If you would have told me a year ago that:
– I’d have just purchased a beautiful condo in a gated community outside of Antigua, Guatemala,
– I would be directing my own official non-profit organization benefiting children in extreme poverty,
– Have hosted 20 people visiting Guatemala in the first two months,
– AND have fallen in love with a guy I met 3 days before leaving Texas….
Hitting rock bottom
I would have told you that was complete bullshit! You see, things a year ago were complete upside down in my world. I had just spent a week inside a mental hospital after going more than 30 days without sleep. Sleep deprivation-induced psychosis is a serious and potentially deadly condition. All that was caused by extreme stress and grief. My husband was having an affair and subsequently departed. That left me to sell the house and get rid of everything I owned including my dogs. Instead of heading off to Guatemala for the sabbatical I had planned, I ended up with my parents in Walla Walla, Washington for six months of recovery.
Thankfully that is not where I stayed. After finding a good doctor, and thanks to the support of my family and friends, I’m grateful to say that I’ve not only survived but now am thriving and here to say…”NEVER LOSE HOPE and all dreams are possible to those who believe.”
Where it all began
My enchantment with Guatemala began around the year 2001 when I started my career with Continental Airlines. I was working at the ticket counter at Greenville Spartanburg Airport. One early morning, I was checking a woman in for her flight. As I slapped the bag tag around her suitcase the destination code GUA caught me by surprise. I asked: “Guatemala?!?!? What are you doing in Guatemala?” She replied that she was headed to the beautiful little town of Antigua for a month of Spanish School and that I should really check it out. Hmmm… I thought…How exciting! After having lived abroad in 1987 as a Rotary Exchange Student to Rancagua, Chile…Spanish School in Guatemala sounded right up my alley. I promised her I would indeed check it out.
Fast forward a few years, I had moved up in my career to the position of Flight Attendant based out of Newark, NJ. Several times over the course of my work I ran across people who told me a little about Guatemala. Most in particular was my coworker MJ Harris who at the time was the number one first officer in the company. She also just so happened to have been an exchange student to Chile the very same year as me! How random was that? She and I flew together various times and enjoyed our routes to Mexico. One day I distinctly recall her telling me that I really should visit Antigua, Guatemala as she knew I would love it as it “was just my style”.
First time in Guatemala 12 years later…
So more years passed and I had relocated to Houston, Texas and was thinking of where to take my 3 stepsons on their first adventure abroad. I knew I liked Guanajuato and Veracruz, Mexico but Antigua, Guatemala was still calling my name. With the help of my then husband, we planned a scouting trip and landed in Guatemala City in May of 2013. It was love at first sight. The beautiful little town of Antigua and her walkable city 9×9 blocks, flowering adorned ruins, cobblestone streets, multiple cafes, surrounded by 3 majestic volcanos stole the show.
I was smitten and two years later I returned not only with my stepsons but a total of 14 people (7 adults and 7 kids) in tow for two weeks of Spanish School complete with homestays and activities. It was a dream come true for me and one accomplishment I will never forget. Everyone had a good time and it was a wonderful first trip abroad for those seven kids. Antigua is just a 2 hours and 30 minute direct flight from Houston, Texas but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better “world away” difference.
Moving to Antigua
From the first trip to the seventh trip in seven years I made life long-lasting relationships with both locals and foreigners in and around Antigua. On my last vacation that started Dec 15, 2019, I made the offer on my condo and moved in a month later. So in the first 60 days I bought a home, furnished it, fixed it up, decorated and landscaped it all at while hosting 20 visitors. Thankfully this was a very productive time. No one knew that the COVID -19 crisis was just around the corner.
The trip that changed me…
My non-profit organization benefiting the children of Escuela Integrada and Escuela Las Delicias had its roots in my July 2018 trip which included 5 couples for ten days. That trip stemmed out of the tragedy in Houston where Hurricane Harvey drowned our city and left my neighbors without their home or vehicles. My family ended up hosting the Baty’s for 8 months while they rebuilt their lives. It was during this time I talked so much about Guatemala that they grew interested in possibly retiring abroad and asked if I could plan a trip for them. That soon grew into 6 more of their friends coming along.
During this trip, I noticed a serious downturn in tourism due to the Volcanic Eruption of Fuego that had happened 6 weeks before. Most people were scared and cancelled their summer and fall trips to Guatemala. This took a serious economic impact on the resort town and other tourist areas of Guatemala. All of my local friends were severely impacted in one way or another. It was definitely a serious volcanic eruption that killed many people and destroyed several poor villages but it had zero physical impact on the tourist areas.
My NGO was born to bring education to kids in poverty
On one of my last days of that trip, I was walking to have lunch with a local friend and I passed the famous La Merced church. I will never forget the distinct impression I received as I enjoyed the blue skies, springtime weather, and gorgeous scenery. A voice came to my mind loud and clear and it said; “You live in Houston, Texas a city of 8 million people. Everyone there who has any money has been to Cancun or Los Cabos but almost no one knows about Antigua! YOU have a degree in Travel Management and connections to help these people. GO HOME and promote travel to Guatemala and invite people to serve your neighbors in Central America. You can speak and you can write and you NEED to share your love for Guatemala!”
So that’s how it all began. That same trip I began sponsoring a student at Escuela Integrada and realized what an awesome opportunity it is to support a child in getting their education. Especially one who would otherwise go without. Sponsoring a child in Guatemala makes a world of difference for not only that student but for generations. You see the illiteracy rate for people above 15 in this country hovers about 74%. Without work, there is no way to eat. Without work and without food there is starvation and desperation.
It is no wonder thousands of people come from Guatemala and other Central American countries to the United States in search of work and opportunities to feed their families and send money back home. If they have the education they are content and happy to stay in their beautiful homeland. It’s a complicated situation. People ended up leaving Guatemala for the lack of opportunities to work and mainly because they have no education.
From a dream to reality
So in the fall of 2018, I began promoting travel to Guatemala just as a hobby. I had my family and a full-time job there in Houston, Texas. When I realized the severity of the damage that the volcanic eruption had done, I jumped on Facebook Live and started asking my friends for donations to send down for food and shelter for the victims. I had never done any fundraising before and had no idea what I was doing. It was my passion that helped net about $5000 pretty quickly. I partnered with a few nonprofits to deliver food and help build two little homes for survivors.
What my son said
The most rewarding experience of motherhood turned out to be taking my most problematic son with me in the February of 2019 to help build the homes for the volcano victims. He had just finished school and was about to head off to serve in the US ARMY. At the end of the trip I asked him and his best friend Jon who also came to help what they liked most about their trip. Fully expecting to hear about the zip lining over the coffee plantation. I was shocked and grateful to hear the following:
“We are just two kids who came here to do a little service before going into the ARMY. We came here not expecting much but we’ve had the time of our lives. Our favorite things were building the homes and visiting with the people at the school and in the village. We wished we had more to give them. We both hated school and thought we didn’t need it. Or that we dropped out and just got our GED’s. But this trip has taught us that education is important because now we realize that these people are suffering so much for their lack of education and opportunities to work. When we finish in the Army, we want to get a college education and go on to help more people in need.”
If that didn’t make my life and strife as a mother to four children worth it… nothing did. It was definitely the crowning moment in my life as a mom. That same son Hagen is now serving in the Army and everyone who knows him also knows all about Guatemala.
Love around the corner
After the surprise divorce ending this past year, I finally recovered and returned to Guatemala for what I thought was just an extended vacation before settling into a new career and life in Washington State. However, within just a few short days back in Antigua, I realized my heart and purpose live among the people of Guatemala and I’m here to serve them for the rest of my life.
That guy I met a few short days before leaving Houston in December….He turned out to be a real gem and has helped me more than I can say in helping me to turn my dreams into reality. My new website is done. My organization is official. And my vision is clear. With the help of my business coach Paula, my friends and lots of hard work and determination….I’m well on my way to living my dream life.
Living the dream
I’m working my dream job serving the people of Guatemala through supporting education and economic development. I am a public speaker and author. I will share my story in my book, through my blog and in person at Rotary clubs, churches, schools and more.
My hope is to inspire and to motivate others to care about what’s going on with our Central American neighbors. To know them is to love them. Guatemala is a beautiful and safe travel destination which is very economical and inspiring. Come for vacation or for service or a combination of both, Guatemala will capture your heart instantly.