When Words Fail

This post is part of a volunteer time off series, which gives employees a chance to reflect on their trips, ask critical questions, and share what they've been learning. To learn more about our VTO program, check out David Fouse's post.

My time spent volunteering at a childcare center in Costa Rica last year left me wanting the opportunity to work with kids abroad again. I was excited to find myself back in South America in October of 2019, hanging out with a classroom of smiley four-year-olds in Antigua, Guatemala.

Although I was returning to the community of native Spanish speakers I had been immersed in before, my skills were still no match for the quickness of the locals. Often times, it was a challenge to understand the staff when they asked me to help with things or when the children needed something from me. There were a lot of charades during the week, which at times left me feeling confused and lost. For instance, one day we went on a “field trip” to a church, and I had no idea where we were going until we arrived!

Despite these challenges, I found there is beauty when our words fail. I learned I could comfort a crying child even though I didn’t really know the language well– hugs and kisses transcend language barriers, and all she really needed was someone who cared. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what had happened on the playground. I felt incredibly grateful to be able to be there for her!

Seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces every morning when I arrived to help them eat their breakfast was one of my favorite moments. I could see the connection we had made in their smiles, even though we didn’t speak the same language.

My hostel provided a sense of comfort and community in the middle of so much uncertainty. I stayed with other volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, some from across the world, as far as New Zealand! I didn’t expect to become as close to them in such a short time as I did, but it was so nice having people there who were of the same mission and language. These friends provided the comfort of home in the midst of a new country, a new language and new experiences.

I left Guatemala with the motivation to get serious about learning Spanish. As a French minor, it’s a lot easier to get around when visiting French-speaking countries. I absorb more from the experience when I can communicate with the people around me. I hope to be able to do that in Spanish areas, hopefully in time for my next trip!

Language skills aside, the four-year-olds in my classroom taught me two important things that have begun to affect change in both my personal and professional life. First, focus on the small opportunities, like comforting the child, that you can do to cheer someone up or make someone’s life a little better. The smallest change can make a big difference. Second, since we can communicate in countless different ways, we just have to get creative with it. Whether it’s through a solid game of charades or through the written word, love, joy and gratitude can be expressed regardless of the language you speak. I encourage you to discover a new way to show love and thanks each week, and maybe eventually, to try it out on your own volunteer trip abroad.

My only challenge? Waiting until next year to do another trip!