Volunteering in Guatemala: My Experience & Lessons Learned [HMHE Ep 27]

Published on 14 Mar, 2023

Ep 027 – Volunteering in Guatemala: My Experience & Lessons Learned

In this very personal episode of the podcast, I share my recent experience volunteering with AMRIS (Asociación de Mujeres Rio Isquizal), an organization of 300+ Mam women in San Sebastian Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

This incredible organization works to improve the living conditions of people in the surrounding rural area by improving food security and promoting entrepreneurship opportunities.

This week on the podcast, I candidly share the lessons I learned from this volunteer position as well as lessons from past volunteer experiences both in my home country (the US) and abroad. I talk about best practices for volunteering and share how to determine whether or not a volunteer opportunity will be a good fit for you. My hope is that you will learn from my mistakes and successes!

Below is a brief outline of this week’s episode of the Happy Me Happy Earth podcast, “Ep 26: Volunteering in Guatemala: My Experience & Lessons Learned.” Please listen to the full episode to hear more about my personal experience and stories.

Foundations for Changemaking

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This is a picture of Eva Peterson hiking in the highlands of Guatemala. The town of San Sebastian Huehuetenango can be seen in the distance. It links to a blog post and podcast episode about volunteering in Guatemala. Personal photo.

The town where we volunteered, San Sebastian Huehuetenango, can be seen in the background. Photo by Sam Dunlop Doyle.

How I Approach Volunteering

My approach to volunteering, in the US and abroad, has changed dramatically over the years. Especially while living abroad for the past six years. On one hand, I want to give back to the communities that I’m living in, but on the other hand (and more importantly) I don’t want to do any harm. And as a white woman, I definitely do not want to contribute to the “white saviorisim” paradigm.

A practice that has helped me become a more conscious volunteer is reflecting on my past attempts to help with brutal honesty.

    • What worked?
    • What didn’t work?
    • How did this experience change me?
    • In what ways was my intention different from my impact?
    • How will I take the lessons I learned through this experience into my future attempts to help and volunteer?

A couple of years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to volunteer abroad anymore. But then this opportunity in Guatemala popped up and we (my husband and I) thought our skills and interests would be an excellent fit so we went for it.

It’s really important to me that I take to heart the lessons I’ve learned from this particular experience in Guatemala and that I share those learnings with you, my community.

The Difference Between Intention and Impact

A book that transformed my approach toward volunteering is called Impact. It was written by Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts, founders of the awesome organization She’s the First.

In this book, the authors talk about the difference between intention and impact. Unfortunately, oftentimes our impact is very different than we intended. The authors gave numerous examples of how this is true, and many of these examples hit home with me. I saw myself and my past mistakes reflected in these pages.

Voluntourism and Colonialism

Brandt and Tibbetts talk at length about how voluntourism is often an extension of the same thinking that fueled colonialization.

“You can also recognize how voluntourism maps pretty neatly to the ideas that helped shape colonialism, in which white Europeans firmly believed they had a moral obligation to “help” Africans (or other Indigenous) people by telling them exactly what would be best for them what they had to believe, and how to improve their societies. It upholds a worldview in which white people are the “saviors” of other groups, generally those of darker skin, showing them the “right” and “modern” way to live. This is where the stories of starving children in Africa, oppressive Muslim men, and uneducated South American children come from. The message many Americans hear, even today, is that if you are fortunate enough to have an education and money, then you’re the person these people need to save them from themselves, regardless of your expertise.” – Impact, Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts

Now, I have a heightened awareness of my own “savior” complex, and I’ve been working for years to reprogram these types of thoughts. I try to approach volunteering, travel, and new cultural experiences as a student and a learner. I work daily to cultivate a beginner’s mind and view my experiences through this lens. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while you probably recognize this as the Changemaker Mindset.

I look for volunteer opportunities that are based on cross-cultural connections and that mutually benefit me and those that I am connecting with. This helps me to avoid that one-sided, hero/victim dynamic that most volunteer positions unfortunately promote.

Reflection Questions to Align Your Impact With Your Intent

When considering a new volunteer opportunity you can use the questions below to see if your good intentions align will align with your impact. On the podcast, I give personal examples of how I’ve used these questions to become a more conscious volunteer in the past, and where I’ve failed.

      • Am I qualified enough to provide the service I’m about to provide internationally within my own community?*
      • Would it be acceptable and legal for me to provide this service in my own community?*
      • When considering the financial cost of my trip: Is the service I’m providing worth more than that?*
      • Would it be more beneficial to those I want to help if I gave them the money instead?
      • Is my volunteer role unable to be filled by a local community member?*
      • What do I hope to gain from the experience? What do I want to learn?
      • Is there a way that I could learn or achieve whatever outcome I’m looking to get from volunteering without leaving home?

The four questions marked with an (*) on this list are adapted from the book Impact by Christen Brandt and Tammy Tibbetts.

Best Practices for Volunteering

When Considering a Volunteer Position

When considering a new volunteer position there are a few things that you can do to determine whether or not you’re a good fit.

First, do your research. Research the organization that you’re volunteering with. Read their impact plan and look for real-world examples of how their programs have achieved the results they’re aiming for. You might also find this podcast episode, Ep 11: Charitable Giving Tips helpful when trying to determine the legitimacy and effectiveness of an organization.

Next, read the volunteer request carefully and determine whether or not your skill set and interests are a good match. If so, send the organization a detailed email describing your skills and the resources you would like to offer. Instead of making assumptions about how you could help, ask them directly whether or not your skillset would be helpful to them.

Be sure to look for opportunities where there is an equal exchange in order to avoid that hero/victim dynamic I mentioned before.

Lastly, if you will be living in volunteer lodging be sure that you ask about the living conditions. Is there reliable electricity, wifi, and running water? Is there a hot shower? If not, are you prepared to live without these comforts?

While Volunteering

It’s incredibly important to make time to reflect on your experiences and to feel your feelings while in the thick of it, not just before or at the end. Grounding and centering practices such as journaling and yoga can help keep your mind and body in balance while in a new or uncomfortable environment.

It’s also important to ask for feedback and to take that feedback to heart. Let it change you and your approach. Ask those that you’re volunteering with, “What am I doing that’s working? What’s not working? How can I approach this work in a way that better supports your mission?”

After Volunteering

As I mentioned before, it’s incredibly important that we take some time to reflect on our experiences. I invite you to use the reflection questions I listed above and to be honest with yourself. Each volunteer experience is an opportunity for self-growth.

I hope that by sharing my experiences with you today you can learn from my mistakes, and become a more effective volunteer.

Other Links Mentioned In This Episode

You can learn more about the impacts of insufficient waste management in San Sebastian in this blog post written by my husband.

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Thanks for listening and/or reading!

Podcast music: “Bounce” by Coma-Media on Pixbay

Featured image: Personal photo

This is a picture of Eva Peterson. She is the host of the Happy Me Happy Earth podcast and a life coach for changemakers and aspiring activists.

Welcome! I'm Eva, host of the Happy Me Happy Earth podcast and blog. This is a place for changemakers, advocates, and aspiring activists to learn, heal, and get inspired. As a certified Life Coach, Ayurvedic Health Counselor, and follow activist I'm here to support you in expanding your impact while thoroughly enjoying your life!

Self-care for Changemakers:
Be an Agent of Change Without Sacrificing Your Health