Elizabeth Cole and her son, Taylor Steele, came to Guatemala for the first time the week of November 5. Cole’s bid won the all-expenses paid trip at the Quetzal Gala earlier this year. She hails from Salisbury, North Carolina, and elected to bring her 29-year-old son to experience the trip with her. Together, they participated in Escuela Integrada’s first Vision Trip, along with five other attendees.
The purpose of the Vision Trip, which ran concurrent to the planning track of the annual Supporters Gathering, was to introduce potential supporters to Escuela Integrada and Guatemalan culture. Throughout the week, the group met the children, teachers and staff from the school, attended two graduation ceremonies and a fundraiser, participated in cultural activities and went on home visits.
“My children grew up extremely privileged and I grew up extremely privileged,” Cole said. “I’m really glad I got to do the home visits. I know people live like this, but it’s still hard to see. The home visits gave me a new perspective.”
Cole and her son went on four home visits on Tuesday afternoon. They met the students’ families and saw firsthand their living conditions. At the first home visit, Cole and Steele walked down a street where many people were propped up against the storefronts in an inebriated state.
“There were moments when I had to stop and collect myself because of the drug addiction, because of what I was seeing,” she said. “I was crying.”
To reach the second home, Cole and Steele had to hike up a steep hill, across loose soil and past a dump to a simple laminate structure in Jocotenango. Five-year-old Anita watched the group climb up to her home and came out to greet them.
“The neatest thing that happened to me today was not only watching my son carry the food all the way up the hill, but when we got close to the top, I saw this little tiny hand reach out, and it was the little girl who lived in the home,” Cole said. “She reached right out to help me up.”
Cole quickly bonded with Anita, who will be in first grade in January, and her mother as the group asked questions about the families’ health and well-being. Meanwhile, Steele won the affection of the other children with the family size bag of M&Ms he brought in his backpack. The candy also helped him make fast friends at the other two homes they visited later that afternoon.
At the last home, Cole and Steele were impressed by the hospitality of the family. Despite living in a small, dark room with dirt floors behind a metal workshop, the family pulled out a bench and plastic chairs for Cole, Steele and the other visitors.
“I’ve turned people away from my front door because my bed was not made,” Cole said. “They were so welcoming. They wanted us to have a place to sit. The generosity was amazing.”
Midweek, Cole taught a Nia class for Proyecto Capaz, the girls program at Escuela Integrada, as a way of sharing her love of movement. Nia combines dance, martial arts and mindfulness in a cardio-dance workout. The girls laughed as they danced with Cole in the courtyard of the school. Cole had visited a home of some of the girls in the program, which helped her form a stronger bond with them, she said.
Participating in the Vision Trip also helped Cole feel empowered to go back to Salisbury and share her experience with her friends, family and community.
“It’s amazing what you’re doing,” she said. “I want people to see so much more. I feel much more connected.”