Volunteering at Casa Guatemala
The Give and the Take
Article & Photos by Kelsey Timmerman
Child washing his desk with the mud from the Rio Dulce
If it’s true that you get what you give, one would expect the little boy on the right to be getting a cupful of water dumped on his head at any moment.
The boys are supposed to be washing their desks by scrubbing them with rocks and mud from the river bed and rinsing it with water poured from plastic cups, like the rest of their classmates. But this pair pours a little
water on the desks and a lot on each other. A burst of Spanish with an Irish accent is directed at the boys. They try their best to suppress grins while going about their work, feigning innocence. Melina, their teacher, is on to them.
It’s been a rough week for Melina. First there was the village-wide ringworm outbreak, and then the sleepless night spent attending to Daniel, three, who was running a high fever. She’s tired, maybe a little
depressed, and definitely not in the mood to deal with unwarranted water fights with all of the chairs and desks yet to be cleaned.
She is one of a rotating team of 20 volunteers from across the globe who have come to the Orphans’ Village of Casa Guatemala to teach and care for its 250 children between the ages of three and 17.
Casa Guatemala is an isolated village, accessed by a 30-minute boat ride from the city of El Relleno. The village has its own generator supplied power, agriculture plots, school, cooks, medical center, and volunteers.
Some of the children of Casa Guatemala have been abused and abandoned; others come from families too poor to provide for a child. The village exists solely for the purpose of providing homes and educating the children. It
is a place for them to eat and grow, play and laugh, to be loved and to be nurtured.
Children washing their desks with the rocks and mud from the Rio Dulce
Volunteers dedicate anywhere from three months to one year to Casa Guatemala. They are assigned to teach at the school, tutor students after hours, work at the medical center, help out with the village farm, or assist in
the everyday administration of the village.
Life as a Casa Guatemala volunteer is not for the faint of heart. The volunteers’ house is next to a pig pen. The pigs awake at 4:30 a.m.; so do the volunteers.
Living in a jungle village next to a river near the Caribbean Coast, many of the volunteers are confronted with foreign challenges; namely, extreme heat, suffocating humidity, floods, hurricanes, rats, reptiles, and insects.
But these challenges pale in comparison to communal living with 250 children.
Elizabeth, from Indiana, is halfway through her 10-month commitment to Casa Guatemala: “It’s really easy to get down here. The kids (problems), the climate (hot and rainy), the food (bland, lack of variety),
the wildlife (mosquitoes, snakes, scorpions), and the total lack of privacy, all can really take a toll on you mentally and physically, but then you think of why some of the kids are here and you quickly forget these relatively small problems
and remember why you want to do the best you can.”
After a long day of corralling the 15 kids she is in charge of, Melina is back at the river’s edge where she had earlier supervised the children cleaning their desks and chairs. It is time to play. She jumps off the
dock and, immediately upon surfacing, three giggling kids cling to her shoulders and head. The children climb up Melina’s shoulders and dive off; they take turns having her toss them into deeper water.
Her group swims out to a floating dock. The sun is low and its last rays silhouette Melina holding up a little girl acting like she is going to throw her in the water. In the background a mountain peak is painted pink. The
children’s laughter can be heard from the shore.
Melina and the other volunteers are mother, father, teacher, nurse, diving board, hope, and future to the 250 kids at Casa Guatemala. The children are youth, smile, spirit, laughter, tears, joy, and perspective to the volunteers.
Together, theirs is work that is never done.
Becoming a Casa Guatemala Volunteer
A 5- to 6-hour bus ride from Guatemala City, Casa Guatemala is located downriver from the city of El Relleno on the banks of the jungle-lined Rio Dulce in Guatemala’s Izabal region.
There are plenty of opportunities for both skilled and unskilled volunteers at Casa Guatemala. Volunteers must be at least 24 years of age. Preference is given to those who have some understanding of the Spanish language.
Volunteers who are fluent in Spanish are often used to teach a primary and secondary curriculum. Anyone who has medical training (EMTs, nurses, doctors, and dentists) would be a valuable addition to the village.
Long-Term Volunteers: Volunteers who stay between 3-12 months are the backbone of Casa Guatemala. Long-term volunteers must pay an initial fee of $180 to help offset accommodation costs. They
are often expected to work their first week at Hotel Backpackers, a hostel/bar in El Relleno that helps support at-risk children.
A work schedule of 22 days at the village and 8 days off provides volunteers with an opportunity to explore Guatemala and its neighboring countries.
Short-Term Volunteers: Those who have weeks not months to spend at Casa Guatemala are required to stay at Hotel Backpackers and take the boat each morning to the Orphans’ Village. A fee of $100 per week
is charged for food, accommodation, and transport. Short-term volunteers assist the staff and long-term volunteers as needed.
How to Apply
Apply online as a volunteer and to learn more about Casa Guatemala.
Kelsey Timmerman is a freelance writer and photographer who focuses on travel and the outdoors.