Caring for Guatemala's Forgotten Children: Student Trades his Spring Break for a Chance to Help

Author Unknown

Many college students use Spring Break to blow off steam and relax after a difficult series of classes, but for one Penn State Hazleton student, Spring Break wasn't a time to party.

Sophomore Andrew Makhoul, spent his break helping orphans in a third-world country and learning about himself. Makhoul, a 19-year-old telecommunications major, spent the week of March 4-11 in Guatemala, a Central American country southwest of Mexico that the U.S. State Department characterizes as a place of "widespread poverty and violence" with "wide income disparities…an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and a dysfunctional judicial system."

Volunteers with some of the children at
Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage, Guatemala
© Courtesy of J. Matters

Makhoul and about a dozen other students from colleges around the country, helped children at Hogar Rafael Ayau, an orphanage in "Zone 1," Guatemala City's toughest neighborhood. With a 30-foot wall and armed guards surrounding the block-wide orphanage, Makhoul and the others, quickly got a taste of everyday life in Guatemala.

"This wasn't Spring Break for me. It was Real Break. That's what this program is called ­ Real Break ­ because this isn't a party," Makhoul said. "This is real."

About 140 children live behind the walls of Hogar Rafael Ayau. They are anywhere from 2 days to 14 years old. The orphanage is a place where a woman can come through the front door and give up her child, as happened during Makhoul's stay. The Orthodox nuns who operate the orphanage, take the child and name him or her after the saint of the day. Many of the orphans have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused. All are very poor.

That's why Makhoul got involved. He's part of Teen SOYO (Society of Orthodox Youth Organization), a youth group sponsored by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. A few years ago, this group started a project to help orphans in Tijuana, Mexico. The project expanded to Guatemala this year.

Makhoul's older brother, a student at Penn State's University Park campus, went to Mexico in 2000.

"He had such a positive experience helping those kids," Makhoul said. "I figured I had to get involved this year and help these kids. They don't have many people looking out for them day-to-day."

Before he went, he asked his fellow students what they were doing over Spring Break.

"I had some friends go to Florida to party. I had some other friends go to Vermont to ski. When they'd ask me what I was doing, I'd say, 'I'm going on a mission to Guatemala.'"

Makhoul flew from Philadelphia to Houston, then on to Guatemala City. Since it was the first trip Real Break organized to Hogar Rafael Ayau, he wasn't sure what he and the other missionaries would do over the course of the week.

"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what the project would be," he said. "We got there and the kids were waiting for us. They just clung to us. They didn't know our names. They didn't know who we were. They just gave us love. They have so much love to give."

Over the next week Makhoul and the other missionaries helped the orphans. Makhoul and four others spent much of their time with the toddlers.

"We cleaned them. We bathed them. We fed them. We gave them one-on-one attention, which is missing from their lives," he said.

Makhoul and the others also used salvaged parts, to build bicycles for the children. They also taught the orphans how to swim.

"I don't speak much Spanish, but language wasn't a barrier with the kids. You communicated with love. You could see love when you looked in their eyes."

During the days Makhoul and the others, would spend virtually every moment with the orphans. At night, the women would sleep in the orphanage while the men were escorted, usually by armed guard, to a house across the street. Makhoul routinely heard gunfire, yet he wasn't scared.

"I considered us as being protected by God," he said, adding that he still had to take precautions such as walking with escorts and not wearing certain colors or types of clothing. Despite the dangers, he was more worried for the children.

"The kids know what's going on. They know what is outside the walls of the orphanage, what is out there in Guatemala City."

Unfortunately, what is out there in Guatemala City, often finds its way inside the walls of Hogar Rafael Ayau. Some two-year-olds, for example, have sexually-transmitted diseases. Others are HIV-positive. Their only treatments are concocted in the orphanage laboratory.

The orphanage opened five years ago, so the long-term fates of the children inside are still relatively uncertain. Some of the children will be adopted, primarily by Americans. Most, however, will remain unclaimed inside the orphanage. Those who do, will likely become priests or nuns.

Over the course of the week, Makhoul and the other volunteers became attached to the children.
Saying goodbye was very difficult.

"While I was down there, there was a thought that I didn't want to come back," he said. "I already made up my mind that I was going back, even before I came home this time."

After many tearful goodbyes, Makhoul and the other volunteers boarded a plane and returned to the U.S.

"When I came back, there was a bit of a culture shock," he admitted. "People here in the States, take so many things for granted. They forget that no matter how bad it is, it could always be worse."

Makhoul has no regrets about spending his Spring Break performing charity work.

"To find their love in those kids' eyes, to get their love, to give them love, to put a smile on their faces ­ that's what we need."

Click here to view images from Guatemala

If you are interested in volunteering in Guatemala, one very worthwhile option is:

Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage

For more information please click the above link.


A happy little customer at the orphange.
© Courtesy of J. Matters