My experience as a Healthy Schools Volunteer
BEEP BEEP BEEP.
I roll over and hit the button to silence the phone alarm. The time is 5:30 AM. I sigh. Another early start, I think to myself. Sitting up in bed, I swing my legs over the edge and fumble for my sandals. I eventually shuffle off outside to the bathroom for a freezing shower. If that doesn’t wake me up, I don’t know what will. As I’m getting dressed, I silently check off tasks in my head, ensuring that we are prepared for the exciting day ahead. It’s been a long-anticipated event (my teacher friend Sara and I started planning six months ago) so I want everything to go smoothly. 6:30 AM rolls around. I wait anxiously in front of the plaza for our ride to arrive. As I stuff a muffin in my mouth, I look around curiously at the town market slowly bustling into life.
There is a man dragging goats behind him yelling an offer of fresh milk; a woman across the street squeezing orange after orange with an ancient metal press for their sweet juice; the intoxicating aroma of fried onion wafts toward me from a food cart across the way. It’s amazing how much people accomplish before I’m awake, I think, chuckling to myself. After what feels like an eternity, a pickup finally slows in front of me and the school director gets out and waves me over. We kiss one another’s cheek in warm greeting. We drive a couple of blocks from the plaza over to Sara’s house. We too greet one another with a kiss. We take off at an alarming speed down a dirt road leading out of town. As soon as we’ve cleared the enormous pot holes plaguing the roads just outside the urban center, I relax my steely grip on the side of the pickup and begin to enjoy the ride a little.
When I dare to look behind me I can see that we’ve pulled out onto a road at the precipice of an enormous green valley. There are undulating mountains for as far as the eye can see. God, I love my job, I think quietly to myself, smiling despite the dust that quickly coats my teeth…7:45 AM. After about an hour of driving, the bumpy dirt road brings us to a cluster of wooden houses at the edge of a pine forest. We park in front of the only cinder block structure around. I assume it to be the school as there are already children waiting outside the gate. They stare up at us with a mixture of awe and fear. “Good morning!” I call out in the merriest voice I can muster “good morning” they shyly mutter back. They don’t take their eyes off us the entire time we unload the truck…8:15 AM. By now most of the local children (around 30) have made their way to the school. We’ve funneled them into a small, dusty classroom to explain the circumstances of our visit.
“Good morning students” the director calls out, “GOOD MORNING MISS DAYLIN” they chant back in unison. I can tell they are still wary of our presence but the company of fellow students seems to have warmed them up a bit. “This is Miss Allyson, Miss Sara, Miss Raquel…” and she goes down the line, eventually introducing all five of us. “Today they are going to talk with you about nutrition and personal hygiene.” You could hear a pin drop. Luckily Sara intervenes. “Great! Let’s start with a game!” …8:45 AM. “And now we’re going to move on to Miss Allyson who is going to talk to us today about personal hygiene. Miss Al--” “GOOD MORN-ING KIDS” I interrupt, bursting out in front of them. I do my best to mimic the robotic greeting they are taught to fire at adults. They return the salutation nervously. A couple of them look to friends to gauge what sort of reaction they should have to this extremely silly white woman. I can see that I’m to be received with a mixture of humor and curiosity. This is a promising start. I launch into the discussion of why and when one should wash their hands and it becomes quickly apparent that it’s going to be more of a lecture than a dialogue. Perhaps they are still awed by my existence? I do look and talk so completely different from anyone they’ve ever met.
When it comes time to cover the four steps of handwashing, I take advantage of the opportunity to act even more silly. “We can think of the four steps as almost like a dance,” I start excitedly, “everyone stand up and do it with me!” They warily push back their chairs and rise to their feet. “First step, we rub our palms together!” As I do this, I wiggle my backside a little. This gets their attention. I notice a few more exchanged looks and muffled giggles. “Second step, we wash between the fingers!” I furiously mesh my fingers together and wildly move my elbows up and down like a chicken. A gentle rumble of laughter rolls across the room. By step four, I can tell that this is an experience that they are never going to forget. And the truth is, neither will I.
When I arrived in Guatemala two years ago I could barely say “Hola”. Never would I have imagined that in a short span of months I would be assisting with five-month trainings for teachers or working with parents’ groups on health topics or even leading a simple handwashing demonstration for elementary students, for that matter. That’s the amazing thing about this experience, about Peace Corps in general. It helps you to remove yourself as an obstacle to success, be that your own success or the success of others. But as for today, it’s just me, these teachers, and the future of Guatemala.