Hannah C. with community children.

Colorful streets, home made tortillas and lush green backdrops are at the forefront of my memories as I look back to where I was at the beginning of the New Year.

As the semester begins to pick up pace and my awesome tan continues to fade, I still find myself digesting my experience in Guatemala that I had the opportunity to have through Alternative Winter Breaks. Our 12-hour journey there consisted of two flights followed by a four-hour bus ride from Guatemala City to the town of Quetzaltenango through hilly and breathtaking landscapes-barely visible through the fog but the feeling of shifting altitude in my stomach would say otherwise.

As we settled into our host family’s home, I couldn’t begin to imagine the experiences that were in store for all of us during the next two weeks.

The true focus of our trip was working with Cultural Connections, an organization that specializes in working with international volunteers. Our particular cause was The Guatemalan Stove Project, and as stated on its website, “In Guatemala, as in many other countries, breathing in the toxic fumes while preparing meals puts Mayan women and children at risk for respiratory illnesses and burns on a daily basis. It is estimated that 77 percent of Guatemalan families use wood as their main fuel source.”

Our mission in Quetzaltenango -- or Xela as the locals called it -- was to construct stoves specifically designed to reduce pollution in order to give multiple families in our community an alternative to cooking on the floor over an open fire.

Our regular routine consisted of waking up around 7 a.m. every weekday to the sound of roosters crowing before our alarms even got a chance to do their job. After a breakfast that consisted of pancakes and warm tea with our host family, we made our way to a humble school building a couple blocks down the street.

From there we made our short journey to our work site, getting to see how the citizens of this urban area got their day started as they dashed around on mopeds and crammed themselves into other compact vehicles. Once our service was done for the day, we had time to explore the city before heading home for dinner, followed by some group time afterwards to reflect and debrief.

While getting to know each a little bit more each day, we formed assembly lines to lighten our tasks at the work site, interacted with citizens living in our community, play games with the children in our community and talked about our highs and lows over traditional dinners in our host homes. Once it was all said and done, it’s hard to describe the feeling of fulfillment in the air after constructing a total of five stoves and part of a Mayan Sauna from the ground up. Our group of 24 undoubtedly became closer while gaining a shred of perspective on what it was like to live and work in Central America.

If you’d like to become involved in community service on or off campus, check out the links down below for different opportunities!

Community engagement center 

STLF (Pay It Forward Tour)

Guatemalan Stove Project

Omar Garcia is a blogger for The Vidette. Any questions or comments concerning his blog can be sent to ogarci3@ilstu.edu. Follow him on Twitter @iamomar28.

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