UM students volunteer with Mayan village in Guatemala

UMIO students pose with two staff members of the San Lucas Mission at the Women’s Center Children’s Park, where the students worked on the construction of a playground.

For one week, 13 students from the University of Miami (UM) immersed themselves in a once-in-a-lifetime volunteer experience. Volunteering in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala, with the San Lucas Mission, members of University of Miami International Outreach (UMIO) worked on various service projects benefiting the Guatemalan community.

UMIO is a service group dedicated to serving the international community. It began as a Clinton Global Initiative University project in the spring of 2009 and currently is advised by UM’s William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development. UMIO’s goal is to serve communities abroad while participants gain an understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures.

“I think it is important to serve internationally,” said Arpita Kabaria, a senior at UM and chair of UMIO. “It gives you the opportunity to see how different societies function.”

Since its establishment at UM in 2009, UMIO has traveled to San Lucas three times to volunteer at the San Lucas Mission. The mission is an established parish, which coordinates several projects and facilitates volunteers from all over the world. It benefits the municipality’s 15,000 residents, in addition to the 22,000 people living in surrounding villages.

Projects include the development of the Women’s Center and the Juan Ana Coffee Project. Other institutions such as Harvard University, Boston College and Loyola University-Chicago also have sent volunteers to this site.

Byron Maldonado, a UM employee and UMIO’s advisor, traveled to Guatemala with the students. Maldonado is a native of San Lucas and previously worked as the volunteer coordinator for the mission for many years. Now, instead of hosting international groups at the mission, he takes groups from UM to his hometown. He currently works in Biomedical Communications at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“Students are able to connect with the local Mayan population and learn more about their history and everyday struggles,” Maldonado said. “The more we learn about the globalized poor…the less they are anonymous statistics.”

Leading up to the trip, the students also were advised by Dr. Michelle Maldonado, a religious studies professor at UM, who has traveled with students to Guatemala many times in the past.

Andrew Wiemer, director of the Butler Center, also worked with UMIO as the students prepared for the trip.

“I am proud to see this trip come to fruition,” Wiemer said. “Their vision became a reality and their trip was a huge success.”

Throughout the past academic year, UMIO participants raised money to fund their trip by selling coffee produced by the people of San Lucas, selling handmade items such as bracelets, and holding luncheons sponsored by Guatemalan restaurants in the Miami community.

While in San Lucas, UMIO worked on many of the mission’s ongoing projects. The students aided in reforestation efforts so the Mayan people of San Lucas could grow new and sustainable plants. UMIO also helped with San Lucas’ coffee project, which supports local coffee growers and their families. Students continued construction of a playground project at the Women’s Center as well.

Each year, UMIO makes a cash donation to the San Lucas village. This year, UMIO donated $500 for supplies and labor costs for the construction of the new playground. They hope to fundraise more so they can make larger donations in future years.

“My favorite part of the trip was interacting with the locals,” Kabaria said. “They were so welcoming, and it was because of their generosity that we were able to truly experience what the Mayan culture is like.” UMIO plans to return to San Lucas each summer.

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