One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Guatemala was to volunteer.  For the last two years, I have been passionate about volunteering internationally and giving back to the countries in which I have had the pleasure of visiting.  It has inspired me, motivated me and changed me to become the person I am today.  And I must admit, I am proud of that fact.

Two years ago, I went on my first volunteer trip with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) to Costa Rica where I worked at a nursing home for abandoned grandparents (to read posts, click here).  Then last April, I traveled to Morocco again with CCS to volunteer at a women’s school and help tutor English.  I loved both of these volunteer experiences as they truly changed my life.  However after two years of doing volunteer work as a group I wanted to try venturing out on my own.  I had traveled abroad alone before yet never for an extended period of time.  I felt like there was no time like the present to give it a whirl and truly challenge myself.  I just needed to find the right place.

When my son Max started first grade at Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis my opportunity arose.  Max’s first grade teacher, Ms. May, just so happens to be married to a Guatemalan man and together they have run a Spanish School called Casa Xelaju and a nearby community center, La Pedrera, for years.  My opportunity had come!  Guatemala was on my travel list and after falling in love with Costa Rica, I could hardly wait to visit another Central American country, especially one with a vibrant indigenous community, the Mayans.

Photo above of me with my little girls. These three girls are the same age as my daughter Sophia. I adored them and their smiles brightened my soul and warmed my heart.

The only obstacle standing in my way was my lack of Spanish.  I was fine in Morocco as I had studied, lived and worked in France many years ago and have kept up with the language.  Spanish, on the other hand, is not my expertise.  I had studied it half hazard eight years ago, then tested it out a little in Costa Rica (yet I was with a group and could get by with very little Spanish skills).  But volunteering in Guatemala with the local children at La Pedrera would be different.  I would perhaps have no one else there who spoke English.  Thus I would need to learn some Spanish in order to contribute.

This hatched the plan for me to enter Casa Xelaju as a student, spend five intense hours a day learning Spanish, and then volunteer with the children in the afternoons that I could.  It was a fabulous plan except for the fact that my time in Guatemala was limited.  I only had a full five days in Xela to learn Spanish, explore my surroundings and volunteer.  In that short amount of time, I did my best and made it to see the children at La Pedrera on two afternoons.  Those two afternoons were incredibly rewarding to me and I left Xela wishing I had more time.  I would have spent every afternoon with the children if I could.

The joy, smiles and laughter on their faces brought back the true meaning of humanity.  Sometimes this is forgotten in our daily lives.  Yet children are so beautiful.  So creative.  So joyful.  And so full of life.  They are our future.  If only I had more time to give.

My little buddies who I tried to help with their homework.

The kids are often not well nourished thus the program provides a healthy snack for them at the end of the day.

Some information on La Pedrera (Source:  Casa Xelaju):

“La Pedrera is an indigenous community located on the rocky hills of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The people of La Pedrera moved from their pueblos to the near-city community looking for work and opportunities, and hoping to better their lives. Most adults speak the indigenous language k’iche’ as their mother tongue, while their children often only speak Spanish fluently”.

“Lacking education, the people of La Pedrera have access to employment only in domestic and physical labor.  These low-paying jobs provide barely enough income for crude shelter and a little food, leaving families unable to afford the expenses of sending their children to public schools. Children as young as six years old often join their parents and relatives working in the fields. The families of La Pedrera live with limited electricity and without running water.  Their homes have earthen floors, and in most cases only two rooms to shelter extended families of up to twenty people”.

“The school at La Pedrera, sponsored by Casa Xelaju (a Spanish Language School in Quetzaltenango) represents hope for the almost 100 children who attend. While poorly equipped by US standards, the children are receiving a basic education. There is one teacher plus volunteers from Casa Xelaju”.

View of the school on the outside.

View of Xela from the school.  It was a steep 15-20 minute walk up the side of the mountain to get there.  Below is a view from Casa Xelaju looking up into the hills where La Pedrera is located.

Facts about La Pedrera:

Opened: Project La Pedrera began in 1995 with 13 students.
Graduates: 19 students (5 girls and 11 boys) have graduated the program since 2006.
  • 40 children are currently enrolled in the program (27 girls and 21 boys)
  • 27 of them are in elementary schools (12 girls and 15 boys)
  • 16 teens are enrolled in middle school (11 girls and 5 boys)
  • 6 are at the high school level (3  girls and 3 boys)

The first day I helped some of the pre-teen children work on their homework. The little kids laughed and made fun of my poor Spanish but I didn’t care. They were learning and having fun.  (Below are two of my favorite little girls who did nothing but smile at me!):

The second day was the best of all. I had purchased an English language kids BINGO back at home and carried it with me to Guatemala. When I presented the game and unwrapped the cellophane paper, the kids screamed in joy and the games began! Even the older kids were trying to jump in to this age 4 and older game. It was a riot and the kids loved it!

Me with my big table of BINGO players!   

Another American volunteer named Chris had been coming to Xela for the last five years and was the most dedicated volunteer I’d ever met.  He visited the children every day of the week!  I was so touched.

I left La Pedrera wondering what the future would bring to these smiling, beautiful children. The children of the poor who barely have enough food to eat.  Would they finish their studies?  Would they have a better life?  I certainly hope so.  


  1. This is so wonderful! I volunteered with CCS as well, in Peru, and am going to Russia with them in May. I love your pictures and insights into the volunteer experience.

    1. Wow, that is so cool!!!! I heard that the Russia program is fantastic! I hope you write a lot about it! I really want to do the CCS Ghana program. The Tanzania one is on my list too as I have been dreaming of climbing Kili for over ten years and it was on my “to do” list when I recently turned 40! Oh, so great Meghan! I really can’t wait to hear about your program there!!!

      1. Tanzania has been calling my name, too! I’ll be honest, there isn’t one single CCS placement I wouldn’t LOVE to do. It’s such a great organization. I will be writing plenty about Russia, don’t you worry!

      2. I heard the Tanzania program is amazing too. It is a bit remote which I like and I’ve had Mount Kili on my “to do” list for over ten years! I know I’ll get there…just don’t know when. Looking forward to hearing your travels and post!

  2. Sounds like an incredible program. I will have to read up on it a little more. Thanks for the great pics.


  3. Sounds like you had a fantastic experience with the kids Nicole and I’m sure they loved having you around! I can’t wait to see where you end up next!

  4. Nicole, this is one of the reasons why I love your blog – the way you combine your love for travel with that of volunteerism. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you Madhu! I truly love volunteering and really can’t wait to do more! There is lots of need here in my own community and once I have a little more time and my daughter is in school I will jump on the chance to help out locally!

    1. Thank you! If only I had more time to volunteer! But it will come! I also plan on doing more here in my own community as there is plenty of need here as well! Thanks for the nice comments! Nicole

  5. I always love it when you write stories about your volunteer experiences. I believe it’s not only me who become so inspired by those, but many of your readers also do. Keep up the spirit, Nicole!

    1. Thanks Bama! Volunteering is what truly inspires me. I know that I will have a long career of volunteering and I can hardly wait to do more. There is so much need here as well in my own country and state yet my time is so limited that I only volunteer at my son’s school for not, which is great too!

  6. Bless your kind and generous heart. Beautiful, moving post that gives an honest glimpse of these children’s world. I told my wife while inside a restaurant, “look at the mom and her 2 kids.” She saw them checking the trash for items they can sell like plastic bottles and tin cans. Our hearts felt like they were crushed seeing images like this all over the country. We need to do our best to give, to share , to make this world better for this children. God bless you and your wonderful family.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! Yes there is so much to be done even in our own country. I can’t wait until I have more time to give back more. It is my calling!

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