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There is a storied tradition of elaborate going-away parties, despedidas, in Guatemala. This is certainly the case at Camino Seguro. Unfortunately, we’ve had several despedidas in the past few months, as the Executive Director, Volunteer Coordinator and Adult Literacy Coordinator have decided that after a number of years of service from each, it was time to move on to the next challenge. These despedidas were all incredible affairs, but one in particular was incredibly moving.

Liz Love has worked for Camino Seguro for years. She started out as a fearless English teacher and eventually made her way to head of the Adult Literacy Program. She has been guiding our youths’ parents through their studies, as well as supporting them through the difficulties of daily life in an incredibly challenging and dangerous neighborhood. This year she saw our moms’ micro-enterprise, CREAMOS, through the process of incorporating as an official business in Guatemala. The moms have leaned on her for support in the most trying of times, and have come to her to excitedly share their moments of joy. Liz has been their rock through it all. So, it was no surprise that the moms went all out for Liz’s despedida. They threw a surprise party for her, even, and pulled it off like a dream.

The building where the moms come to study and receive support is called Casa Hogar. The first floor is dominated by the Adult Literacy Program. The upstairs includes the Art Program, the Volunteer Program office and a terrace. The moms readied the terrace for the Camino Seguro party of the century. They set up a churrasco (barbecue) and had a huge spread of food. They decorated the whole terrace with streamers and balloons. There was a big cake and a piñata, which are staples at any good Guatemalan fiesta.

But, that wasn’t where it ended. The mothers hired a mariachi band to come play for an hour. It was a full five-piece band complete with an accordian-playing lead singer. They took requests as we danced the afternoon away. Despite a heavy undertone and many streaming tears, the despedida definitely took on a happy and celebratory feel.

Being from the States, all of the pomp and circumstance for these despedidas at first made me feel really uncomfortable. We don’t have celebrations like this when someone leaves a job. There may be cake or a card signed with cursory remarks, but these commemorations generally lack luster or any sort of genuine sentiment. Generally, people are too busy preoccupying about how much more work they’ll have to do with the inevitable loss of productivity hours due to an open position and bringing a new person up to speed. Output is what matters, not the people behind it.

Being in this environment, then, is a two-headed monster for an American. On the one hand, it can definitely be frustrating that there isn’t such a focus on productivity. “But you can do so much more!” “There’s so much untapped potential here!” “Things move so slowly!” All are quite common sentiments coming from the extranjero crowd. We are so conditioned for optimal functionality, that we sometimes can’t separate ourselves from it.

On the other hand, being here can be really freeing. We push ourselves hard to get things done not because we have to, but because we’re so invested. The staff and volunteers here are the most dedicated, hard-working group I’ve ever had the pleasure of taking part in. Their ideas are ingenious. The focus on interpersonal connections means we talk and share thoughts about program strengths and weaknesses. We process ideas together and those ideas gather strength and steam from the input of others. We’re happier and more relaxed, paving the way for inspiration to strike. And it does, often.

Inspiration struck when Liz supported the moms through incorporating CREAMOS. Inspiration struck when a short-term classroom volunteer created a tutoring program for the Educational Reinforcement Center, which will start in 2011. And, inspiration struck when a former volunteer got a team together, myself included, to create a Young Entrepreneurs’ Club to help our youth explore career options and envision a positive future.

I think that’s why the going away parties tend to be especially elaborate at Safe Passage. The despedida should commemorate the level of contribution an individual makes. It is nearly impossible to come here and not invest all of yourself, and the organization does an amazing job of cultivating ideas and leadership from within. Despedidas are one of the few moments we take to celebrate together all of the positive changes, both big and small, taking place in this community every day.

This all speaks to the importance of investing in what you do. At Camino Seguro, we all feed off of each others’ energy. The reason that the volunteers are so invested is because there is such a lack of assets and programs here, that community members are just so grateful for anything that they can take part in. Painfully few resources are put into this community by the very people that should be looking after it. However, the residents here have seen images of affluence on TV (I talked about the TV phenomenon in Guatemala in my post Literacy {} in September) and know that there are a lot of riches in the world beyond. I think this is part of why students and parents are so grateful for the contributions of volunteers — they understand that volunteers are leaving all of that behind to try to bring more to this neighborhood. I believe this also prompts the deep level of investment by our families in both their studies and in honoring the contributions, particularly of volunteers, that have opened the door for them to gain just a little more access to all of these riches. The volunteers see how hard the students and moms work despite facing incredible odds, and so we invest ourselves further. In turn, the students and moms feel this deep external commitment to their success and put more of themselves into their studies. It’s so much easier to believe in yourself when you really, deeply feel that someone else does, too. By putting in the best of ourselves, we draw out the best in others. There’s a domino effect where the goodness continues to build.

That’s my biggest takeaway. Very few people actually harbor negativity. Most people constantly search for the good. In this neighborhood, you have to, or the negativity will eat you alive. All a lot of people need to tap into their latent potential is just a little ray of hope that it will do them some good, that it might amount to something. The more goodness is out there in the world, the more potential for more of it to grow. I’ve seen this every single day here at Safe Passage.

This week, I saw peace in the moments of celebration.