Filled to the Brim and Overflowing

The warmest of hellos to all from NPH-Guatemala! First and foremost – breaking news (to some) – I have officially extended my time here in my Guatemalan home for another 6 months!! That’ll bring me to the maximum of 2 years here as a volunteer at NPH-G (through July 2019). This is a decision that has been received with mixed but mostly positive reviews. It’s a slightly counter-US-cultural move to decide to remain in a volunteer position as a young professional for any extended amount of time. But here I am, savoring every second of the 10 months I have left in my current fairytale of a life. NPH is going to have to kick me out the door, I’m pretty sure (just kidding…kinda).

The reality is, life here isn’t without it’s high-highs and low-lows, just like “real life” at home in the States. I’m of the opinion the highs are probably higher and the lows are likely lower in a lot of ways. But I am so very much in family here at NPH-G, thanks to a culture and community of warm-hearted, relationship-centered humans who have taken me into their fold, an unconditional acceptance I will forever be grateful for – and that’s the kind of stuff that can get you through the hard times. Seeing as my blogs can tend to get a bit on the heavy side, let me first highlight some of the cherished moments at NPH I’ve been muy thankful for lately:

¡Quinceañeras! 

August 4, we celebrated the big “15-year-old” celebration of 6 NPH pequeñas, 2 of whom still live on our immediate campus in San Andrés, Itzapa, and 4 of whom live off campus and remain a part of the NPH OneFamily program, which “provide[s] a continuum of care to children who transition from our homes to reintegrate with family” (check this awesome program out here: https://www.nphusa.org/one/).

Another volunteer and I had the privilege of getting to teach the quinceañeras and their caballeros (a group of excellent young gentlemen who accompanied the lovely ladies) a waltz and choreography to present to all those who attended the fiesta. While coordinating “ensayos” (rehearsals) and motivating a group of 15-year-old girls to get their “animo” on and dance their hearts out for the special day was a little on the stressful side at times (okay, maybe more than just sometimes), the end result was a BEAUTIFUL Quinceañera celebration that I was thrilled to get to be a part of. More than that, I had the opportunity to grow closer to a group of cherished young women and men who have bright futures in front of them, and with whom I love being in family. While I don’t have pictures to share due to protecting the pequeñas’ and pequeños’ privacy, rest assured that it was a magnificent day celebrated by many!

Hogar Fatima ❤

I love (loooove) all the pequeños and pequeñas of NPH a very large amount. However, I spend the most direct pequeñ@ time with my hogar, the 10-14-year-old girlies of Fatima, and it has been one of the greatest honors of my life. As with the general NPH experience, there are undoubtedly many ups and downs in hogar when doing life with a group of highly adolescent girly-girls. I happen to be writing this on a day when things are all hunky-dory and I’m feeling like a part of the group. If I wrote it on another more difficult day, maybe I’d be complaining about my many woes and worries for the most important young ladies in my life. What I have to share today, though, are the little things that spark joy, make me laugh, and fill my heart so far to the brim that I’m overflowing with love and contentment. Some of the following are…

The supreme wit and sarcasm these girls are developing.

Examples:
Nati:“Will you pass me that towel (insert name of whichever Fatima chica)?” “Mmmm…quizas mañana/la otra semana/el otro año Nati (maybe tomorrow/next week/next year),” says little miss sassy pants. It’s hard to capture the ‘tude in text, but it’s there. And it’s funny.
• I go off on a soapbox about some important life lesson/self-worth thing I’m certain these girls need to hear (and maybe end up talking for just a littleeee too long): one of the girlies hands me or pretends to hand me a tissue and asks if I need a “papelito” to dry my tears. Pretty sure they are constantly in wait of an opportunity to offer my emotional/easily-worked-up self one of these “papelitos.”
• Say anything slightly “off” in the eyes of an adolescent girl and they will immediately touch your forehead with the back of their hands and pretend you have a fever (“Tssss….fiebre!!” – fever!!). Don’t sit too close to them in one of these moments or they will worry that “el virus se pegará” (the virus will get them!). Thank goodness I have not had a fever every single time I have been accused of such, or I’d likely be U.S.-bound by now. En serio (seriouslyyy).
• The examples here are endless but text can’t do them justice. Trust me that my girls are sassy as heck and I love it ❤

How they take care of each other, and me.

• If I never need to know if I’m part of the gang or not, I just have to wait around a minute or two and there will likely be a girly going around asking everyone to share some food with me if I miss dinner. If I I leave a water bottle, plate, or other random things, as I’m wont to do, they will be the first to make sure I get it back ASAP (the opposite of what happens a lot of the times in the home when volunteers’ things go missing).

• One night I spent the night in our hogar after a movie night hosted by our tías (caregivers). The girls were eager to make sure I had everything I needed to spend the night comfortably there, from blankets to a place to charge my phone. They didn’t rush off to their beds, as late as it was for them, without making sure I was squared away. What good little hostesses in the making they are.

• They share just about everything. Compartir (to share) is a very important value at NPH, and they do it oh so well. You would think within a group of girls in their age range, and with only one filled locker and a bed to their respective names (relatively a lot here in Guate, but not rooms full of toys/books/whatever else a 12-year-old might yearn for by any means), they’d be a little more possessive of their things. But no, while they always prefer for their things to be taken care of and returned once lent out, they are still endlessly willing to share with their compañeras, a beautiful example that all we have in this life is not really “ours,” but possessions we have been gifted so we can share with those without. This has been one of the greatest things my little rays of sunshine have taught me over the past year.

Hugs and hand hugs and hand shakes.

In a lot of ways, adolescent girls in Guate are just about identical in their behaviors/interests/oddities to the adolescent girl I was and those I grew up with. I imagine these are pretty similar in other cultures, as well. Generally, I love to hug my girls and just squeeze all the love I can muster to them through this simple gesture, especially as they are about to head to bead and before I return to my volunteer community home for the night. Some girlies, however, aren’t that into hugs, and so we’ve had to introduce some hug alternatives. To meet this need, “hand hugs” were introduced, in which we go for a high-five but pause for a nice little thumb-wrap to mimic a hug, thereby replacing the whole full-body hugging ordeal. SO DORKY. But we love it. Hand hugs have transformed for at least one girly into a whole not-so-secret handshake sequence, which we use every now and again to greet each other or say our “hasta luegos”. Secret handshakes are pretty hot right now in Fatima – gotta love that throw back.

In sum, the love I experience for my girls is huge and so very heart-filling. My constant message to them these days is that *EACH. AND. EVERY. ONE. OF. THEM.* matters so, so, soooo much. These kiddos cannot hear that enough, and it’s so true. No matter what they accomplish or don’t accomplish, if they say good words or bad words, make good choices or bad choices in a day, they are beloved and worthy of love, simply by being the humans they were made to be. While we always want to shape and support them on a track to help them become the very best versions of themselves, I never want them to forget they are perfectly perfect as-is, and there is nothing they can do to be unloved by those who love them so in this life. The opportunity to be one of those people who gets to love them for this season as a volunteer, and for future seasons in life to come, really is a gift.

Disability Rights in Guatemala

This is another part of my NPH experience that I didn’t expect to get to be a part of in my time here. My eyes are being opened wide to the need for adaptations and modifications for those with disabilities in Guatemala (and everywhere), and how essential it is for all communities to include those with different abilities, no matter what those may be. I am learning and seeing with a fresh perspective how important each and every human life is, and how important it is to advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves. Or, even if we aren’t to that “level” yet, we must start by simply treating ALL people like the humans they are, no matter the society-defined difference we have identified (this can extend to any minority group we’d like to talk about here, as well). These are lessons I wish I had embraced long, long ago, and many points in which I erred in my life are directly tied to not comprehending this with my whole self.

Getting the chance to learn from those with greater experience in this area than I have, both from personal experience with disability and in advocacy roles, has opened my heart and mind to the people we are called to be when in community with others. I hope to continue challenging myself in this area each and every day, as it is something that can bring us all not only together but also to life as we begin aligning ourselves to advocate for those who need our support most.

**On that note – as always, a huge thank you to Tom Jakobs and his team at Be Extraordinary for equipping us with more and more AAC systems and equipment to give a voice to those without one currently – more updates on this topic to come!**

Other exciting things on the U.S. home front!

I can’t say it enough – my current experience would be impossible with the support of an unconditionally loving blood family and friend family. I would not be the person I am today without all those standing by my side through this adventure that has allowed me to become more and more myself. (A special shout out to my parents who supported me through the education I needed to get to this point, and all the support since then…I would not be here without you guys!).

Some especially important events in the past couple months have been the birth of the incredibly handsome baby boy Crosby Curran, who I loved at first sight (FaceTime style), and who getting to meet in person turned my world upside down and taught me a love I didn’t know was possible. Lots of love to that baby boy and his mama and padre Mollie and Bill!

Getting to see my dear friend Hannah get hitched just last weekend, seeing firsthand her joy and contentment, and getting to share in such a special celebration reminded me how thankful I am to have so many beloved people on my life journey. Spending precious moments with NPH, Chicago, and Tulsa forever friends during this weekend gave me even more to be thankful for. I love you all very, very much!!!

All in all…

I am filled to the brim and overflowing with love and gratitude for the place I am now and the people I’m surrounded by, both in my U.S. and Guatemala homes. I consider myself one of the luckiest girls in the world to get to be in my current here-and-now. This place has changed and continues to change me, helping me to think critically about the issues we face on global and humanitarian levels (a blog for another time), and I love being along for the ride.

Please consider being a part of our NPH family by visiting, volunteering, sponsoring a pequeñ@…or all of the above. You will not regret it! Feel free to reach out to me any time for more info (e-mail: nat.m1123@gmail.com), or in the meantime you can check out NPH’s international site: https://www.nph.org/ or the NPH-Guatemala site: https://www.nph-guatemala.org/.

So much love, paz, y bien from Guate!

Nati

I love you so much its silly AKA mom moments

This is just about as impossible as it gets to believe, but today marks ONE YEAR since I began my time at NPH-Guatemala. Say what?! It simultaneously feels like we’ve lived a lifetime here in the July 2017-2018 NPH volunteer crew (probably because it’s true) and like we just arrived and were introduced in mass to all the pequeñ@s of the home a second ago. To say that time has flown is the clichéd understatement of the year. I am so very grateful for every second of every minute of the past year, with all its ups and downs, and am so happy to be able to share some more of this journey with you =)

As always, I’m not even sure where to begin! What a wild ride this year has been. I’ve mentioned a time or two that blogging and social media are not necessarily strengths of mine, nor is keeping all those back home and in my corner up to date on this amazing adventure that is my time here at NPH-Guatemala. The thing is, life here is so very full that it’s sometimes hard to even process myself everything that is going on, not to mention deciding what to put into words. How can you share through text a world you’ve stumbled into that simultaneously feels like the one you were made to be in, and at the same time has been a completely life-changing experience? How can you capture the amount of love passed between a volunteer and his/her pequeñ@s through daily hugs? It’s hard to squeeze all the life that is happening here into what will now show up on your computer screens, but I hope to be able to share with all those who have been my strongholds, support systems, and shoulders to lean on how much this year has had a profound impact on my life. As always, I can only hope that I’ve made somewhat of an impact here in return.

To start…some exciting news! For those who don’t already know, I’ve decided to extend my time at NPH for (at least) another 6 months, so I’ll be here until January 2019 (woot woot!). Deciding to extend was a (relatively) easy decision. I am so at home and in family here at NPH-G that it’s hard to imagine a life without this beautiful day-in, day-out, relationship-centered existence. (Disclaimer: I of course miss my family and friends at home in the States with my whole heart. I’m just lucky enough to have two families that I love to the moon and back!).

I started my volunteer year with the idea that 13 months may not be enough. I was fortunate enough to have been able to speak with a couple former-SLP volunteers at different NPH homes before coming to Guatemala, who shared with me the process of relationship building and acclimation that can affect the creation of therapeutic rapport within the home. Following those conversations, I was thinking there was a chance that I’d want to be here for a little more than 13 months to be able to help see some therapy progress to fruition. How thankful for that advice I am! After investing the majority of this first year observing and learning about the Guatemalan culture and identifying the real communication needs of children in the home, I feel that I have a much better grasp on my role and purpose as a therapist in the NPH-Guatemala home.

This could be a whole other blog post, but I’ve found that learning about the culture I’m in and understanding it fully is a fundamental part to being able to provide effective support with my “Western medicine” training. I’m not here to try to get what I think is the best idea done, but rather to work with and support those who are and will always be here to identify the best solutions to problems that arise, whether it’s in regards to alternative/augmentative communication, swallowing safety, articulation therapy, or just basic, functional communication. Caregiver training is a two-way street in which I learn about what the most pressing needs for a child or young adult are, and then help come up with a functional solution to meet those needs. This has absolutely been the challenge of the year, and there are lots of ways that I can see in hindsight I could have done so much better, or advocated maybe a little harder for a pequeñ@, but here I am still learning and hoping that in the next sixth months we’ll be able to make even more strides with our beloved pequeñ@s.

Sticking with the speech therapy track, I’ve been so lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from and work with my special education supervisor who has a passion for integration of individuals with special needs and a desire to support them become members of the workforce, both within the NPH home and in other nearby communities in Guatemala. Seeing someone work tirelessly for the fundamental rights of a human to have access to things like vocational training and transportation to get to work, and more importantly to be treated with equal human dignity, has been incredibly inspiring. A theme of my year has been the idea of superficial human worth (we work to become people who deserve affirmation and worthiness) versus innate human worth (we come into this world loved and equally worthy of being treated well and with the love, respect, and dignity afforded to all, regardless of differences in ability level, race, color, religion, size, financial status, “coolness”, etc. etc.). I think it’s easy to get caught up in world views that like to group people and lump them into the haves/have-nots, cools/lames, hot/ugly, worth-my-time/not-worth-my-time…and the list could go on and on. Seeing the work of individuals whose aim is, at its heart, to provide individuals who may not be able to achieve it themselves access to purposeful work, thereby increasing independence and I can only imagine feelings of self-worth and dignity, has helped inform for me how important a worldview of humans-are-humans is in all our relationships, interactions, and decisions. Who are we to decide who is more or less worthy of (fill in the blank, you name it) on this earth? Isn’t it worth investing all our time and money and energy just to support ONE person in access to a better quality of life, rather than chasing success and money and “look-what-I-did” moments? When did we become so hung up on what we look like on paper or social media that we forgot about the abundance of hurt in the world, and lose as our passion and focus the desire to alleviate the suffering of those who need it most? There is quite the blend of personal and professional here at NPH, and through these different projects and learning opportunities as the SLP on our campus, I am certainly having my lens shifted to understand better what is taught in the Bible and is at the heart of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos: Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me as well (Matthew 25:40).

Onto another incredibly important part of my NPH experience…hogar (the group of kiddos, in my case preteen/teenage girls, with whom we spend every evening and every other weekend). When I first started my year at NPH, I believed that an essential role of volunteers was to demonstrate to the pequeñ@s in our hogares that someone in their lives would stay by their sides, no matter how hard they pushed away. For me, the “pushing away” that I experienced when I first arrived included my girls refusing to talk to me or acknowledge my existence, maybe trying to steal things I had locked up in a locker, and generally trying to show me that I wasn’t a part of the group. Pretty understandable, in my opinion. These are girls who have had people in and out of their lives for who knows how long. They are through-and-through adolescents wrapped up in their own worlds and dramas, just like I was at 11-, 12-, 13-, and 14- years old. On top of all that, the jargon of drama in Spanish was not a particular strength of mine when I showed up at NPH (although I feel like I’ve improved dramatically – badoomchhh – on that front). My goal at the beginning was to simply be present with these girls every night, no matter what environment I was walking into. I was lucky enough to have a few girls who I considered my “safe spaces” in hogar, for whom I will always be thankful to for giving me a place and purpose at the beginning. Thanks to these girls, and the support of the volunteer community and our International Volunteer Coordinator, I was able to stick out my plan of showing up and weathering this part of the experience. And now, looking back, and comparing this “etapa” or phase of my time at NPH, it’s pretty hard for me to believe that this was even a part of my experience based on my relationship with my hogar girls now.

And that relationship is…that I love them so very much that it’s downright silly. This level of intense, unconditional regard for children who aren’t my own is not quite what I expected from this year. I didn’t doubt I’d love the hogar part of the NPH experience, even with the challenges and sometimes tiring schedule that comes along with it, but the relationship I share with my 10- to 14-year old girls has left me in awe of the amount of love my heart can be filled with countless times over the past year. Gosh, I just want for these girls a life that is full and abundant and BIG. I want them to be better than me, and I want to help them get there. I want to help instill in them self-confidence and the belief that they can do anything and EVERYthing they set their minds to. I want to scoop them up and protect them from all the scary and painful and devastating things in the world, and take away all those things they have already experienced in the past.

I sometimes look at my girls and think, how in the world could a family member bear to be separated from you? I know there are countless and unimaginable reasons this could happen, from parents who have passed away, to financial difficulties, to who knows what else more, but the thought of not seeing my girls every day, joking with them about their latest crushes, giving them huge hugs before bedtime, pulls at my heart strings in a way I can’t put into words. Of course, I know this time will come for me, as happens for all NPH volunteers, and there are natural barriers that exist between my girls and me for this very reason. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep not just telling these girls how much I love them with my words but also by hugging them as tight as I can and listening to every word they have to share with me and taking an extra minute to visit with them during the school day when I see them between therapies. I’ll keep forgiving and forgetting the hurt they may throw at me as the preteens/teens they are, whether they mean it or not, and shaking it off to show up the next day with just as much or more love for them as the day before. I’ve laughed before that NPH is one-of-a-kind mom practice, but I really think it’s true. I’m getting back what I threw at my mom a good 15 years ago (sorry mama…), and it is no lie when I say I feel incredibly privileged to get to take on this role in my girls’ lives for the time I’ve been gifted to be their volunteer.

There’s also something to be said for loving so much that it hurts. I very much believe in the definition of love that encompasses the ability to feel the pain of others as if it were your own. Over the course of the year, I’ve been in the process of separating how I feel about something to how I intentionally react to it. I’m learning to separate my feelings about how a child or young adult with disabilities may be treated by his/her peers, and instead of sinking into the worry of how far we have to go to help teach our kiddos to treat others well and with human dignity, I’ve learned to embrace teaching moments and make the most out of them. Instead of looking at a girl with a traumatic past and thinking, “if you’re here, how many more are there out there just like you? How on earth can we begin to alleviate all the pain that must exist in this world? What can possible be done to make this better?”…I’m looking at each life and thinking, if we can just make this a little better, if we can sooth the hurt even just a small bit, how much better that is than nothing.

A dear friend and fellow volunteer of mine, who leads the women’s empowerment program (Chicas Poderosas) at our home, has been an amazing example to me of fulfilling the work she has set out to do with the full faith that she is right where she needs to be to serve her girls and our volunteer community as a rock, fountain, and general source of strength. She shared with me once the analogy that we can only take in the pain of the world sip by sip, so as not to drown under the flood of human suffering. Then, once we accept that pain, the knowledge that it exists, without suffocating from it or deciding we’d rather distract ourselves from it (something I’ve been guilty of more times than I’d like to admit), we are able to go to where the pain is and act as salves to bring relief to the hurting, little by little. What a beautiful picture this is. It’s in this image that I’m learning more about my faith, the kind I hope to live out, and that is serving as my well to get through the hardest and most difficult days here. I’ve still got a ways to go, but how thankful I am to be able to be in a place where I can be still enough to have these conversations, the type than can change the way you chose to live, moment by moment and day by day.

Speaking of volunteers, this blog would not be complete without a shout out to the volunteer family/community and some of my dearest friends and favorite people in the world. With my extension, the group of volunteers I started with last year, including a couple of my very best friends, is saying its “hasta luegos” as I stay on with the volunteers that joined us this past January and new volunteers who just arrived this past weekend. How awesome it is to get to be a part of new groups coming in and out of the volunteer homes, and to see how we bond together quickly as each other’s family and support system in our home-away-from-home. With my original volunteer crew leaving soon, I can hardly put into words the impact the volunteer community has had on my life. I have “herman@s” for life that have challenged me and pushed me and helped me grow like I never knew was possible. I have had trying relationships that have taught me so much about myself, the good and the bad, and that I am so thankful for, even with all the trials and tribulations that are inevitable when living and working in such close quarters. Together, we have survived the toughest of days, from emergency surgeries to amoebas to broken wrists, and celebrated the joy of the very best days. We have been each other’s shoulders to lean on and ears to listen and “funnies” to laugh with (or at). We are each other’s problem solving teams and crises managers and founts of endless hugs. Even our professional collaboration has been an incredible gift. I’ve been so thankful for a strong friendship formed with the volunteer nurse in our group who has taught me so much about the medical field and the importance of collaboration between nurses and SLPs – I wouldn’t be doing my job here half as well without her support. I don’t know what I’d do without all these lovely humans in my life, and am sure as heck going to miss my crew that’s about to depart. At the same time, I’m beyond thrilled by the best-friendships and family I’ve formed with the not-so-new-anymore volunteers who joined us in January, and am so very excited about the new volunteers who just joined us last week J Needless to say, I love this NPH place, from work to hogar to the volunteer community, so much that it’s silly.

¡Hasta la próxima!

Paz y bien,

Natalie

P.S. just a couple more highlights! Thanks to donations for my hogar and speech therapy “taller”, some of the following have been made possible over the past couple months J

  • Supplies to decorate my girls’ hogar
  • Prizes for Club de Deporte (sports club – once everyone comes 5 times to exercise with me, the girls’ get an ice cream! Maybe we should call it ice cream club…)
  • Therapy materials made possible by printer ink purchases, including materials to complete “Desarrollo Social” class each week, in which we are teaching adults with disabilities social skills needed in their daily lives, from school to home to work environments.
  • Gloves and tongue depressors for oral motor therapy
  • A subscription to an online source for symbols for visual supports (SymbolStix)
  • A tablet application to provide augmentative/alternative communication for a Deaf/mute individual to provide access to communication not only in his day-to-day life here, but also on a trip to Panama next January to meet the Pope at the Jornada Mundial de la Joventud

These are just a few of all we have gotten done here recently, not to mention an AMAZING partnership with Tom and Erik Jakobs from InvoTek and also my amazing Mama Llama, who have worked together to get us a “magic arm” for a pequeño who uses an iPad application to communicate, thereby allowing him to attach his iPad to his wheelchair and have access to his voice wherever he goes. Thanks to their consulting, funding, and coordinating, we were able to receive a Kindle Fire on which we installed the tablet application mentioned above for use as an AAC device by a Deaf individual who has no formal communication system. We are SO very thankful for this partnership and the support we’re receiving to help provide greater alternative/augmentative communication to individuals with limited access to communication at the NPH-Guatemala home. Abrazos FUERTES (big ole hugs!) to my mom, Grandfather, and this wonderful team who have made all of the above possible for us!

Volcano Fuego Eruption

So, as it turns out, I’m really not great at keeping up with this blogging business. I started to write a blog a week or so ago, complete with a title and even outline I’d had ready to go for the past four months (best laid plans, and all). I was on a roll with what I thought I wanted to share with those willing to give my blog a glance, and then…this past week happened. It’s amazing to me that the events of just one day can have a huge impact on the lives of a million or more. And on a much more self-centered, or a least personal/relational level, that going through something can really change a person and a community. It can affect the way we perceive the world and our place in it. It can bring out the best and worst versions of ourselves. We can find patience we didn’t know we had, and we can find our limit where there’s just nothing left to give. We can feel and hurt deeply for what’s going on around us, and learn that instead of being overwhelmed by the sheer emotion of it, we can express and acknowledge and be with the hurt we feel, while still showing up for someone else who likely needs a shoulder to lean on or a hug to cry into much more than we do.

Last Sunday, June 3, 2018, Volcano Fuego, an active volcano located about 12 miles from our home at NPH-Guatemala, erupted in a devastating way, affecting at least 1.7 million people. According to CONRED, the national disaster recovery body, 3,000+ people have been evacuated and 2,000 people have been moved to shelters. Per most recent counts, the death toll has risen to 109 (https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/971945/Guatemala-volcano-eruption-latest-death-toll-Fuego). Families have had to live in what I imagine was excruciating doubt as to whether missing family members would be found until search and rescue efforts were called off. News broadcasts showed images of mothers weeping over their children’s bodies as they were uncovered in volcanic ash. Around the time of the eruption, I was walking into NPH’s neighboring pueblo, Parramos, and on my way to Antigua with two of my dearest friends. Everyone was going about his or her day as normal, although ash was making its home in our hair and on our faces, and electricity was flickering in and out. It wasn’t until later in the evening and even more so the following morning that we become fully aware of the tragedy that had occurred. It was such an odd and disconcerting feeling to know that lives were being taken and families torn apart by this natural disaster at the same time life was continuing on, more or less seamlessly, in our little bubble of Guatemala.

Thankfully, the extensive NPH family, including those living on our campuses as well as in various places around Guatemala, is safe and sound. As a member of that family, I have felt so incredibly fortunate and proud to be a part of the NPH community as it has responded beautifully and has risen to the occasion to support those affected by Fuego. NPH has kept at the forefront a mindset of providing relief for the long haul, rather than implementing only an immediate crisis-relief model. While there are several different relief programs being put into place by NPH, we as volunteers have had the opportunity to be a part of a group going to a shelter in Alotenango, about a half hour or so from our home, to provide recreational activities, and really just hang out with, children there. We have made fast bonds with the kiddos in this shelter, whose stories we don’t know and likely never will. What we do know, however, is that we are often greeted with huge hugs and that when we depart we are held onto by kids who don’t seem to want to let go. One day, when we were with the kids in an area just outside the shelter, a few kiddos with whom I was playing cards stopped in their tracks to point out “los muertos” (the deceased) who had just been brought into a mourning area behind us in caskets. Juxtaposed against children getting to be children were families mourning for their loved ones. How to even respond to a moment like this, when we were with these children in moments they will carry with them forever. I can only hope that we are adding to these memories at least a touch of light and love to brighten such dark spots.

Still, in so many ways it feels like this is not enough at all. At the center of all of this are the humans whose lives must be considered. This situation lends itself to think critically about human lives at the center of a crisis, and how a nation should not only have systems in place to prevent the loss of so many but also to respond appropriately when a crisis does occur. Human dignity is at the heart of this. All (ALL) humans are of equal worth – a human life cannot be measured as “more” or “less” worthy of protection and a response. I haven’t done all my research, but I can imagine that many communities affected wouldn’t have had much access to Internet to be forewarned in time of the impending eruption, even if there were better systems in place to predict Fuego’s most recent activity. What would this disaster have looked like in a place with more resources? What if we were collectively thinking about and putting our energy into protecting those who maybe aren’t able to protect themselves? I’m in no way pointing fingers or laying blame, but rather these are the questions I ask myself to figure out where our responsibility as fellow human beings lies.

The thing is, I feel like there just has to be more that can be done. I feel pretty overwhelmed by all the “more” out there. I thought a lot on how I reacted, and intentionally responded, to the events of last week. I found in that space of reflection a lot of places for improvement in my ability to think about others first and be fully present, giving love selflessly, in the way that I at least give lip service to saying I want to live, and the human I want to be. At the end of the day, my space here on earth isn’t about me at all. It’s about finding my place in a collective, how I can help build up and make better a world full of hurt and pain and loss, rather than contributing to those things that already exist in abundance. I think this is a challenge we can all take on together, and little by little, hopefully get us swinging in the right direction.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read a few of my thoughts. Information about the volcanic eruption came from the following site, https://www.nphusa.org/news/gu-2018-volcano/, a link you can also use to donate to relief funds. All contributions will be so greatly appreciated. Much love to all from here in Guate, and hasta pronto ❤

Paz y bien,

Nati

 

 

Abrazos (and other warm fuzzies)

Saludos from the beautiful Guatemala! I hope all who are reading this are doing well =) I’m excited to share some updates from my past couple months at NPH-Guatemala, including some pictures of where I’ve been doing life here in the land of the Eterna Primavera (Eternal Spring – Guatemala definitely earns its nickname, the weather here has been the dream so far!).

Everyone I’ve talked to during my time here knows I love (read: loooove, lurv, ❤ ❤ ❤ ) my day-to-day life at NPH-G. When I’ve thought about what I’d like to share with you all, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I can put into written word the experience I’m having, and the ENORMOUS impact it continues to have on me, day-in and day-out. It is no exaggeration that I feel I am receiving more than I could possibly give here, and I can only hope that over the course of the year I can give back to the NPH-G family even a fraction of what it’s already given me.

What’s most been on my heart to share is the list of things that bring me joy in Guatemala and within the NPH community. Important to note is a lesson I’ve long known but continue to learn, that there is a significant difference between joy and day-to-day happiness or contentment. Joy, per my ever-evolving definition, is a gift that comes from living in community, sharing life with others, and giving and receiving love and support unconditionally. Joy can survive frustration and hard moments. It can’t be put out by a single disagreement or the challenge of cultural gaps and misunderstandings. It doesn’t yield under the weight of the realization of just how great the needs of this world are, or under the heartbreak of really understanding what a child’s past and reality are, and how helpless we may feel to do anything about it. Joy helps me recognize that in spite of so many harsh realities, there is the persevering hope that doing something, planting a single seed, is immensely better than throwing our hands up and doing nothing.

All that being said, I have had so many moments in which I have fully experienced the joy and gratitude of being exactly where I am on my journey. I’ve experienced joy when enveloped in the hugs of the pequeñ@s (pequeñ@s can be used to refer to both the boys and girls/young men and women at NPH), and I’ve experienced joy in my solitary, still moments in which I’m able to just be. So (drum rollll), here are some of those moments I’d love to share with you:

-Camioneta rides! Camionetas, or “chicken buses,” are beautifully painted school buses that provide transportation around Guatemala (for rull cheap, let me tell you). There’s always (ALWAYS) room for more people on the camionetas, even if you think that the bus is going to pop or maybe you’re going to fall out the back when the driver opens the rear door while still in-motion. Feeling the wind pour in from the open windows, watching the tree-covered Guatemalan mountainside roll past, and being fully present in the moment of traveling from NPH to Antigua (typically my route) while taking in the Guatemalan sights, sounds, and smells (for better or worse), are joyous, full-of-life experiences for me. I love seeing the closeness between mothers and their babies as they make a journey to who-knows-where, watching young children in awe while peering out the camioneta’s windows, and listening to the music de jour that fills in whatever empty space remains between the bus’s passengers. I love being helped by a stranger when I can’t get myself with my darn bag of groceries through the sardine-packed crowd in the bus’s middle aisle. Camioneta rides are cultural experiences in and of themselves that I always look forward to (although, let’s be honest, I like them even better when I have a place to sit and I’m not counted as one among many of the camioneta’s sardines ;).

-The therapy. Oh man, the speech therapy. Here at NPH-G, under the supervision of our saint of a special education director, I get to provide therapy 1:1 to the pequeñ@s on my caseload, at least once a week with each child or young adult. My caseload ranges from age 3 up to mid- to late-twenties. I’m learning about therapy provision from correcting the different Spanish “r”’s to trouble-shooting nasal emission to collaborating with the occupational therapist to better set up the tablet application a young man uses to communicate across settings at NPH. What’s more amazing is that because I’m living in the same place as these pequeñ@s, the opportunity exists to generalize and implement therapy strategies in their natural environment, which is such best practice!!! Example: kiddo working on medial “r” can go to the Tienda Sonrisa (the Smile Shop that sells all kinds of high-demand snacks and where pequeñ@s with varying ability levels have the opportunity to work) and request, if he’s completed all his therapy tasks for the day: “Yo quiero poporopos, por favor” (I want popcorn, please). I know, I know, I’m speechie nerding-out, but the opportunity to see the efficacy and purpose of speech therapy has been a wonderful gift. When you have a caseload of 50-60+ kids in the schools in the States, it can be really hard to witness and appreciate these moments. Definitely not the case here!

-More on this whole therapy thing. In my schedule I also get the opportunity to help plan and implement Clase Desarrollo Social (Social Skills Class) in Aula Integrada (more or less the self-contained classroom in the school at NPH) with our special education director. Because most of the students in the class are on vocational tracks and work in different areas around NPH, including the Tienda Sonrisa and the cafetería (coffee shop), among other areas, we’ve been focusing on the theme of jobs, including the purpose of working and job responsibilities. This has helped open my eyes to the importance of transition services and vocational training for students and young adults with different abilities. Every human in this world has strengths and some point of connection with the people in their lives. We are all human at the end of the day, after all, even if some of us have greater needs for accommodations than others. It has been so cool to see how these students’ strengths have been identified to give them the opportunity to contribute as workers at NPH, which I’ve seen bring so much joy to so many of the students. Not to say that this area is not without its challenges, for example in the speech-path land of communication competence in different settings, but it’s illuminated for me how important the spirit and mission of vocational training for individuals with different abilities is. This is an area I have not always done my best in or fully understood, so I’m thankful to be learning this now. Mad props to the special educators, speech paths, social workers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and all the other service providers who work hard on these teams all over the world!

Another therapy highlight is Club Amistad (Friendship Club), which we get to hold each week. In Club Amistad, 3 pequeñ@s from Sagrado Corazón (the hogar for those with the need for greater day-to-day support given their differing ability levels) and 3 pequeñ@s from another hogar (you could say a “typically-developing” hogar, but there’s also inclusion of pequeñ@s with different abilities but higher levels of independence who are included in these hogares) participate in an activity together as planned by related service providers. We’ve made slime, baked cupcakes, played Uno, and set up a “sensory diet” activity with participating pequeñ@s. In the few weeks I’ve gotten to be a part of Club Amistad, it’s been wonderful to see this type of “mainstreaming” as not only an opportunity for inclusion of pequeñ@s from Sagrado Corazón, but also a teaching opportunity for the pequeñ@s from the other hogares on how to treat others with different abilities as individuals with human dignity who deserve the same level of respect all humans deserve. It’s also been a great communication training opportunity for pequeñ@s on how to interact with individuals who communicate using alternative methods, such as tablet technology/a speech generating device, signs, gestures, and vocalizations. I’m hoping this is an area we can continue to work on over the year!

-Proyecto familiar/amistad. Each month, the volunteers complete two “proyectos familiares” (family projects) and a “proyecto amistad” (friendship project). For proyecto familiar, we plan a small activity for siblings at NPH to give them the opportunity to spend time together, which they may not otherwise have if they live in different hogares. For proyecto amistad, pequeñ@s without siblings at NPH participate in the proyecto with a friend or two. Activities can include making guacamole, playing table games, baking brownies, watching movies, and playing soccer, among other ideas. One of my favorite proyecto familiar moments so far was with two pequeñas from Sagrado Corazón, one of whom considers the other her sister (which they absolutely are within the NPH community), although they are not related by blood. We went to my taller (speech office) together to eat brownies and participate in a number of preferred activities, as selected by the pequeñas. One of the young women is nonverbal, and the other has communication challenges, so proyecto mayyy have turned into a bit of a speech therapy session (but it was still a blast!). We broke out the Big Mak, a switch that can be pressed to produce a digitized speech message (in this case, más por favor/more please), and the pequeña who is nonverbal used the switch to request more of her brownie or another puzzle piece, for example. The other pequeña was quick to help her sister in this task, and without any prompting on my end, helped hand-over-hand assist her sister to press the Big Mak and request more. How cool is that?! A little speech path in the making 😉 But even more than that, it was so heart-warming to see someone who has cared for, loved, and nurtured another provide the assistance to give that same individual access to communication, even at the cause-and-effect level. Talk about a moment of pure joy.

On with the list of (not-quite-so-lengthy) joy-sparking moments:

-Guatemalan sunrises on my morning runs and Saturday morning long runs

-PLAYING. Gosh, I forgot how great it is to just do things because they’re fun and for no other reason than that. I think play is a way of showing gratitude for life and the opportunity to be on this green earth in all its glory. I love playing Monopoly, Uno, new card games, Ninja, and even (gasp!) soccer – which, let’s face it, I am the WORST at, but it brings a lot of laughter (and probably exasperation) to my hogar girls, so there’s always some entertainment in that 😉

-Saturday morning karate classes with my hogar on working weekends. Karate is da bomb, even if I can’t walk super well the next day thanks to trying to move my hips in unnatural directions. Worth it, though.

-Learning Guatemalan sign language – I work with one man who lives at NPH who is Deaf and communicates using his own signs/gestures. So, we’re learning Guatemalan signs together! It’s a reto (challenge), but it’s also been really rewarding and a skill I’ve been able to use with other pequeñ@s on my caseload.

-Being immersed in Spanish. I loooove Spanish. Always have, always will. I think there are so many things that are better expressed in Spanish than in English, and getting to experience that in day-to-day life, and continually be learning and improving in this area is such a treasure. Including when I make some serious, laugh-worthy mistakes that are not blog-publishable – you live and you learn!

-Living in a volunteer community with people from around the world. It’s maybe not the easiest thing I’ve done, but I am learning so much and having my eyes opened to the things that I’ve always taken for granted as truths that are, in reality, just specific to where I happened to be born and raised. Having to think critically about these things, and hearing from other community members different things that are uniquely “de los Estados” (from the States) has been fascinating.

-Just, the PEOPLE. There are so many wonderful people in the world! I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in my everyday life as I do with the people I’m living with now. Thought-provoking conversations are evened out with silliness and laughter, which I think is an important balance to maintain. Laughter and smiles are also typical in daily therapy sessions, in time with my hogar girls, and just all around NPH.

-My people at home! Getting to see and talk to my friend-family and family-family via Skype or FT, from Chicago to Kansas to Arkansas to North Carolina to Florida, is what makes being here possible for me. I would not be where I am or doing what I’m doing without all your love and support. I love you people to the moon and back!!!

-Last but not least, HUGS. This, I think, is something everyone needs more of in life. At NPH, with my therapy caseload and with the pequeñ@s from my hogar (and other hogares, too), there are so many hugs! A simple hug or linked arms while walking can make such a difference in your day. Or even a pequeña’s head in my lap while watching a movie, and reaching up to touch my face just to know I’m still there. Being in a culture where affection is freely given like this brings me so much joy.

As you can see, I am having the time of my life in Guatemala. But all that is not to say I haven’t had my terribly frustrating and heartbreaking moments, where I think I can’t endure the reality of what has happened to the pequeñ@s that live at NPH, or cannot stop worrying about what their futures will be. I’ve had to take deep breaths and examine my own cultural prejudices to try and prevent quick judgements of the culture I’ve elected to live within this year. I’ve learned to appreciate that in the US we are lucky enough to have laws like IDEA and ADA to protect individuals with different abilities, even if the ideals of these laws aren’t always achieved or maintained. My assumption that communication is a right, not a privilege, has been challenged, as this is not an ethical code shared by all. I face the same stateside struggle of trying to strike a balance between ensuring that a child is in the least restrictive environment while still receiving appropriate support to help him/her be successful in that environment. My motto is “poco a poco” (little by little), as I’m trying to learn more about myself and the Guatemalan and NPH cultures, while finding joy even in the heaviest and most wearing of moments.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog! Please enjoy some pictures below of the NPH campus and where I spend most of my time. We are unable to post pictures of pequeñ@s, but rest assured I have lots of pressure pictures of those guys, as well. ¡Hasta la próxima!

Paz, bien y abrazos 🙂

Natalie

***A 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico on September 19, causing millions of dollars in damage to the NPH-Mexico homes. You can find additional information about the impact on the home, as well as a link to donate for relief funds if you feel called to do so, here: https://www.nphusa.org/earthquakerelief/?utm_source=AdaptiveMailer&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2017%20Mexico%20Earthquake%20Relief%20-%20Email&org=456&lvl=100&ite=11509&lea=2204784&ctr=0&par=1&trk=.

 

Hola from Guate!

Hola a tod@s! It’s hard to believe, but I have been in Guatemala for a little over a month now. I spent my first 2 weeks at San Pedro Language School in San Pedro La Laguna on Lago Atitlán, which was beyond wonderful, and just finished week 3 here at NPH-Guatemala. For those of you who have known me for more than a minute, you’ll know it’s no exaggeration that being here in Guatemala is a dream come true =) I am loving the opportunity to be surrounded by Spanish language and Guatemalan culture, to join amazing volunteer and work communities, and to learn TONS in my role as a volunteer speech-language pathologist at NPH-Guatemala. I’m excited to share with you some of the highlights from my first few weeks here!

My Guatemala journey begins with my time at San Pedro Language School. I met up with the amazing Maggie, another NPH volunteer from near Chicago, who had already been in San Pedro (SP) a couple weeks and was able to show me the ropes. We stayed with a host family near the center of the pueblo, and walked down to class right on the lake each day. Our host family included our mom and dad (Magdalena and Jeremias), grandma (Clara), two brothers (Juan Manuel and Antonio), and sister (Clarita, who lived with her husband nearby). In our last week we were joined by another student, Emily, who quickly became a part of our SP family. We got to eat meals together to practice our Spanish outside of class, and enjoyed all the delicious, homemade Guatemalan cuisine. My love of black beans is definitely a good thing here in Guate!!

In the two weeks I attended language school, there was a 10 (or so) day festival honoring St. Peter (San Pedro), the patron saint of the pueblo. We attended a coronation, lots of dances, and saw and/or participated in “desfiles” (parades), all in honor of San Pedro. It seemed like there was always some event going on while we were there, and it was wonderful to be included in the traditions of the town.

Some (highly recommended) activities I got to do while on the lake included kayaking, doing yoga on the lake in San Marcos, hiking to Nariz del Indio to see the sunrise with another TU alum, Katie, and hiking volcano San Pedro. I don’t think the pictures below do any of those things justice, so you might want to add them to your Guatemala bucket list =)

After hiking volcano San Pedro on our last day on the lake, Maggie and I caught a shuttle to Antigua, where Padre Reinhold, our outstanding volunteer coordinator, picked up the group of new NPH-Guatemala volunteers by the famous Arco de Santa Catalina. We spent our first week at NPH-Guatemala in orientation with Padre R and Avriel, the international volunteer coordinator, who were beyond helpful and supportive during the transition into NPH life. Avriel got to hang around with us for our first few weeks in Guate, which I was SO thankful for. In our first week, we spent time with different “hogares” each night. “Hogar” is the term used for the group of “pequeños,” the children or young adults at NPH, that live and do life together here. At the end of our first week, the new volunteers decided which hogar we would regularly spend time with, including sharing lunches and dinners, evenings before bedtime, and every other weekend. I’m with Fatima, a group of girls ages 10-13 (roughly), who I feel so lucky to get the opportunity to live alongside at NPH. One of my first nights in Fatima, the girls gave me different notes to welcome me into their community (which have also made for wonderful decorations in my room). I am already learning so much from these girls and the tías who take care of them. A few honorable mentions: I’m learning how to make some pretty sweet pulseras (bracelets), very fun card games, and different prayers in Spanish. I’m hoping that learning/acquiring some rhythm for salsa and bachata will also be added to the list…

In the past couple weeks, I’ve had the chance to observe lots of different therapy sessions, including ergotherapy (occupational therapy), recreational therapy, and special education support. Our special education team includes therapists in all of the above areas, as well as physical therapy, art therapy, and vocational training (how cool is that!!). At NPH-G, there are opportunities for students to participate in “talleres” (workshops), ranging from welding to carpentry to bread baking, as well as running the “Tienda Sonrisa” (Smile Shop) that sells drinks and snacks each school day. In each of these areas, there’s an amazing sense and overarching goal of inclusion for students with different abilities, which I have just been blown away by. I feel very lucky to get to be a part of and learn from this team under the incredibly compassionate direction and vision of our special education supervisor, Katie, this year.

Last but not least, I have to mention the awesome view from NPH-G…we’re surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that you can see the tops of on cloud-free days. And on one of my morning runs I even saw the after-effects of an eruption from Volcano Fuego, which was definitely a first for a running backdrop!

Thanks for taking a minute to check out my blog 🙂 If you’d like to learn more about NPH, you can check out this loving community at https://www.nph.org/, and NPH-Guatemala at https://www.nph-guatemala.org/?lang=es.

Paz y bien,

Natalie