BY REBECCA ISENHART
This summer, as she does most summers, Niskayuna resident Mindy Whisenhunt led a group of 17 Capital Region students and five adult chaperones to one of the poorest regions in Guatemala.
After a year of fundraising and planning, the group headed to Central America, to a town where children live in corrugated tin shacks. Most people feed their families by scavenging at the local garbage dump, where raw sewage and toxic waste mingle with the occasional object of value. Vultures hover. The smell of waste is overpowering.
With bare hands, these hardworking guajeros, or dump pickers, rifle through the repulsive pile in search of recyclables, which they sell. Many people in town do this job, and usually make the equivalent of about 7 to 9 American dollars per day. Children learn this trade from their parents. It’s unpleasant, but not undignified; people are proud to support their families however they must.
But volunteers from the Capital Region didn’t go to Guatemala to change the guajeros’ work — at least not directly. Instead, they went to throw a party, to play tag and to give stickers to children, among other things. The trip lasted from July 10-19.
The highlight of the trip, for many of the volunteers, was the party they threw. But it was not just any party. They threw a quinceanera, a coming-of-age celebration for 15-year-old girls that has particular cultural significance in Guatemala.
They folded hundreds of paper flowers, handled dress fittings and shoe shipments, and coordinated every detail, down to the exuberant young ladies’ makeup.
“It’s all about them,” said Niskayuna resident Chris LaFlamme, one of the trip’s chaperones. His son, Owen, went on the excursion as a volunteer.
“We all learned how to waltz,” volunteer and Niskayuna resident Liz Chillrud said.
The volunteers launch into inside jokes and prod each other to tell favorite stories about the quinceanera. There was the Guatemalan girl who rushed to Owen with a translator, winning the race among several giggling 15-year-olds to ask him to be her escort. And then there was the moment when Will Whisenhunt, Mindy’s son, tried on some of the makeup, just to make the girls laugh while they primped for the big dance.
Kira Whisenhunt, a volunteer and Mindy’s daughter, said when she tells her friends about the trip, they often ask why, in a place where people live in makeshift shelters and risk their health picking through trash every day, the social justice-minded visitors would focus their energy on something as seemingly superfluous as a dance for teenage girls.
The answer to that question makes up the heart of the experience, Kira said.
“Doing this for them is one time in their life when they’re not being treated as a charity case,” she said.
It all comes down to helping the guajeros and their families keep their dignity and pride. This respectful attitude came directly from the founder, Hanley Denning, who died in a car accident in 2007. The group met Denning’s best friend while they were in Guatemala, who imparted the founder’s philosophy.
“She started this program, but she didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m from the U.S. and I know better,’ ” Mindy Whisenhunt said. “She partnered with them.”
This reverent approach has clearly been adopted by all the volunteers. Will recited a favorite quote, often attributed to an Australian activist named Lilla Watson: “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Will noted that without the volunteers, the girls near the Guatemala City garbage dump might never have a quinceanera at all. The celebration was meant to make them feel loved and empowered.
But it’s reciprocal. The visitors leave with something unforgettable, too. Mindy added, “Everybody’s lives are changed by the relationships that you make.”
Chillrud’s favorite moment on the trip appeared to confirm the fact that no volunteer left Guatemala with exactly same view of the world she held when she arrived.
In addition to the quinceanera, the visitors worked with young children in an extended school program run by Safe Passage. The program helps students of all ages enrich their education, because public school runs for only half a day in Guatemala.
Chillrud studies French in high school, so unlike some of the other volunteers, she didn’t know even basic Spanish phrases. That barrier mattered little when it came to connecting with a child, though.
‘I really connected’
After her first visit, the volunteers returned to the classroom and Chillrud noticed her first-grade buddy from the previous day looking for something. The girl landed on Chillrud’s face and smiled. She was looking for her new friend from the United States.
“I really connected with this little girl,” she said, smiling at the memory.
Mindy Whisenhunt said after 10 years involved with Safe Passage and six trips to Guatemala, she’s seen children change their future plans from following their parents to the city dump to finishing high school and attending college. Many dream of becoming doctors or teachers, and one often says he wants to be president one day.
Whisenhunt said the point is not to convince the people their lives are not good enough. Instead, she strives to show them the many options they can have if they choose — options they usually embrace.
“Now they can dream. And that’s what I love about Safe Passage,” she said.
There were other Niskayuna kids who went: Lars Dahl and Jamie Wells (who will be seniors at Niskayuna High School) and Tori Gernert-Dott (who will be a senior at Emma Willard). Roz Dahl and Pete Gernert-Dott also went as chaperones.