Tragedy in Guatemala Highlights the Challenges and Opportunities- Devin Thorpe

“There is nothing we can do here. I know it sucks, but there is nothing we can do,” said Chris Welch, a paramedic traveling with a group of CHOICE Humanitarian volunteers in a remote area of Guatemala, as we peered down the steep embankment where minutes earlier a large truck with eight people aboard went over the edge.

Three passengers and the driver escaped unharmed. Three had to be taken by ambulance for emergency care for head wounds, broken bones and other injuries. One, crushed by the truck, died at the scene. The steep hillside dropped about 500 to 1000 feet. The truck itself was out of sight, presumably at the bottom. The passengers and driver had all leapt or been thrown from the truck as it began an apparent sideways role down the virtual cliff.

Chris’s trained reaction wasn’t far wrong. There was nothing to do for the crushed victim and we could only-render first aid to the others as we waited with them for an ambulance. When one showed up about fifteen minutes after our arrival, which was perhaps ten minutes after the accident, I was surprised. It turns out, the ambulance already had a patient—a mother experiencing a difficult delivery—on board. We added the three accident survivors and the little ambulance now packed liked sardines with patients was on its way.

Note, I have no photos of the accident. In a rare moment of clarity, it was clear that my highest and best use at that moment was not taking photos.

Coming at the end of a week-long volunteer expedition, the tragedy took on grave significance. It was a reminder our entire week had been like the 30 minutes we spent at the accident site helping. Our intervention made a difference but not a big one. Life in Guatemala as for the accident victims would carry on much as if we hadn’t been there. It was we who were changed more by the experience than those we sought to help.

CHOICE Humanitarian works with communities in a mountainous region of tropical and semi-tropical rainforest from a technical school and farm located in the village of Sikaabe. The breadth of what we observed—and to a much lesser degree helped to do—hints at the complexity of helping people here to lift themselves from poverty. The team of volunteers came mostly from Utah and Idaho with a Floridian added for good measure.

We visited a school where CHOICE had helped to organize a community event, covering more issues in a single day than I imagined possible. We greeted and played games with the children; it is impossible to know if the children or the adults enjoyed it more. This highlights, however, shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the other activities of the day.

First, we helped in a very limited way to plant 200 special palm trees. Our effort was limited because the kids and adult members of the community did the bulk of the work. With at least 100 total volunteers, including students, local adults and visiting CHOICE staff and volunteers, each only planted an average of two trees. Therein lies a key measure of success. With the local community doing the bulk of the work, they feel a greater sense of ownership and will be more likely to care for the trees.

There is a good reason to care for the trees. They generate cash directly. The trees are a special kind of palm tree whose leaves are burned in certain traditional Mayan ceremonies and are quite valuable. The trees, allowed to grow, will produce a valuable cash crop.

If you’re asking, as you should be, how Utah-based CHOICE Humanitarian figured out that planting this species of palm tree would be best for the school, you’ll be interested to learn their process was rather innovative. They asked the local community what should be planted and helped them do it.

In the same day, CHOICE led training for the students on climate change and the need to protect the environment. Guatemalans living in the rain-forest are beginning to see enough adverse change in the weather, from extreme storms to droughts, that they recognize now that the warming climate impacts them. While their energy consumption—even including burning wood as a primary fuel for cooking—is tiny compared to the average American’s, their environmental impact is still significant. That wood for cooking comes from cutting down rain-forest.

There’s more. That same day, CHOICE staff trained the women on personal and feminine hygiene. CHOICE staff trained the men on personal hygiene and being good fathers. They also were trained on human trafficking and how to avoid having their sons and daughters become victims.

Let’s add to the considerations the things we observed that represent issues of concern for CHOICE. The 90-minute trip from Sikaabe included roads that had been previously closed by landslides and that could be closed again at any time by more of the same—ignoring the fact that every inch of the roads between the two community was unpaved except for two bridges crossing rivers.

Add our visit to the CHOICE hospital the day before and a range of other issues leap to mind. The beautiful little hospital where operating rooms were recently operated was empty when we visited. It is staffed by one doctor who is employed 40 hours per week, but much of that is spent doing visits to outlying communities in the service area. So few people have vehicles that getting to the hospital is virtually impossible for most.

This is made clear by an experience Dr. Edna Magnolia Toc Alvarado, who staffs the Sikaabe hospital, related. A mother brought in her severely burned little girl who had knocked over a big pot and had been scalded by its contents. Preparing to scold the mother for taking so long to get her to the hospital, she asked why she had delayed so long to bring her to the hospital—it had been at least 12 hours since the girl had been burned the previous evening.

The mother responded that she had no access to a vehicle or money to pay someone to bring them to the hospital so she had put her daughter in a wheelbarrow and began walking at 2:00 AM to get her to the hospital when it opened in the morning.

Dr. Edna, knowing should could not care adequately for the severely burned girl there in the little CHOICE hospital, told the woman the girl would need to go to a regional hospital for treatment. The mother then got on the phone to call her other daughter and asked her to sell the young duck they were raising to pay for the trip.

Dr. Edna, hearing the call, called the CHOICE team and arranged for the CHOICE vehicle to take the girl to the regional hospital. The girl received her treatment and recovered. The mother gave CHOICE the duck—which, the team says, will never be anyone’s dinner. It wanders the campus with the status of a sacred cow.

During the week, we observed much more and helped do a bit more, including the painstaking deconstruction of a small home on the CHOICE campus so the materials could be used to build better housing for the staff. Still, even the Guatemalans we met, will little remember or note that we came to help.

But we will remember that we went. It is not our noble sacrifice or big impact we will remember; to the contrary, we will remember how the people we met changed us. We will remember their joyous smiles, their self-confidence and capacity, their generosity and their kindness. We will remember how they changed us.

We got so much more than we gave that I wonder if it is simply too selfish for us to go. While one could reasonably conclude that the world would be better off if the volunteers had just sent the money instead of themselves but I come to a different conclusion. The world is better off when it shrinks, when we find greater respect for one another and build lasting bonds of friendship.

Guatemala didn’t need our help to plant trees or teach hygiene classes. Local CHOICE staff can do that without American volunteers. We volunteers need the experience of building respect for people whose life experience is so vastly different than ours. We didn’t solve all their problems any more than we saved the man crushed by the truck. Guatemala changed us. Guatemalans changed us.


About the Author: 

Devin Thorpe is a Forbes contributor who is passionate about ending poverty, disease and climate change. Learn more at
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