I don’t claim to be a flawless, cherubim flanked humanitarian, and I’m certainly no Mother Theresa, but I am changed. To my marrow, I am not the same Leah Rosetti that I was twelve months ago. Typically, this sort of transformation creeps up on you, if at all. It could catch you unaware, when you one day realize at forty that life is not what you’ve made it to be. There has to be more out there, beyond our cozy familiar lives. Something human, something real. This past April, something undeniably real exposed itself to me, and this revelation cannot be stashed away in some dark nook of denial within me. The Wells of Hope organization, which provides water to thousands, and means of survival to the poorest of the poor in Guatemala, allowed a group of students to trek south with them and get a glimpse of what it truly means to serve. In my recollections, two defining moments from this mission stand out along the way, moments that continue to color my perception of North American life.
In spite of several failed attempts to successfully board our flights, compliments of two lovely Canadian storms, our group of exhausted, disoriented teenagers stepped off of the plane and onto the soil of a country envisioned for months. The heat clung to our skin like we had never experienced, and it seemed as if every man we passed had a machete the size of a six year old anchored to his hip. A new reality was slowly sinking in, a world where women have no choice but to carry children on their backs and massive water jugs atop their heads. As we began a seemingly endless journey from the capital city to the mountains where we’d be working, we reveled in the country’s surreal beauty. A skyline swelling with church steeples, buildings whitewashed to a perfect glow, and flowers bursting from every open space. The further from the main city we traveled, the more this rose tinted vision of the country faded under the shadows cast by poverty. Tin shacks sprouted up and paved roads quickly became dirt paths, always threatening to trap the van in some cavernous pothole. I recall veering to the right of the path, to let by what appeared to be a procession of sorts. We paused unknowingly and admired the villagers passing; all of them clad in their traditional shades, with garlands of flowers strewn about, and perched atop them all was a tiny wooden coffin. The perfect fit for a toddler. That moment is crystallized in my mind, my first unfiltered encounter with the desperation of life in a country where nothing can be taken for granted.
My memories race towards the third day, when I’ve gathered the shattered pieces of myself back together. One of our first projects was the construction of a septic system for a school in Laguna el Pito; not exactly what I would call glamorous work. Hours were spent carving gashes in the land: merciless, blistering labor. Our group must have seemed like an unimpressive lot, covered in mud and positively sopping, but the school children were enthralled. They would invite us to play soccer with them on water breaks (it was a humbling experience in itself losing to a six year old), or teach us the colors in Spanish, and be so unabashedly sweet that anyone would just burst with love for them. We worked there for several days, enough time to get obscenely attached to these gleeful children who had so little, but gave us so much. As we left the work site for the last time, a little girl approached me and pulled me into the tightest of embraces. She looked up at me with unrestrained expectance and hope, asking me softly when she would see me again. How could I possibly tell her that I was never coming back? How could I tell her anything at all? There are times when no words can do life justice, and my only choice was to hug her closer.
When asked what I did with Wells of Hope I am unable to say that I helped the poor. In truth, the poor helped me. I did what I could to treat tiny symptoms of a bigger disease; perhaps giving the people I encountered a little bit more ease, a little bit more peace of mind. This pales in comparison to their impact on me. They gave me a cause. They gave me a new perspective. They gave me a reason to get up in the morning and push myself. Wells of Hope has left me changed.