Building More Than Homes: Lessons from Guatemala

The team of travelers on top of the Pacaya Volcano with the Guatemalan flag in hand. (Alexis Vásquez García)
The team of travelers on top of the Pacaya Volcano with the Guatemalan flag in hand. (Alexis Vásquez García)

The thirty-seven travelers on Dowling Catholic’s 2024 Guatemala mission trip were entering the fourth hour of a one-hour bus ride. Fresh off of three consecutive build days, we were driving south on a rainy Saturday morning to the Pacaya Volcano. 

Smiling out the window of our flat-tired bus as we waited for an alternative to come save us. (Peter Loyd)

Having already exhausted a round of Go Fish, card tricks, 21 Questions, Chopsticks, Rock Paper Scissors, Look Up Look Down, and Wavelengths, we were quickly running out of childhood games to pass the time when we heard a sudden pop and inhaled the fumes of what could be nothing other than a flat tire.

Entering my senior year at Dowling Catholic, I have had the unique opportunity of going on a high school trip each of the past three summers. Large group travel has taught me many things, but perhaps the most prolific lesson has been to embrace flexibility. The flat tire in Guatemala was just a test. Yes, it was cramped on the bus. Yes, some were battling motion sickness. Yes, the wait for our rescue bus would throw off the schedule for the rest of the day. But things happen for a reason.

The view from atop the Pacaya Volcano. (Ella Johnson)

Our delayed trek to the volcano gave the skies time to clear up. In this case, embracing flexibility meant more time on Guatemala’s famous Chicken Bus, and, more favorably, a dry ascent to the summit of the volcano with views unobstructed by raindrops. It was well worth the wait.

A mere day later, our flexibility would be tested yet again. A breakfast that ran long was followed by a zipline ticket line that ran long, which was followed by an outfit change that ran long ahead of a rescheduled Mass time. The “longs” we had accumulated throughout the day made us late to the Antigua market, cutting our shopping time short. 

An “it’s a small world” reunion in the Antigua market. (Ella Johnson)

Steadfast in our flexibility and dressed in our Sunday best, we made the rainy walk to Antigua’s central park where the market vendors awaited. Just as we crossed the street to our destination, I caught sight of a face I thought I would never see again. It was the face of a friend I made on the tennis court, one whose friendship carried into the hallways of Dowling Catholic before she moved to Spain two years ago. My quizzical stare broke out into a smile as I approached her and we locked eyes, exclaiming each other’s names in disbelief as we rushed for a hug. 

Once again, I was reaping the reward from embracing flexibility while traveling. Had we not been running late and adjusting our schedule all day, I might have never been on the same side of the road, in the same central park, in the same city, in the same country, at the same time as my long-lost friend. 

A build team hard at work mixing cement. (Nicole McFarland)

Our weekend in Guatemala had surely been one of trusting the process, but that is a lesson that comes with any form of travel, and the rest of our week in Guatemala was not just any form of travel. This was a mission trip, and with that came an even larger lesson.

Those in the Dowling Catholic orbit are certainly familiar with the school’s mission to prepare “Leaders for Life, Centered on Christ.” It is a phrase that has echoed in my head since I entered high school, and after spending three years at Dowling Catholic and traveling 2,500 miles south, my high school’s mission was fully realized on the mission trip to Guatemala. 

Over four days, our team of travelers built four homes, marking 211 total homes constructed through the ImagininGuatemala non-profit program and impacting an equal number of families whose lives have been touched by servant leadership.

Love and joy was bursting in these children as we built their families houses. (Jennifer Hassett)

As a returning traveler on Dowling Catholic’s Guatemala mission trip and a 2024 Dowling Catholic graduate, Zeb Fitzgerald has served on two of the 211 ImagininGuatemala homes, learning valuable lessons from the very start. Reflecting on his experiences, Fitzgerald shares, “The first time taught me that there are some people on this Earth that truly have it worse off than I do and that there was something I could do to help.” Building on this realization, he adds, “Going on the trip a second time felt like something I owed to myself and the people of Guatemala.”

Kirby Gepson, a first-time traveler on Dowling Catholic’s Guatemala mission trip and a 2018 Dowling Catholic graduate who has since returned to Dowling Catholic to work as an Ut Fidem Coordinator, related her experience on the trip to a quote by St. Francis: “It is in giving that we receive.” Elaborating on this, Gepson emphasizes, “We say we are going to give of our time and energy and resources to help the poor, but when we go, we see that the people who are poor in materials are rich in faith, love, and joy. It always makes me realize that I’m the one that’s poor in my faith, and I need to rely on God more like they do.” 

Turning the keys over to the family on the last build day. (Fernando)

These are the lessons that set a mission trip apart from any other form of travel. With each brick laid and each nail hammered, all thirty-seven of us were not only building a home but building perspective. Experiences like the Guatemala mission trip open our eyes to what matters, and as a result, we choose not to fixate on flat tires, rainy weather, or disrupted schedules, but instead, we choose to trust the process and put our energy towards serving others, knowing that we all grow along the way.

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About the Contributor
Ella Johnson
Ella Johnson, Staff Writer
Ella Johnson is a junior at Dowling Catholic High School. Within the performing arts program, she is involved in the fall play as well as Speech and Debate. She is also a part of Student Ambassadors, Student Philanthropy Council, and Ut Fidem. During the spring, she plays tennis at school and continues training year-round. Outside of school she takes piano lessons, an instrument she has played for nearly ten years. In her free time she enjoys continuously selecting the “next episode” button on any streaming service or delving into a good book. 

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