EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Harpell of Shortt’s Lake recently returned from his third trip to Guatemala and submitted this article to update supporters who helped him fulfill his goals.
My previous trips to Guatemala brought me face to face with real poverty. I saw what I thought would be as bad as it might get.
I was wrong. Big time!
Previous to this trip, I saw one room homes with dirt floors, no furniture , sparse food, walls made from corn stalks, (some of which showed half-wall decay), roofs of odds and end sections of corrugated steel salvaged from the dump, toilets consisting of holes dug in the corner with cardboard coverings, and bed sheets for outside doors.
This year, I was taken to a dump where a whole village spends their days living amid smoke from the fires that burn 24 hours a day. The children rarely go to school, so this state of poverty continues from one generation to the next. That is their existence.
Our team built eight homes during our time there. One of them I had sponsored by having fundraisers at Ella's Jamaican Kitchen and The Food Muster. They were supported by such generous friends and former patrons of my restaurant, that I raised more than enough to build the house so we were able to provide food hampers for each of the families at the dump along with clothing, shoes, bedding and household items.
Of course, we brought knitted teddy bears or dolls and pillowslip dresses or baseball caps for the girls and boys and some candies as treats.
One highlight for me was turning over the house I sponsored in memory of my foster parents, Mammie and Collie MacInnis in Bailey's Brook, Pictou County. They had applied to the province to get a 17- or 18-year-old to help out on the farm. They took in my brother and me when we were seven and kept us until we left to study at university or trade school.
Another highlight was seeing Julio again. Your readers may remember of my writing about him previously. Julio is the student who loved to volunteer at the school doing landscaping and gardening during his vacation. He had to hitch hike from his village to the school in the morning. I had not seen him since the first day, however. I asked about his story and was told his dad died of alcohol poisoning and when he was two years old, his mother remarried and his stepfather refused to accept him and he was abandoned in the streets. He became a sponsored child and was admitted to the school to which we are affiliated. He was then in grade nine and about my size.
During our stay, I purchased souvenirs, including a quilt. On the last day there, I realized I had no room in my luggage to carry any of the 10 pounds of coffee, scarves, decorations, pashminas, crèche, quilt, and other items I had purchased. So I emptied my suitcases into bags and hauled them to the school. I hunted down the director's wife and asked her to give them to Julio when the students returned from vacation the following week. As it turned out, Julio hitch-hiked later that morning and was given the bag He was told he could have whatever he wanted and was sent into the adjacent room to try things on. He took everything but a dress shirt as he told her he wouldn't have an occasion to use it. He then hunted me down and thanked me over and over again. He insisted on getting pictures taken.
On my next trip, I took down clothes and a new pair of running shoes. I gave them to the director's wife who passed them on later in the day. Once he received them, he again hunted me down and thanked me profusely. I got so many hugs it was unreal.
This trip, I again brought down lots of clothes – including a t-shirt with the map of Canada – and new running shoes. When I presented them to Diana, she told me he was no longer in the school. He had graduated last June and had a full-time job.
I was so disappointed on one hand, yet happy on the other. Being a foster child myself, I felt so elated for him that he had made it through school.
A few days later, one of the team came into our team room at the school and told me that I was wanted at the front desk. When I arrived, I was greeted by this young man who was now as tall as me. (I know, I know. You are all snickering and thinking, ‘That's not very tall. ‘) Let's just say the greeting was very emotional.
We talked for quite some time and when my team mates who all knew his story got to meet him, there was a lot of emotion evident. The director insisted he stay to have the same dinner we had, and we got to talk some more. He is saving money every pay cheque to go to university next fall. He wants to get a job helping other children who find themselves in situations like his. You can guess how dry-eyed I was after that revelation.
Another highlight of this trip was having my younger daughter, Katrina, join the team. It meant a great deal to share this with her.
Anyway, with the help of my restaurant friends, I am planning during the next two years, on fundraising to help him out as well as build a home for a needy family or maybe even two.
Once again, I wish to thank all the wonderful people who so generously helped me raise the funds these past two years.