Clean hands, open hearts

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Texas Key Club members spend spring break in Guatemala building more than hand-washing facilities. 

Story and photos by Kasey Jackson

Hayden Bernard scrunches down in a blue seat at United Airlines gate E16 inside the Houston International Airport, surrounded by four other members of his Key Club from Ross S. Sterling High School in Baytown, Texas. The girls — Hayden is the only boy on the trip, and at the moment is a bit quiet — are chatting excitedly when asked who from the group has traveled out of the country before. Everyone has — except Hayden. Classmate Elizabeth Bagwell remembers when Hayden told her he got his passport for the trip.

“He was going to spend his spring break camping,” she says with a laugh.

But Hayden is not going camping. He and his fellow Key Clubbers — along with a chaperone — are on their way to Guatemala as the first Key Club to take part in a service learning trip with Squads Abroad, Key Club International’s newest partner. While in Guatemala, they have several goals: to build a handwashing station at a school called Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Aldea Panimacoc, interact with children and families and learn about the Mayan culture.

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Club President Priscila Garcia, a senior, is the leader on this trip. She’s the one who learned about the new partnership, asked some of her Key Club friends if they’d be interested and made a plan to make it happen.

“Key Club to me is a club about service,” Priscila says, “and it’s something to be part of if you want to help others and give back. I wanted to do this trip because I wanted to do something memorable that really made an impact on others. Working with Squads Abroad was really easy. I just emailed the program director and he got me all the information.”

She also reached out to her Key Club’s sponsoring club, the Kiwanis Club of Baytown, to tell members about her club’s plans.

On the ground
Once in Guatemala City, everyone packs into a van, luggage precariously stacked on top, to travel to the city of Tecpan and the home base, operated by Squads Abroad partner Cross-Cultural Solutions. Here, the Key Clubbers settle in to their comfortable rooms, are debriefed by CCS Country Director Juan Carlos Buonafina and enjoy a late dinner before getting some much-needed rest to prepare for the work to come.

_DSC9555Each day’s itinerary is somewhat similar: breakfast at the home base followed by a quick drive to the school in Panimacoc. At the school, the Key Clubbers tackle everything needed to build a handwashing station. They mix cement by hand, gather water, move dirt and stones and lay bricks. Afterward, they move inside to classrooms to teach the students — most of whom don’t have access to clean water at home — handwashing techniques. At recess, they play with the children. As the school day winds down, it’s back to home base for lunch and a cultural activity. Then it’s dinner and bedtime to rest up for the next day.

“I love doing all the projects with the kids,” says Elizabeth. “They had so much fun and so did we. We sang songs and made up handshakes. They’ll remember this for so long. So will we.”

All of the hard work, the teaching, the play and songs and handshakes has an immediate effect: The Key Clubbers are treated like rock stars at the school. The kids greet them with waves and hugs and screams across the courtyard each day. “Jaci! Priscila! Buenos dias!”

It’s not long before several boys gather alongside the older American students to offer help rinsing bricks and smoothing concrete with their tiny fingers. Others gather and yell, “Photo! Photo!” as they pose with friends in colorful Guatemalan dress, a stunning blue sky the perfect backdrop.

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The work is done
As the week comes to an end, the Key Clubbers are tired but don’t want to leave. They gather to talk about how they feel about what they’ve accomplished.

Jaci Skye West spent much of the week with a hoe in hand, proving quite a talent for mixing cement.

“I think we all learned about building something that we didn’t know before,” says Jaci. “It’s been such a great experience. I’d recommend a Squads Abroad trip to any Key Club.”

Noting that she doesn’t want the Guatemalan children to stop being curious and wanting to learn, Jaci says, “I hope we made an impact on these kids to want to further their studies and education.”

That seems to be the consensus within the group. The Key Clubbers have been introduced to a new culture and new way of life, and they want to do more. They want to help.

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“It’s so easy for us to live in our bubble and not realize stuff like this is actually happening — that people live without clean water or roofs above their heads,” says Priscila. “You see stories like this on television or hear it on the radio, but you don’t realize the gravity of the situation until you see it for yourself. At times, I feel guilty for how much we have and how little they have. We can do something about it. We just have to take the initiative.”

Hayden breaks in, noting that before coming to the school, he wasn’t aware students had so few options for clean water sources.

“We built a water station,” he says. “We mixed cement and laid bricks and it was hard. But I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed helping a community that needed help.”

The differences in cultures were obvious, but one thing stuck out with all of the Key Clubbers: just how happy everyone seems to be.

“We don’t realize how much we have until we see how other people live,” says Elizabeth.

“It surprised me that they’re all just so happy and have such open hearts. They do everything without complaining and with a smile on their faces.”

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A celebration
On their final day at the school, the Key Clubbers were surprised when the principal, administrators, teachers and students gathered to say goodbye.

The school’s director, Elba Apen, had a message for the Key Clubbers.

“We dreamt about having a new sink, but now it’s a reality,” she says. “Thank you on behalf of the community of Panimacoc, of the children and the teachers. Thank you.”

After the thank-you message, Key Clubber Andrea Pietro spoke to the gathered crowd to give a Key Club message to the community.

“The last day was very emotional for all of us,” Andrea says. “The teachers organized a goodbye ceremony for us, and the kids did little dances. I told the teachers thank you for welcoming us and for letting us have the opportunity to come into their classes and to spend time with their students. Then I told them that we learned more from them than we could’ve taught them, because we did learn a lot this week. We experienced a lot this week. So I just told them thank you for that.”

In the end, Priscila’s wish for a successful trip with Squads Abroad came true.

“I cried like a baby because I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “The kids were so happy, and it made me so happy. I fell in love with them. They were precious. I wish I could come back every day and help them and teach them.

“The entire week, you know you are doing something good, and you know you are making an impact, but to see the entire school come together to thank us, it made me realize, wow. We really did something great here. We made an impact not only on the kids and the school, but the entire community. I turned around and saw some parents in the back, and they were really happy for us and for the opportunity for their kids to be taught by us and thankful for the work we did. It was heartwarming to see that.”


Kiwanis members can create  life-changing moments like this for Key Club members in their communities. Visit kiwanis.org/squadsabroad to learn more about this exciting new Key Club International partnership.


This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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