Letter from Evelin About our Day Together!

My first letter from Evelin since my visit to Guatemala to meet her had been in translation for almost a month, and it was a challenging wait. But I was so excited when it finally came through! I also have another letter from her in translation, which I will hopefully get to read soon too. It was well worth the wait, though, because she talked all about our day together at the zoo and it was wonderfully sweet! I think back to how much I prayed about which child from Guatemala to sponsor and which country to visit this summer. Each step of the way, God brought me to this special girl. I think about how it was an instant connection when we saw each other. I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t possibly love her any more than I do.

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Evelin is 8 and lives in Guatemala.

“Hello Dear Friend, Evelin is writing to thank you for visiting her. She thinks that it is a great blessing to have you here, in her country, and being able to meet you, because she was not expecting such a great surprise. May God bless you for your great love. Evelin wants to thank you for your gift which was a doll and a coloring book. She really liked the stickers as well as the map of where you live, the notepad and the crayons. She also wants to thank you for the English book and the prayer book, because she is using them in her backpack. She wants to tell you that you look very pretty and she really likes your hair. She wants to thank you for taking her to the zoo with you. She really liked the elephant and the giraffe that she fed. It made her very happy. She is especially grateful for having spent time with you. She thanks you for all of the love that you have given her and she says that she loves you very much. She asks you to pray for her family so that God will bless them and will watch over them. She wants to know what is the name of your dad, your mom, and your brother? She wants to thank you for your beautiful gifts and for your love.”

 

My heart is so full and I am a very blessed sponsor!

Guatemala Day 8- Saying Goodbye

I woke up at 4am on our last morning in Guatemala, even though our flight wasn’t until after 10am. Apparently, there had been some news about new airport security measures for international flights, and reports were saying that passengers should get to the airport 4 (!) hours before their flight. I asked my family if they had heard any news about this in the US, but they hadn’t and couldn’t find anything. Our tour leaders decided that, to be safe and since this was all new, we’d arrive the four hours early because it was better to sit there than be rushed. It was still dark as we left our hotel for the airport, which was very close by.

At the airport, we filled out our customs forms, checked in, and made it through security all easily. We had tons of time to spare and were wondering why a big deal was made. We did a little shopping and stopped in the very tiny food court for some breakfast, where we stayed for awhile at the tables, talking. Finally we headed down to our gate. This is where the new procedures were taking place. Leading up to our gate, we entered a very long, slow moving line. Everyone’s bags were checked manually by security officers. Even though we had already been through airport security, we had to throw away our drinks and water bottles. We weren’t even allowed to have empty ones! Anyone who had a laptop or an iPad had to turn it on so they could examine it. Then, we had to be patted down. Our passports were also checked again. And any time we wanted to leave the gate, like to go to the bathroom, we had to bring our airline ticket and passport with us and be patted down again upon return. I’d never seen anything like that before!

We said most of our goodbyes at the gate here, waiting for our flight, in case there wasn’t time in Miami. Some of us had short layovers, myself included, and we were nervous about having enough time to get through everything and make it to where we needed to go with the airport being so huge. Our plane this Avianca flight was really nice- nicer than the last one. We didn’t choose our seats, and I had been assigned to an exit row. The downside was that all of our bags had to go up above, but we had a lot of leg room. Each of the seats had its own screen so with nothing to do from my bag, I settled in and watched most of Jurassic World (it took us about 30 minutes to figure out where to plug in the headphones… 😉 ).

It turns out we had nothing to worry about once we got in Miami, because Customs and baggage claim went very smoothly. An older sponsor in our group had signed up for wheelchair assistance, and she was going to be flying the same airline, American, that another sponsor and I that had short layovers were flying. Worried about getting lost, we decided to follow the man who was escorting her in her wheelchair, since we were going to the same place. Never have I seen someone go so fast while pushing a wheelchair in one hand and pulling a suitcase in the other- and he wasn’t young either! We had to power walk to keep up with him, pulling our suitcases along as fast as we could. It was actually pretty funny, but we made great time getting to our terminal!

We even had time for a short meal, where I got a salad (oh how I had missed fresh vegetables). By evening, I was back in Chicago.

While it was nice to be home again and see my family and my cat, it was hard leaving Guatemala. I left a piece of my heart in that beautiful country. I am so blessed that God led me to go on this trip. I am so fortunate that I got to see a country so few get to visit. I am so lucky to have met so many amazing Guatemalan people, who were so happy that we were there.

Throughout the week, we learned a lot of sad statistics about the country. And if that is all you heard, it’s enough to be very depressing. But for each sad statistic, there is something Compassion is doing about it. There is a light. And the light is coming from the amazing people we met working in the country office and the projects. It’s also coming from the children, who will graduate and go on to give back. Just as Compassion Guatemala’s slogan goes, “Hope in a Multi-Colored Land”, there is so much hope for this country. And that hope lies within its own people. It’s not us, as Americans, who are going to fix their problems. They know better than anyone what the needs are and how to help them, and they are already doing it! We just got to be witnesses to the incredible work they’re doing and offer them some encouragement along the way.

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Guatemala Day 7- A Day Full of Heat and Hugs

Did I mention before that it was supposed to rain the entire week we were in Guatemala? Leading up to the trip, I’d check the weather and every day would have an 80-100% chance of rain. It was something we all went in prepared for. It is, after all, their rainy season. BUT, through the grace of God, we did not get rained on once. Yep, you read that correctly. Not once. The few times it did rain were either overnight or times that we were indoors, and by the time we needed to back out, it had already dissipated. How is that possible? Scientifically, it doesn’t seem so, but we know God was there with us this trip, and through Him, all things are possible!

So, all that being said, we had some fantastic weather the week we were there. Most days were cool, where were very comfortable and not hot, sometimes needing a light jacket but never more than that. We were told early in the week by our tour leader, who had visited the center we were going to visit this day on a past trip, that she remembered it being hot. We were told again, the night before, that since this town was going to be close to the coast and at a lower elevation, the temperature was going to be hotter. Okay, I figured, I’ll be comfortable in a t-shirt and skirt. I just won’t have to worry about bringing my jacket today. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking that way after having gotten used to the cooler weather all week. Well, let me tell you, we were very VERY wrong.

For our last full day in Guatemala, we made a 2 hour trip to the town of Escuintla; not exactly on the coast, but much closer to it.  As soon as we stepped off the bus when we arrived, the weight of the very hot, humid air immediately hit us. We were also greeted with more firecrackers. We had gotten off a few blocks away from the project, but a whole small marching band of children was there to greet us! While they played and danced for us, we walked behind them, literally parading down the street in Escuintla. People came out of their homes to watch. It was such a fun way to start our visit!

We entered into the small church of this center, GU917, and sat down on the benches. Of course there was no air-conditioning like our churches back home, but they had some fans plugged and blowing. It was simple, but beautifully decorated for us, and clearly well-loved.

We each got to stand up and introduce ourselves and where we were from to the people in the church as they clapped and cheered for each of us. The pastor’s wife, a woman with a heart of gold who is battling a serious illness, thanked us so much for being there. She said that just recently, they had had a lot of valuable equipment stolen from them. It broke our hearts to hear it, but she wasn’t full of anger when sharing this. Instead, she was hopeful, saying that she knows God will provide. We sang some songs and then it was time to go outside.

The main focus of our visit was to see the Complementary Interventions Funds (CIV Funds) in action. I had mentioned the CIV funds in Day 4’s post, as that center had used them for their greenhouses and other vocational programs. This center also had many vocational programs where teenagers could also be certified in the area they were studying upon completion and immediately get a jot (again, SO awesome!!), and we split up into our family groups to see a sort of fair that they had set up to tell us all about them!

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Now, while these pictures show a lot of great things, what they don’t show is the heat. At this point, it was beyond hot and beyond humid. We were drenched and dripping. We were trying to fan ourselves with whatever we could find, which was very little. There was no breeze. Our wonderful leaders continually made runs to the bus to get cold bottles of water and gatorade. We were drinking like crazy. And the project staff and kids were just as hot as we were. But we all pushed on. As the day went on, we began losing several people to the air-conditioned bus as they were feeling ill. I have been known to black out in the heat before (just ask my family and they’ll have plenty of stories), so I was nervous it was going to happen. But, thank God, as hot as I was, I never blacked out or got too sick, because I never would have gotten to meet the amazing young people that I did. I think all of the water and especially the electrolytes in the gatorade helped a lot. I found out later it was 105 degrees F without the humidity. It felt every bit of that!

We first got to hear from some teens who were part of the baking program. These girls were so sweet and giggly and they described their process for us on making donuts. The one boy in the group closely manned the stove, where the donuts were being fried. The oven/stove was right there outside. To make the holes in the donuts, they used the caps of plastic water bottles. These kids and their teacher knew how to make the most of what they had. Each of them have dreams of opening up their own bakery one day. Those in the group who could eat the donuts said they were some of the best ones they had ever eaten!

Next we went to see Keily, who learned to make her own jams. She told us of the process and how simple her list of ingredients were. I was really impressed by how well-spoken and driven she was. She’s going to go far in life, because she has a vision and she’s already following it and accomplishing goals! She was unable to attend school for awhile, due to her family not having money, but then she got this scholarship. What I loved the most was that her jars of jam have her own labels with her name on them. As a Guatemalan teen- she already has her own business starting- which is so rare and so awesome!

After Keily was Carlos, who was studying electrical mechanics. He showed us all of his tools, which his father had bought for him, and some of the things that he had made. His mother and older and younger sisters watched on proudly. When showing us the posters he had made, each time there was a picture of himself, he would be sure to add “this is me in my uniform”. It was adorable how proud he was to have his own uniform with his name embroidered on it, the same one he was wearing that day. In the US we may not think much of something like that, but in Guatemala, where many people, when they can find work, are farmers and day laborers, a shirt embroidered with your name is a big deal. He had found a plain toy car without a motor at a toy store and he built a motor for it. He showed us on the ground how it worked, and it was fast! While we were at the next table, I peeked back at Carlos, who didn’t have any sponsors by him at the moment but did have a crowd of kids eager to learn from him- another great role model!

Finally, we meet teenage girls who were learning to do hair and nails. The girl who was learning to become a hairstylist was working giving her friend highlights there outside in the heat as she talked to us. We later heard her testimony, and it makes me even so much more glad that she has this program. She was abandoned by her mom when she was a girl. She went to live with her dad and grandmother along with some of her siblings. However, just recently, her dad passed away after being hit by a car. Through tears, she told us she had been trying to call him that morning but he had already died. Her grandmother is sick with diabetes and her personality hasn’t been the same, for the worse, since losing her son. In this sweet girl’s words, “there’s not a lot of love left in my house”. How could we not be crying with her? But the people at the project had become a family to her. They had taken her in, especially the pastor’s wife. And through this project, through enormous personal challenges, she is surviving and thriving. She will be a certified hairstylist when she completes the program. One of the sponsors in our group was older, and this girl gravitated right toward her, telling the sponsor she reminded her of her grandmother. She even picked her up at one point, in all the hugs, as she hung on her all day, desperate for grandmotherly love, wishing, she said, that she could go home with the sponsor. I’m praying that she continues to know her worth and how loved she is.

We had a little time while the other groups were finishing up to stand in the heat, chat with the project director, and take a picture of our family group with the translator who was often with our group during the week. Thankfully, we managed to not look disgustingly hot for the picture 😉

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The project cooked and served us a delicious lunch. It felt a little wrong to eat such hot food when our bodies were already so hot, but we had plenty of cool water to go with it.

We got a little tour inside and noticed that this is definitely the project that is the simplest and the oldest out of all the ones we visited. The buildings are small, old, and not in the best shape. The classroom is tiny and crammed full of desks, which are used from the youngest to oldest children at different class times. We could barely fit inside the little bathroom stalls- they were so small. But the people of this project were so proud of what they had- so proud to show us. The old walls were covered with beautiful paintings that had been done by another group of sponsors several years ago. This was, without a doubt, a place of hope and a place of God.

And the kids of this center. Oh my goodness, I adored them. This boy, who had been running around with his friend, had the BEST smile.

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And just look at these faces.

After all this, it was time for playtime. Out of those of us who were still standing and hadn’t gone to the bus to lay down, our energy was pretty zapped at this point from the heat and humidity. But we wouldn’t dream of not giving these kids the fun experience we were looking forward to. This group was older, overall, than the last one. We all piled into the tiny church, because at least the fans were in there. Tables were brought in to have coloring set up on. Some of the guys tossed discs and balloons with the younger boys, as they narrowly missed some crashes. Bubbles were blown. One of the translators and I found a corner to sit and make more bracelets and then, once the beads were gone, pipe cleaner art. I had plenty of stickers but they each only took one cut line until they made sure everyone got some and I let them know they could have more. We had a steady crowd of kids the entire time in our corner, and for awhile I forgot about how hot I was as I just enjoyed the moment of spending time with them.

I met so many wonderful children, but I met 3 girls who made a very significant, lasting impression on my heart. First was this little sweetheart. While the older girls were all crowded around us as we played with pipe cleaners, she flitted timidly on the outskirts. I handed her stickers. Then she came back and asked for a pipe cleaner figure. After we had gotten up, she was still by her spot in the doorway to the church, wanting to join in further and soak in attention, but still unsure about jumping all the way in. I called her over as I reached into my backpack and pulled out a plastic, sparkly princess wand with a star on the end. Her eyes lit up and she hugged me. Her mom thanked me. Later as we were leaving, I was happy to find her on the steps of the church with her mom. I squatted down to give one last hug and got a big one and a kiss on the cheek in return. I asked her mom if I could take this picture. I don’t know how many others noticed this little girl in the outskirts, but I’m so thankful she caught my attention. She absolutely melted my heart.

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Near the end of our playtime, a beautiful girl in pink, sat down in a plastic chair that had been placed nearby and joined us. She was on the quiet side. When we were done with playing, we all sat together, among the kids, in the benches while we said our goodbyes, gave our gift, received a gift, and prayed together. I sat by her. She couldn’t stop smiling at me. I found out that her name is Marilyn. She asked me how old I am. She’s 11. We took a picture together as she rested her head on my shoulder. I sensed Marilyn drinking in every ounce of attention I was giving her. I gave her an extra bangle bracelet I had in my backpack. She loved it. I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted to make sure she knew how special and amazing she was. After giving hugs to the project staff, she found me for one last hug as I was exiting the church. I pray that Marilyn has a sponsor that writes to her often and shows her the love that she craves. Out of all the children I met the entire week, she was one of the hardest to walk away from.

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During the entire playtime, I had another little girl, probably also around 11, right next to me in the corner (you can see her next to me in the pictures above). I wondered at some point if she had wanted to get up but wouldn’t have been able to get through, although she seemed perfectly content. She told me her name, but I didn’t catch it. We talked a little during that time, as far as my limited Spanish conversational skills took me, but I made sure to give her plenty of smiles: a universal language. During goodbye and hugs time, I spotted her, so I made sure to go over and give her hugs and say goodbye. We also took a picture together. She just oozed sweetness and a big heart. When we had just gotten on the bus, and some were still getting settled, I heard a knock on my bus window. This girl had run out to the bus to give me a crocheted coin purse, one that definitely looks handmade. I couldn’t figure out how to open that window fast enough. I graciously accepted her gift and thanked her so much. I was unbelievably touched that this young girl, who had so little, wanted to give me something of hers. I don’t know if I would have done the same at that age. The more we have, it seems, the more possessive we can be, but when we have less, we give more freely. I will treasure this little purse from her, just as I will treasure Heidy’s drawing from three days earlier, because they were acts of love in the purest form.

The staff gave us buttons with their project name on it as a gift before we left, pinning them on each of us. Saying our goodbyes, there were hugs everywhere. Normally, I’d be self-conscious hugging people when I was so hot and dripping, but I gave and received more hugs this day than I did any other day of the trip. There was something really special about GU917 in Escuintla, and I feel like I experienced a change for the better just by meeting and spending the day with them.

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Here they are waving goodbye to our bus:

On the way back to the hotel, we saw another very cool volcano and got the full Guatemalan traffic experience. It took us much longer to get back than it did to get there in the morning, thanks to the gridlocked traffic of Guatemala City which was at its worst on a Friday. When we got back, we just enough time to change and freshen up or for one of the translators to take a much needed nap in my room (she couldn’t believe the size of it either!).

That evening was our farewell dinner. It was very bittersweet. I had nothing but love and respect for these wonderful people I got to know throughout the week. I truly don’t think we could have created a better group if we tried. I am blessed to know some amazing sponsors, many of them also Compassion employees. Our Guatemalan leaders and translators were as fun as they were kind, and their country is very lucky to have such great people representing them through Compassion. It was very sad going to bed knowing that it was my last night in Guatemala, but if I have anything to do with it, I’ll be back one day to this country I now adore.

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Click here to read Guatemala Day 8- Saying Goodbye

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Guatemala Day 6- Meeting Evelin!

The day that all of us who had sponsored children in Guatemala had been waiting the longest for, Child Fun Day, started a little rough. When I went to shower that morning, the water was scalding hot, and I couldn’t get it to cool down. After fully shutting off the hot water and only leaving on the cold water, I discovered that nothing was coming out. Not one drop. There was no cold water. Now, I can take a cold shower and survive. Sure, it’s unpleasant, but it’s doable. But there’s no way to take a shower in water as scalding as that hot water was. The sink, by the way, was the same. I started getting nervous. I left the cold water tab on so I could hear if it came on, and I started making sure everything in Evelin’s backpack of gifts was together and my bag was ready for the day. Meanwhile, the clock ticked on, but I was still okay on time. Thankfully, since the zoo we were going to was very close to the hotel, we were going to be leaving 45 minutes later than usual.

Finally, after I was about ready to give up, a sputtering started coming from the cold water. I hopped in the shower immediately, and got about a 3 minute shower of sputtering water until the cold disappeared completely again. I quickly shut the water back off, but not before turning the handle in the wrong direction and getting a face blast of really hot water. Oh well, 3 minutes was enough to feel cleaner, thankfully. Down at breakfast, everyone else looked as out of sorts as I felt, too. We learned that a pipe had burst. One family in our group even had “rain” coming from their ceiling that morning as the leak must have been right above them! Like we said, any other day, we’d all take not showering in stride, but on the day that you’re meeting your sponsored child and a family member? You do want to look decent for them.

With that all behind us and prayers said for the hotel staff, David and Emily, our Guatemalan leaders, gave each us a different color balloon before we boarded the bus. Our sponsored child (or children) would be holding that same color balloon, so that we could find each other easily. I thought it was a nice idea that really helped avoid any chaos at the busy zoo entrance. I was given a red balloon, and by now the nervous excitement was really kicking in.

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We drove to the La Aurora Zoo, a very nice zoo in Guatemala City. There were a lot of field trips going on that day, and we walked through groups and groups of kids before we finally found our Compassion people. Suddenly, there was Evelin with her red balloon. She ran up to me as soon as I got close and gave me a big hug. “Nice to meet you!” she said, in English, with a huge smile. “Mucho gusto!” I replied. Our translator for the day, Andrea, told me she had been practicing that while waiting for me to arrive. Any bit of nervousness I may have had was completely erased immediately. Clearly, she definitely knew who I was and was happy to see me, as she couldn’t stop smiling. Her mother, Rafaela, was with her, who was very happy too, as was her project director, Sergio, from GU930, where she attends. I told her I liked her shirt, a pink Frozen one. She asked me who my favorite princess is. I smiled at such a typical 8 year old girl question. Her favorite, by the way, is Elsa. Her mom later shared that the shirt was purchased with gift money I had sent, which made me very happy. I pulled out a small scrapbook I had made to show her some pictures as we waited to get in. Since Evelin only lived 45 minutes away, I asked if she had ever been there before. Yes, this was her 3rd time, they replied. Great, she could show me around, I said! We talked for a little while and looked at the photos and then it was time to enter the zoo.

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Just inside the first entrance, there was a huge gorilla statue. Evelin giggled and whispered to her mom, who just smiled back at her. Andrea told me she was telling Rafaela that the gorilla looked like her mom when she is angry. I loved the sense of humor of this beautiful little girl! And her relationship with her mom, where they could joke with each other, reminded me of my own relationship with my mother.

Evelin had asked me what my favorite animal was. The elephants, I replied. Hers were the giraffes, which were right inside the entrance. At this zoo, you could also pay 10Q (about $1.50) to go up a ramp to feed them. Naturally we had to do this. Evelin had never gotten to feed the giraffes before, and she was very excited. She had no fear as the giraffe, Pula, used her big tongue to lick up the food.

These were actually the first pictures I got, because I was so focused on being present with her. We saw the elephants next. Sergio is a huge animal lover, and sometimes we would even be ready to move on and have to wait for him! He was having a great time. He also took a lot of photos, and I was told they would be given to the family.

Evelin took my hand pretty much from when we entered, and continued to hold it the entire day as we walked around. She’d look up at me and smile with a huge grin about every minute or so. I just loved this girl so much, and there was no place on earth that I’d rather be than holding her hand that day. When we saw the panthers, she commented on how they weren’t pink 😉 She also liked seeing the baboons, because they reminded her of the Lion King. Each time we saw a new animal, Evelin would proudly tell me how many of the animal there were in English. This is a smart girl. I already knew, as her Compassion reports say she is above average in school, but seeing it in person, I can definitely tell. She told me she wants to be a teacher like me. I know she can accomplish that or anything else she decides to do. Her mom said that maybe she can learn English, still being young. I commented that it is said that it’s easier for kids to learn another language. I was extra glad, at this point, that I had found a bilingual book to include with her gifts.

When we came upon the fish pond, which Evelin was eager to see, she told me I would be “delighted by the fish!”. We let her feed them, too, which she loved.

Before lunch, we also came across an enclosed area you could enter, which had lots of large birds, like parrots, along with free roaming lemurs! I had never been that close to a lemur before. Some people, including Sergio, touched them. Evelin and I were a little more cautious.

It was then time for lunch. They had ordered ahead from Pollo Campero, a big fast food restaurant in Guatemala, and we all found tables in the food court area. Since the meal was fried chicken, our ever awesome Guatemalan leaders had ordered me a special order of grilled chicken to eat. I never had to worry about not having something to eat the entire trip, due to my celiac disease and inability to eat gluten, thanks to them being so on top of it. Granted, almost all of my meals did consist of grilled chicken and vegetables, but that was fine with me.

During lunch, I was asked all kinds of questions. They all wanted to know everything about me. Sergio also asked us all questions around the table like “Who is your favorite woman from the Bible?” and “What man from the Bible would you marry?” Like I said, he definitely had fun! I also got to hear a lot more about Evelin’s project and the things they do there. One of the things that they’re big on is having pets, since Sergio is such an animal lover. They have several pets, including a guinea pig, fish, and birds, and it teaches the kids responsibility and respect for animals. They’re also teaching the kids badminton there. They celebrate all birthdays out at either McDonalds or Pizza Hut. There was lots more, too. It was great to hear more about her experience, especially after having seen other projects that week. They told me next time I visit I should come visit their project, and I said I would love to. I watched as Evelin and her mom carefully boxed up their leftovers and placed them back in the bag to bring with them. In the US, we don’t think about throwing away what we can’t eat. But that was another meal for them or for her siblings back home. Other sponsors later shared that their kids did the same.

After lunch, Evelin wanted to go back and see more animals. We did for awhile, but the sun was becoming more prolific, and you could tell she was slowing down. She had been sick the day before and was worried she wouldn’t be able to come. They said she woke up feeling better this day. I had to wonder, though, if she had just said she was feeling better, when really she wasn’t. I’m sure that’s what I would have done if I were her, too. She started getting a headache in the afternoon, and then her forehead started to feel warm, like a low-grade fever. We sat in the shade for awhile and took a break. Honestly, I was glad for the rest, too. Andrea went to find Emily, one of our leaders, to see if they had some medicine. They did, of course, because they were prepared for anything, and brought back Children’s Tylenol for her to take, with plenty extra to bring home and last probably the next two days. An important gesture, because after going on home visits, I’m pretty sure that’s something most families can’t keep on hand at home.

By the time she had a little rest and took the tylenol, it was about time to give gifts. When Evelin heard this, she perked right up, and was ready to go to the picnic area we were meeting to do it. Watching her open her backpack full of gifts was pure happiness for me to see how happy and excited she was. Our tour leader, who was watching for a little while, said she forgot all about that headache and that just when she thought Evelin’s smile couldn’t get any bigger, it somehow would with each new thing she pulled out! I think her favorite was an Elena of Avalor doll, and seeing her eyes light up at it was just priceless. With each item, she would thank me and hug me. This girl is so so sweet.

I was also able to get a few gifts for the family in there (a flat sheet, bowls, and cooking utensils) along with a gift for each of her siblings. I was thrilled to get a letter about a  month before the trip that listed her siblings’ names and ages, so that I could buy gifts for them. They’re not registered with Compassion, and they’re both older. Her sister, Darlin, who is 15, usually helps Evelin write her letters, so I know that she must often take her or pick her up from the project. I got her a necklace and her brother Erick, who is 12, a fidget spinner. Rafaela said that he had been asking for one, which made me happy! They are becoming very popular in Guatemala too. She said that the older siblings would be very excited because they weren’t expecting anything.

Among some of the other things I got her were a tiara, a book of Bible stories in Spanish, a bilingual book, a sparkly cross bracelet, a jump rope, a pink Chicago shirt, a blanket, coloring pages, a notebook, crayola twistables, princess chapsticks, headbands and hair accessories, and I’m sure more that I’m forgetting.

This girl is so very special to me. I chose her for sponsorship about a year ago knowing that I would be traveling to Guatemala and meeting her. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, and it actually took several days and lots of prayers. But then I saw Evelin, and God told me she was the one. And clearly He knew what He was doing, because I couldn’t be any more in love with this girl if I tried, and she gave so much love to me in return. We were paired together for a reason, and now share a bond that is even so much deeper than sponsorship. As I mentioned in an earlier post, less than 1% of sponsored children get to meet their sponsors. With how many tours and individual visits there are, it’s kind of hard to fathom when you think about it. But for Evelin, I am forever grateful that I got to be there in person to tell her how loved and special she is, and to hug her and hold her hand. She’ll grow up knowing and remembering this, and that is such a blessing.

Andrea captured a video of her giving a message to me, which I adore. If only I had thought to record one of the times she sang for me…

She was so excited to be able to bring her new backpack to school the next day. Her mom said she was going to be in a contest for queen of the school, after this day, and I already knew she would win because I brought her the tiara. We prayed some more together, and I asked Rafaela if she had any prayer requests. She said that many members of her family don’t go to church and don’t know God and asked if I would pray for them. Of course I will. Clearly, this is a Godly family, and I am so thankful that Evelin is being raised knowing Him and valuing her relationship with Him.

We all gathered together for a large group picture. As heavy as that backpack full of gifts was, Evelin eagerly put it on her back as we walked over.

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Then it was time for the hardest part: saying goodbye. We took one last picture together as we hugged and I told her again how much I loved her. She told me the same and her mother thanked me and told me they were praying for me, along with my prayers for them.

I couldn’t have asked for an absolutely more perfect day. And the thing is, if you asked any other sponsor there, I’ll bet they would have said they same thing. Each sponsor and child matched together so perfectly- it was just amazing to witness their joy during the day, too! Child Fun Day clearly is a very very special day.

After all of the excitement, we made a stop at a nearby market to do some shopping. I was able to buy a few gifts, along with a scarf and a necklace for myself. The market was very pretty, and we were pretty much the only people there. The translators bopped around to help us out, but my limited Spanish includes enough to help me get by in this situation. I was also pretty proud of myself for the prices I got through bartering, which we were told we had to do. We then made one more quick stop at a mall to go into a grocery store to purchase some coffee- something all of us wanted. I’m not a coffee drinker myself, I was buying it as a gift for my parents, so I listened to the coffee experts when selecting which bags to get. Apparently they did a good job choosing, because now that I’m home and my parents have been drinking the coffee, they’ve told me multiple times how great it is!

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inside the very nice mall

We had dinner at the hotel that evening and I went to bed tired but still on quite a high from the day. I thought about Evelin, back at home, and I’m pretty sure she felt the same way!

Click here to read Guatemala Day 7- A Day Full of Heat and Hugs

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Guatemala Day 5- A Bright Future

What goes up must come down. Just like we made the four hour journey up the mountains to Quetzaltenango, this was the day to make the journey back down to Guatemala City for the rest of the trip. A little more aware of what the roads were like, I made sure I had my ginger chews accessible with me when I packed everything up in the morning. However, with a stop part of the way through to break things up at a Mayan ruins site on the schedule, I felt optimistic that this bus ride wouldn’t be as bad as Sunday’s, and thankfully I was correct. After a nice breakfast, we left our lovely little Grand Santa Maria Hotel for the last time.

We saw some gorgeous views on the drive. We even made a stop to take pictures with a huge volcano in the backdrop. There was also a sweet little girl there selling something who loved the doting attention of a group of Americans. As pretty as the pictures may be, they still don’t do any justice to seeing it in person, sprawled out for miles upon miles. I should give a shout out to our superman of a bus driver, Jorge, who obliged to all of our requests and navigated us safely through not only the winding mountain roads but also the narrow cobblestone streets and the busy traffic of the city roads, always with a smile.

We arrived late morning at the Iximche Mayan Ruins. This is a smaller ruin site in Guatemala. The largest and most well known one is Tikal, which takes at least a full day to get through due to the size. But Iximche was on the way, and we loved it! I learned a ton. We broke up into two groups and I can’t speak for the other group, but our tour guide, Melvin, was awesome. He spoke English, which let our translators take a break, and he’s a volunteer, but he was very knowledgable and had a great sense of humor. We got to do a little climbing up and down the steep, skinny steps, journeyed from plaza to plaza, learned about the Mayan families that lived there, their rituals and customs, the Mayan number system, and lots more!

There was also a place for sacrifices which is still actively used for Mayan rituals, and we did see one going on when we arrived. Although I did hear “Gracias PapĂĄ Dios!” in their chanting, so maybe they were Mayan Christians?

For a late lunch, we ate at this restaurant called Katok, which seemed to cater to tourists. We actually weren’t the only American group there eating at the time, the menu was in Spanish and English, and they had souvenirs and things you could buy. It was a fun little place to eat and a good meal!

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We arrived at the Mercure Hotel, the same place we stayed on Saturday night when arrived, in the early evening. We had just enough time to check in and rest/freshen up a little before our special dinner in the hotel. My room this time was even bigger than the first night, which I didn’t think was possible!

So as much fun as we had this day, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the experience of visiting a Compassion project, after having visited them the past 3 days. There’s really nothing that compares to connecting with the children, families, and staff. That’s why I was really looking forward to dinner, where we were going to get to meet some Leadership Development Program (LDP) students. I knew from following the Compassion bloggers trips each year how powerful LDP students’ testimonies can be, and I couldn’t wait to meet some of them in person and talk with them.

I was one of the first ones to come down to dinner, and I found a seat at an empty table. Soon after I sat down, one of our translators came by and introduced me to Ana, one of the LDP students. They sat down together with me, and we started talking. Soon others joined us at the table. Other tables had other students and translators sitting at them. It was great to get to know some more about her before we officially started. Ana is 24 and she is studying education management. I had to laugh at the “coincidence” that of course she would end up at a table with me, a current teacher, and another sponsor who is a retired teacher. (And a further not-so-coincidence God placement: another LDP student who is studying to become an accountant was at a table with a sponsor who works in finances.) I was impressed with Ana’s heart and her determination. She clearly loves children, and her dream is to open her own school, which would also have education for parents and a daycare where children would have a safe place to be while their parents worked. She has several siblings, and she and one of her brothers were the two that were registered at her project. She giggled as she shared that her child number was #1; the first child registered there. Her mother would help the pastor at the church, which is how she got this spot. Her brother was #2. Ana teared up a little when we asked her about her sponsors. Her first sponsors only sent her one letter. But, she said through tears, she was so grateful to them, because she knew that they loved her and supported her. Then she received a new sponsor, who only sent her one letter, as well. However, she currently has a sponsor through the LDP program who writes her all the time. Her face just lit up whenever she’d talk about this sponsor, and the great relationship that they have. Her sponsor is a teacher, too, so they each share about their experiences with each other. How I wished in that moment that her sponsor could have seen how lovingly Ana talked about her!

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Our conversation was interrupted as all three of the LDP students were called up to the front for a panel. We, the sponsors, each had our own headsets, on which we heard simultaneous live translation, provided by a Compassion Guatemala staff member, so it helped by not slowing down the conversation too much with all the pauses for translation. David and Emily, our Guatemalan leaders, had composed a list of questions that they went through and asked the students. I was thoroughly impressed by how eloquent and well spoken each of these young adults were, and how much thought and detail they gave to each of their answers. In addition to Ana, there were two young men, one studying to be an accountant and the other studying to be a physiotherapist.

The boys spoke very candidly about how different their lives would be if they weren’t involved in Compassion, telling us, sadly, how few of their friends from childhood actually remain. Many of the others have succumbed to gangs or drugs or have died. The ones that still remain, and are making great things out of their lives, are the ones that were Compassion kids. Once again, more proof that Compassion saves lives. The first young man, on the left in the picture, told us that one of his tutors at the project told him to apply for the LDP scholarship. He said he didn’t think he’d get it, because his grades weren’t good enough. But thankfully he applied, and he did get it! Want to know why he is becoming an accountant? It’s because that’s what his sponsor was, and he wanted to be like him. He’s also very active in working with the younger boys at his project. I’m sure they love looking up to him as a role model!

The young man in the middle told us a story about his childhood and when he had a significant tumor on the back of his head. Thanks to Compassion’s financial help and prayers, he was able to get medical intervention, find out it was benign, and get laser treatment for it to fall off. Imagine if he didn’t have access to this. But when he started sharing about what he does now, I was truly moved. He started a group of family members and friends that visit family members of patients staying in the hospital, bringing them food and other things and spending time and ministering to them. Well, others heard of this ministry and wanted to be a part of it, and he now has around 200 people helping him! He also shared how his sponsors asked him about his hobbies, and he mentioned that he likes photography. They sent him money for a camera, so he was able to go pick out a nice one. And now he’s able to share the pictures that he takes with them- how cool!

As David said, none of these students said “now I’m done with poverty and I never have to deal with it again.” Each of them want to give back and help others in their community out of poverty like they were helped out. And that’s what’s going to change things in this country for the better- young people like them. We presented gifts to these amazing young people, and then it was time to eat. I got to talk a lot more to Ana during dinner and after. Part of it was because I was sitting right by her at the table, but we also had a lot in common with our love of the field of education. I always love talking to and encouraging young teachers, in general, because I was there not too long ago, and I had some great mentors that encouraged me. So it was my absolute pleasure to talk to Ana, show each other pictures of our students and our families, and make sure she knew how special she was. Even though it was late, I was reluctant to leave when it was time to say goodbye, because I could have easily talked to her for another hour (although I’m sure the translators were exhausted!).

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And just one of the many benefits of traveling with lovely Compassion staff members? One of them had the excellent foresight to film the presentation of each of the gifts. And her job allows her the power to look up who the sponsors of these students are and send them the videos. Can you just imagine what an incredible gift that will be to them??

Click here to read Guatemala Day 6- Meeting Evelin!

Guatemala Day 4 part 2- Even More Love… and introducing a new child

This is the second part of Day 4, since it would have been an incredibly long post all in one (part one is here).

When we arrived back at the project, GU943, we were given a tour. We first got to see the amazing greenhouses, which our Guatemalan leaders had raved about on our bus ride that morning. The greenhouses were purchased with Complementary Interventions Funds (CIV Funds), which are provided by large donors and allow for, well, complementary interventions at projects aside from all of the amazing things Compassion provides that are standard at each project. The greenhouses are run by two men, gardeners, who teach the teenagers how to grow plants in the most effective ways. The kids are learning skills that will help them in future careers while also learning a lot about science- which is so cool! They had amazing looking tomatoes, peppers, and flowers inside. My tomatoes at home don’t look as big and round and wonderful as these did. The men clearly take pride in keeping everything clean, as we had to sanitize our hands and the bottom of our shoes before entering.

 

Then we got to see some more of the vocational programs. Here’s what makes these programs so awesome. They’re not just classes for the teenagers in the program to learn more about areas that interest them. They are actually certified instructional programs so that when these teens complete them, they get a certificate necessary to get a job in that area. They can graduate from Compassion already certified for a great, educated job! How great is that?? First we saw the baking program. I think we all watched in awe as one of the boys started mixing the sugar into the butter by hand. They don’t have any kinds of electric mixers, like we are so used to cooking with and don’t even think twice about using, but it works for them. They use what they have. And they made some beautiful cupcakes for us!

 

Next, we also got to see the manicure program and the sewing program. The girls who did nails had some beautiful samples on display that they were very proud to show off. They painted the nails of some of the ladies in our group, while the guys sat as far away as possible. They did a great job! The girls from the sewing program weren’t there that day, but their teacher was, who talked to us and had their work out on display. Each girl gets her own manual sewing machine in the room to work on. They started out by learning to make aprons, but now are starting to make more complicated garments, like pleated skirts. The girls use their own measurements and make clothing for themselves, which is very cool, but the teacher said that a lot of them have been getting orders from neighbors who want some of their work, too! They’re already beginning to build up little businesses as teens! After seeing the poverty in this rural town, I can’t rave enough about how amazing these programs are.

 

Finally it was time for the all exciting PLAYTIME! And it was so much fun! I felt so in my element, sitting on the floor surrounded by kids who swarmed around, all wanting a part of making pipe cleaner beaded bracelets with me. I’d compliment kids on their bracelets as I helped fasten them on little wrists, and their big smiles were everything. I loved it here and loved these children. I had amazing experiences all week, and fell in love with everywhere we visited. But my connection to this center was different, deeper. It’s hard to put into words, but I felt it in my heart.

 

Click on the images to see these ADORABLE faces larger 🙂

Near the end, after I had run out of beads, little Ezekiel found me. He told me he wanted an apple, as apple bobbing was one of the project set up activities. He was apprehensive and wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to leave him. He tried so hard, again and again, to bob for one of those apples. We left for a little bit, him taking my hand, but it wasn’t long before he was asking to go back to the apples again. Finally he was able t outtake out with his hands to eat and he was so happy! “Delicioso?” I asked? “Si!” he replied.

 

Then I had to say goodbye to Ezekiel, because we all visited the project office where the director proudly showed off their files. They were immaculately organized, and she clearly takes a lot of pride in that, as she should. I hung back after, while everyone else was drifting off back to the barn-like building we started in, to ask if they had children in need of sponsors. “Yes, 50,” she replied. That was all the confirmation I needed. I told her I was asking because I wanted to sponsor a child from her project, since I loved it so much. She thanked me multiple times. The translator I was with asked if I had a specific kid in mind. I told her that honestly, I had met so many kids that day and I had no clue who had a sponsor and who didn’t. I knew I’d be happy to sponsor any child there as it would be an investment in the work they were doing in the project as well as the individual child.

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It was time for our final goodbye. We entered in a small room and the staff passed out very special gifts to us. They were hand-sewn and hand-embroidered pillowcases, made by the girls in the sewing program! Each one was unique, and I can’t wait to get mine on a pillow and display it.

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Soon after our arrival there, as we sat waiting for the preschoolers to perform, our tour leader had asked if I would present the gift to the project when the time came and thank them. I said I would, at that point having no clue as to the extent to which I would connect with this place. But God did, of course. After a powerpoint with even more awesome information as to great things they do, I let God speak through me as I thanked the amazing people of this project and gave them a bag of things we had brought in our suitcases as gifts. We all joined around the staff to pray over them, and then we gave hugs. When I got to the project director, she hugged me so tightly and didn’t let go for awhile. Her tearing up had me tearing up. I was so glad I could be a part of acknowledging all the wonderful hard work she and everyone there were doing for these kids.

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The pastor, who can be seen in the above picture, was an integral part of our day, too. He gave a speech in the beginning and said a special prayer at the end. He went with on one of the home visits, the one where they were helping to work on the roof of a home, and he rolled up his sleeves and got to work alongside the members of our group happily. Most impressively, though, we learned that this pastor, when given the choice, decided to expand the project buildings rather than expand his church. That is complete dedication and investment, and it showed through from him all day. He has such a wonderful heart for the project, and I’m certain they wouldn’t be where they are today without him, too.

We returned to the museum/restaurant that we ate lunch at on Sunday for dinner this day. We got to eat in a different room this time, also gorgeous, and the food was very delicious. I had tangerine chicken which was my favorite meal of the trip. The stark contrast from the projects and home visits to our hotels and restaurants was definitely not lost on us. I understand the need to stay at and eat at nicer places, because of safety, but thinking that those families will never be able to afford meals like this can be heartbreaking.

 

 

So… that night back in the hotel room, I searched by center number on the Compassion site for children waiting at the project we had just visited. There were several children on the website. I didn’t know how I was going to possibly choose one. I certainly couldn’t that night. I decided to leave it to God and pray on it, which I continued to do for the rest of the trip.

I went into this trip open to sponsoring another child, knowing I may make a connection. Several of the toddlers we met the day before were sponsored by members of our group who made connections. Others made connections with different children or places. Still others weren’t called to add any new children this trip, which is also perfectly ok. I think it’s great that God drew us all to different children/places/needs and we all listened. As far as I know, I’m the only one who had this deep of a connection at this particular center, but I thank God for it.

Fast forward to when I arrived home, and God put a child on my heart. If only I could have sponsored them all, I would have. But Ingrid was the child on my heart, and I felt sure about my sponsorship of her. I clicked to sponsor this beautiful 6 year old girl with a smile filled with hope and promise, and I couldn’t wait to start writing to her. Ingrid lives with her parents and grandmother and both parents are sometimes employed; her father in construction and her mother in day labor.

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After I sponsored her, I looked back through my pictures from that day, just in case, and I discovered a striking resemblance between her and the tallest of the children who performed for us that morning. It’s hard to tell for sure, but I’m pretty sure that it’s her. I asked in my first letter to her, so hopefully I’ll get answer and know for sure! What do you think? Feel free to tell me if you think I’m totally off.

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Click here to read Guatemala Day 5- A Bright Future

Guatemala Day 4 part 1- Love

In order to make reading about this day a little easier, I decided to split it into two posts, since there is so much to share. This first post will talk about our home visit, which deserves a post alone, because of the sheer emotional experience.

This morning, after a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, we journeyed to the town of Cantel. We were told lots of good things about the project we were going to be visiting, GU943, and that it was highly rated by Compassion. We felt the love immediately as we stepped off the bus, were greeted with a warm welcome and lots of decorations, and stepped inside a barn-like building. The project was rurally located, away from the town streets, and it felt very calming, surrounded by nature. It really was a sanctuary there.

Well, we got into this building, where chairs were lined up along the perimeter, and saw the cutest preschool aged children waiting to perform for us. After shaking their hands and giving high fives, we took our seats. The project director said the performance was “so we would feel like we were with our families.” Dressed up, they did a dance with some of their tutors to a song about when the children wanted to get close to Jesus and were told no, before Jesus said ‘let the children come to me’. I loved it! If you want a surefire way to my heart: preschoolers are always an answer. Even after spending each school year with 40 of them every weekday, I still adore them.

After taking some pictures with the kids, we had to split up for home visits. Our groups were different this time, because there were 3 homes instead of 4. My group was split between two pickup trucks to ride to the home we were visiting. Some of us squished inside a back seat of one truck. Others stood in the bed of the other pickup truck, in a sort of cage-like structure with bars to hold onto. Only in rural Guatemala! They let us off on a very steep incline of a cobblestone road. We entered in a path that you’d miss if you weren’t looking for it, up a little hill, into the area of the home of Elvira. She wanted to change her clothes for us, so we waited, taking in the amazing mountain view in front of us. Her two sons, Gabriel and Ezekiel, 6 and 5 years old, appeared. Gabriel started swinging on his “swing”, which was really a rope tied onto 2 tree branches. When Elvira and her youngest daughter, Estrellita, appeared, we entered in.

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Elvira had set up the room with two uneven tables, covered in tablecloths, surrounded by a variety of plastic chairs and stools. It had been set up for our arrival. She told us that Gabriel and Ezekiel had been so excited they could barely sleep the night before. We learned that she had 6 children and a 7th one on the way. Her two oldest girls weren’t home. Then there was Heidy, who joined us a little later. The boys and Estrellita (“little star”) were the youngest. Her husband, the father, wasn’t in the picture anymore. Elvira was a seamstress and proudly showed us some of the beautiful work she’s done. However as she’s progressed further into her pregnancy, the manual sewing machine has become too demanding physically to operate, so for now, she is doing work that pays much less, cutting loose threads from others’ work, to make some kind of little income for now.

Elvira’s parents had been supporting her rand had taken her and her children in. Her father, especially, had been providing finial support essential to feed the many growing children. But then, through tears, Elvira told us that her father had passed away just a week before. The project staff with us were shocked and cried with her, as she hadn’t told them. The family had to sell a lot of their furniture to pay for the funeral, including beds. Many of them were now sleeping on the floor. The staff told her to please tell them these things so they could help. They have paid for the funeral. But Guatemalan people are very proud. Her mother came to join us, and we prayed over the family while they sobbed. We though this would be the saddest thing about the visit, but little did we know…

Elvira’s mother had to leave for work and at this point we decided to give the gifts we brought in order to bring some needed smiles and happiness. We had 2 bags of groceries purchased in Guatemala, along with a bad of gifts for the family that was made up of things sponsors had brought in their suitcases. Estrellita fell in love immediately with a little soft doll that was all hers. Gabriel and Ezekiel were beyond excited by the package of two toy cars. I had some star-shaped plastic sunglasses in my backpack, so I pulled a few pairs out for the kids, and we smiled as they happily put them on. Elvira was overwhelmed and grateful, and her demeanor seemed to be a little less burdened during that time. It wasn’t everything, but we had brought a little bit of light and hope in a home that desperately needed some.

As the boys played with their cars, Estrellita played with another sponsor’s camera, and Heidy returned with some paper and and a pencil case of art supplies, Elvira opened up more. It’s not my story to tell, to share personal details, but she has been through things so tragic and horrific, concerning her former husband’s behavior towards her, and in her own personal struggles and battles, that it’s impossible to imagine someone suffering any more than this woman has. We may think we have a bad day at work or drama with our family, but it is nothing. Not compared to the battle Elvira and her family have gone through and are still fighting, along with countless other families like them living in poverty in Guatemala. By this point, everyone in that tiny room was an emotional mess, except for the children, the faces of hope, who kept playing. I watched Heidy closely during all of this. At 8 years old, she was definitely listening to all her mom was saying, and I know she was bearing a huge burden. She concentrated so hard on her picture that I could tell it was her way of releasing her emotions. She’d look at me and we’d smile at each other. Finally, she finished, and she walked over to me to give me her completed picture; her treasured masterpiece. I was so touched. I asked her, in Spanish, if she was an artist, and she just gave me a shy smile. I told her she was and how much I loved it, giving her a big hug.

Everyone came out of that home visit having slightly different experiences and perspectives depending on what and who they focused on, along with their own past experiences. I wished so badly there was some way that I could have sponsored Heidy. I wanted to encourage this girl so badly, to take her under my wing and walk with her down the path of God’s love, so much more so than what I could do in one visit.

We prayed with Elvira and her family a lot more, and lunch, that was cooked by the project staff, was brought to the home. They actually had to bring more chicken because the first batch had fallen over on the ground and the dogs outside at it. There was something really special about breaking bread with this family in their home, especially getting to see them get t have a much heartier meal than they’re used to. We made sure there were plenty of leftovers for them to keep, and we had even eaten on new reusable plastic plates so these could stay with the family, too. It was time to say goodbye. I pray that Elvira knows more how worthy she is and how much God loves her. We know He sent us to tell her that, and we were more than honored to be used in that way, but I do really hope it was heard by her.

Gabriel and Ezekiel got a ride back to the project with us for the afternoon’s activities. I think, at least for those boys, what a blessing it is to be able to get away from the hard realities at home, escape to their beautiful sanctuary of a project, and just be regular kids when they’re there! I think that as they grow they’ll have so many vocational training opportunities and be able to be educated and work in good jobs that will provide for their own families one day. And these thoughts alone make my heart full.

Click here to read Guatemala Day 4 part 2- Even More Love… and introducing a new child