My First Visit Back
by Janessa Landeck
It had been six and half years since I left La Esperanza and the women of UPAVIM. I still remember squeezing into a taxi with my husband, three-year-old son, all our possessions, and way too many crafts. The three of us had loved our year volunteering at UPAVIM, but I would be lying if I did not admit that the moment the taxi started toward the airport, the most prominent emotion I felt was relief. Relief to return home to wintry Wisconsin and all the comforts and conveniences that provided, but even greater relief to leave the constant challenges of La Esperanza behind. My husband and I continued to stay involved with UPAVIM mostly fundraising for the (at-that-time) new community library. We stayed connected, but for many years I held UPAVIM at arm’s length, not ready to head back into the heaviness and stress I knew lay there.
We had arrived in Guatemala as two starry-eyed graduates eager to change the world. As you might expect we left feeling different about our prospects as world-changers. Living in a neighborhood like La Esperanza has a way of beating you down. You just start to get to know a darling child in the tutoring center and then her father is killed by the local gangs. You spend months working to get vaccines for the clinic just to have everything fall apart because of a bureaucratic hiccup. Of course our time was filled with small triumphs: getting a kid into school for the first time, opening a prenatal clinic, and using the subjunctive tense of Spanish in casual conversation. But the challenges were always there and the obstacles to success loomed large.
[blockquote align=”right”]the UPAVIMas still show up and give the best parts of themselves to the cooperative and the community. They still strive for a better life. [/blockquote]In the last year I slowly eased myself back into working more closely with UPAVIM. I started serving as a first contact for prospective volunteers, and I accepted an offer to join the US-based UPAVIM Community Development Foundation board. As I began to immerse myself little by little into what was going on in Guatemala again, I knew the time had come to go back.
My recent visit back to UPAVIM was full of strategy sessions with the women and checking items off my long to-do list. I ran from meeting to meeting as I was updated about future dreams for the library, clinic, and craft program. I toured the 3rd floor craft production area which was new since we lived there and watched men start work on the fourth floor of the school. I sampled familiar pastries at the bakery and tried the new ice cream at the soy factory. I marveled at the work the library is doing supplying books to area teachers. I reconnected with old friends who shared news of great joy and, all too often, deep losses. The visit was a whirlwind, a sprint.
Throughout my visit though, I sadly realized that La Esperanza had remained largely the same. The neighborhood was still plagued by violence and heartbreak. The same obstacles, headaches, and challenges remained. There were so many things working against the women and children I knew and loved. But this time getting in the taxi to head to the airport a new feeling overcame me: awe and respect for the women of UPAVIM.
These brave women wake up every morning and know that the odds are against them. They know that their efforts may fail and that tragedy will come again and again. They know their children may not reach adulthood in this neighborhood so dominated by gangs. But the UPAVIMas still show up and give the best parts of themselves to the cooperative and the community. They still strive for a better life. Unlike me, they cannot leave and they cannot put aside the challenge to return to at a later date. When faced with the choice between hope and despair they keep choosing hope. My visit to UPAVIM reminded me why I left, but it also reminded me why I cannot leave these women to fight alone. They deserve all the support I can give. They deserve to have their hope honored and their dreams fulfilled.