the dump, where a large fire was burning the trash. Surrounding the massive flame were mountains of trash piles. Amongst the trash were stray dogs, Guatemalans searching through trash bags for things they may find valuable, others eating lunch and garbage men dropping off more trash. Witnessing the impoverishment of the community inspired students to think more critically about their service and how they could continue to aid the people. 

Students engaged in daily reflections, thinking about the purposes of their trip. 

Reflections were student-led relating the day’s events to Catholic Social Teachings. Group leader and Senior Rachel Diehl commented on the bond of her group, saying, “Before we left for the week, I knew no one on the trip. I wasn’t really sure how everyone would interact, who I would learn the most about or what we even accomplish. But after our first day of work, I knew everyone would end up being best friends. As the week progressed I saw 14 strangers become the best of friends, not only with each other, but with the Guatemalans we worked alongside with.”

Students also became close to the people they were in service of. These families lived in three other houses that were also built through the BuildinGuate organization. Students became especially close to the children of these families. Every day the children would come out and greet them with hugs and warm smiles. They would even help with construction and proved to be stronger than the students at times. What amazed the students most about the children was the fact that they were so happy even with so little. They did not have a lot, but not once did they ever present a negative attitude. The Guatemalans taught the students to live simply and live in the moment. Students witnessed the concept of pure happiness found not in material things but  in the memories created with other people.

“I could not help but feel the immense amount of joy they each had,” said sophomore Ryan Allen about his connection with the kids. “It was as if they all had won the lottery; and couldn’t contain their abundant elation. But none of them had won the lottery, they just had an innate joy within them that couldn’t help but shine through their grim situation. The people I have met in Guatemala all reflected this careless joy, and I can only hope that I can reflect it too.” The students got much more out of this trip than the construction of a new house.


Photo Credit: Kellie Baran