SAN JORGE, Guatemala – Wearing an intricately embroidered blouse and long, woven skirt – the traditional traje of indigenous people in Guatemala – a 6 year-old girl tries to sneak a peak through the red blindfold covering her eyes.
She and 24 of her preschool classmates at the community center in the village of San Jorge are playing pinthenoseonthesnowman, a game unlike any they’d played before.
Her attempts to cheat futile, the girl tacks the carrot nose on the snowman’s hat. “Muy bien,” a team of U.S. volunteers chorus as they clap after each child’s turn.
The volunteers, mostly adoptive moms from across the United States, were spending the week in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan region, helping the nonprofit organization Mayan Families run free medical and veterinary clinics, and distribute food baskets, clothes, shoes and toys.
The moms insist they don’t view their volunteer work here as “giving back” to the community – adopting their children wasn’t a transaction, they said. For these women, the trip to Guatemala was more about finding a way to “honor” their adopted children and the country they come from.
“Once we bring our kids home, our hearts are still here,” said Sarah BowenLewis of Louisville, Ky., who is mother to a 3 year-old daughter from Guatemala. “We can’t forget the world our children were born into.”
This was BowenLewis’ second such service trip to Guatemala with a team of adoptive parents.
“I think this is something a lot of moms just feel they need to do,” said BowenLewis, 40. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Surrounded by hundreds of food baskets wrapped in red cellophane, with volunteers sorting through donated clothes, shoes, and toys, Sharon SmartPoage, one of the founders of Mayan Families, said she’s never had so many helpers at one time.
“It’s marvelous,” she said. “Were it not for these guys, a lot of this work wouldn’t be happening.”
Cheri PelusoVerdend, one of the organizers for the group of 25 volunteers – many of whom met years earlier while going through the Guatemala adoption process – said she was shocked at the interest of adoptive parents wanting to help out.
“There’s a real desire to just be able to show up and be put to work,” said PelusoVerdend, of Tulsa, Okla. “We all wanted to make meaningful connections with the country that gave us our children.”
Until this year, when amid reports of baby theft and corruption, the Guatemalan government froze all international adoptions until a better regulatory system can be put into place, Guatemala had the most adoptions percapita in the world, sending roughly one of every 100 children born here to the United States.
Last year more than 5,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by U.S. parents. Worldwide, more than 25,000 Guatemalan children were adopted between 1997 and 2006, according to UNICEF.
Since Julie Hubbard and her husband brought home Leo, now 2, to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, in May 2007, their lives have changed, she said.
“I have a different sense of how much need there is in other countries, and how much responsibility we have,” she said, taking a break from packing food baskets. “I wanted to support Mayan Families because it’s a way of honoring my child and helping those less fortunate, because I know my child could have been in the shoes of any of those children out there.”
Earlier this year, when BowenLewis heard that another group of adoptive moms was planning a trip to volunteer with Mayan Families, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. And this time she wanted to bring her 16year-old daughter, Morgan, big sister to her 3year old adopted sibling.
“Something like this will influence her direction in life, and change the way she thinks about life going forward,” BowenLewis said.
Morgan said she wasn’t sure what to expect on the trip, never imagining it would be so emotional. She broke down in tears after saying goodbye to the 7year-old Guatemalan girl her family “sponsors,” the money allowing her to attend school.
“It’s hard to see how they live,” she said. “But it makes you feel good to know you’re helping.”
Sitting on the tile floor of the community center in San Jorge, surrounded by 5and
6 year-old children, Morgan freely distributed hugs in between doling out candy canes and Christmas stockings stuffed with crayons and helping the kids play pinthenoseonthesnowman.
Any one of these children could have been her sister, she said.
“On the streets I see my sister’s face on all the kids’ little bodies,” she said.
For more info, www.mayanfamilies.org.