Team Tbird: Our Life Changing Trip to Guatemala With JustWorld International

Team Tbird: Our Life Changing Trip to Guatemala With JustWorld International

After the last schooling show of the season at Thunderbird Show Park (otherwise known as tbird), the tbird staff normally takes the following day to get caught up on things that we missed over the weekend. But this time was different. We headed our separate ways to quickly pack for a long-awaited adventure to Guatemala with JustWorld International — a non-profit organization that helps transform the lives of kids in impoverished communities by funding education and nutrition programs. We are proud to partner with JustWorld International and help fundraise for their important initiatives!

On a normal day, heading up to tbird at 2 a.m. would be accompanied by a massive cup of coffee simply to be able to cope, but today I am so pumped to begin this journey since none of our traveling party has ever been that far south on the continent. The morning doesn’t start very punctual as Tina and I drive over to Markus’ and serial call him to wake up. In his mad rush he forgets to bring his Canadian Permanent Resident card (which will make his return journey very interesting). We rip up to tbird, grab Whitney and Randy and head off to the Vancouver airport. The great thing about being at the airport at 4 a.m. is there are no lines. We briskly go through security and customs and we’re off to Dallas for a layover to meet up with tbird president Jane Tidball.

Once we land in Guatemala, we meet our driver for the week, Sergio, who is so nice but he drives like a Formula One racer! We arrive at our hotel right in the heart of the city. Everything has such character and charm. Our hotel used to be a hacienda and has beautiful rooms, courtyards, gardens, and furniture, but we’re all pretty wiped from our long day of travel so we hit the hay.

Changing the Country, Community, and People

We meet for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 8 a.m. and drink Guatemalan coffee … WOW! Needless to say we are ready to go! Sergio picks us up and we drive through the cobblestone streets of Antigua. Everyone is wide-eyed taking in the colors of the historic town and we eagerly anticipate our first stop, the Los Patojos School.

Juan Pablo sharing his vision for Los Patojos.

This is where we meet the exuberant Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes, the man behind Los Patojos and its mission to make lives better for children in Guatemala. We immediately feel as if we’ve known him for years. He speaks so passionately, as if he is on top of a mountain, and in essence that is what he has overcome for these kids. While working as a teacher, Juan Pablo saw young people suffering with drugs and violence. He was moved to make a change, and at just 23 years old, he started Los Patojos, a nonprofit where students have access to education, nutritious meals, healthcare, and more.

The initial space for the school was in a garage of his own family’s home. Soon, Juan Pablo’s newly formed school began to teach kids that they are worth something and that it is worth staying in Guatemala to better themselves. His passionate teachings enabled the school to grow, and it soon took over the entire household. Juan Pablo is making a difference not only in the kids, but also in the surrounding community. Dangerous people and places were replaced with hopeful smiles and new businesses.

We enjoyed getting to know some of the students.

Juan Pablo knew his mission had to keep growing and evolving. A new school was built four blocks away, but the journey there is a stark example of the challenges young people face every day.

The Guardian of Their Dignity

Four blocks from Juan Pablo’s parents' house is a new, larger school building. We get a glimpse of what these kids have to walk through just to go to school. Juan Pablo keeps saying, “Stay closer, stay closer,” and we could all tell by his serious tone that we are probably underestimating the severity of the situation. We walk past countless makeshift houses made of garbage and tin that flank mansions surrounded by 18-foot walls. Juan Pablo mentions the massive divide between the rich and the poor is a major problem in Guatemala.

Eventually we come upon a big, bold, beautiful yellow building — we made it to the school! We walk up to the main entrance, past playing kids, and enter through the gorgeous wood doors that makes way to a foyer adorned with massive beams. I am curious how much the school cost to build so I ask Juan Pablo, “Why did you spend so much money on this type of wood beams? Wasn’t there a more affordable way to build?” I assume it is a good question considering we are trying to fundraise and think the money could be better used elsewhere. Juan Pablo replies that he is “the guardian of their dignity” and it is his job to help the kids understand their true potential. “Why wouldn’t I show the kids the best so they know that’s what they can achieve?” he says. “If we built a shanty school, that is all they think they are worth.”

The next few hours we help prepare lunch for the kids and serve them one by one as the individual classrooms line up with their own colored cups, plates, and bowls. They are all so grateful not only for the food, but to just be allowed to be in the school. Their smiles are contagious.

"Their smiles are contagious."

In the afternoon we split up and join different classrooms to watch how the kids learn different subjects. The thing that stands out to me the most is regardless of the subject, they have this palpable joy to learn. They learn through song and group work, and are never told to pay attention — they are so engaged with purpose, it is compelling.

Part of Juan Pablo’s mission to break the cycle has already begun as he’s now hiring teachers who were students in his program a decade ago. Following their humble beginnings in the original school, they went on to post-secondary teacher training, and now they are back to help with this amazing movement. We are quiet on the ride back to the hotel as we are still in awe of what we just saw from Juan Pablo, the students, and the teachers.

The next morning we’re back at the school and participate in more classroom activities. We help prepare and serve lunch before taking in a few touristic-type activities in the afternoon. The town of Antigua is really cute and is easy to navigate. Plus, the food is incredible (so is the sangria!) The only thing we worry about are the chicken buses flying by! Chicken buses are used for the transit system for Antigua and the surrounding area. They’re yellow school buses that are totally overhauled and chromed out. So what better souvenir to bring back to my young boys but toy chicken buses?

The new trade school will one day be self-sustained.

We return to the school later in the day for a ‘cultural evening.’ The school hosts these events monthly and they are a critical aspect to the Los Patojos curriculum. Juan Pablo notes that the Mayan culture is slowly disappearing and it’s important to teach the kids where their ancestors came from and know why they are working so hard to better themselves and keep the culture going.

Expanding the Impact: The Trade School and the Bus

It’s our last day in Guatemala. Sergio picks us up and we head to the newest Los Patojos project, the next level of education from the school we previously visited. The school is located in Dueñas, about 45 minutes from Antigua. The building is an old factory donated to Juan Pablo and is surrounded by a new middle class development.

Juan Pablo has had the school for about six months now, but it’s taken an equal amount of time for its current seven students to clean it up and prepare it for continuing the vision moving forward. The purpose of this school is for older kids — teenagers — to learn skills, trades, agriculture, and to become a self-sustained center that not only provides for enrolled students, but is also a place to sell their goods and surplus garden products for profit.

The students learn practical skills, such as gardening, and have the opportunity to sell their goods.

Our tbird crew pairs up with the kids and we work on their current projects. Randy and Markus make tables, Jane and Tina paint, and Whitney and I work in the greenhouse. As part of our trip, we sponsor power tools for the boys since they were using hand tools up until this point. Juan Pablo tells Jane what they really need is a mode of transportation to get their products to market, to transport kids to and from school, and to take their cultural exhibits on the road. So, Jane decides that tbird will also buy them a school bus!

We get a quick bite to eat, then we all work in the garden and take part in a Mayan agriculture planting ritual. We sit with Juan Pablo and recap our thoughts on the incredible trip. One of his many amazing traits is his love of listening and receiving feedback from people on how they think Los Patojos could be better. Later we head back to the hotel and are exhausted — we barely make it through dinner before we go to our rooms and prepare for the long journey home.

Reflecting on a Life-Changing Trip

We all walk into tbird the following Monday morning and have a little debrief session on our trip. We conclude that this program is soul inspiring and that it gave us absolute purpose in our upcoming fundraising efforts. It also gave everyone perspective on what we usually take for granted as Canadians, Americans, Germans, and Australians. We left for the trip thinking it would be a great team bonding experience and a great way to energize us for the upcoming season, but we didn’t ever think that we would return learning so much more from the kids that we could ever have taught them ourselves.

We are so proud to partner with JustWorld International on our Cambodia Rice Program and the new Dueñas Bus Program (#gotgas?) to help raise money for insurance and gas for the bus we sponsored for them, as well as Juan Pablo’s Los Patojos program. He is filled with such passion and drive to change the world for the kids of Guatemala, and we are so thankful that he allowed us insight into this movement. We will continue to enable his mission through our efforts at tbird and invite everyone who enjoys the tbird experience to do the same!

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Photography by Cristopher Alvarado.