Each January, the Macalester Development Group sponsors a trip to the Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala, where students spend two weeks doing sustainable community development projects through the nonprofit Rising Minds. While helping with various projects they also learn a lot about Guatemalan customs and development issues. This year there are 11 Mac students on the trip. The following are blog entries from various members of the trip.

day 9

Today we left San Juan and journeyed up winding roads to the aldea (mountain community) of Panyebar to paint murals at a school. In addition to Lacho and Zalaya, the Rising Minds program directors who have been working with us throughout the trip, we were joined by Rising Minds staffers Mateo and Ann-Marie.

When we arrived at the school, Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta Panacal II, several teachers greeted us and shared their ideas for what we could paint on the cancha (flat cement area outside the children’s classroom). Drawing from their ideas, we made good progress today and transformed the dull gray cement into many colorful educational floor murals. By day’s end, we had painted a map of the world (with Guatemala highlighted in red), a hopscotch pattern with Mayan numbering, a timeline highlighting major events in Guatemalan history, the outline for a game of Twister, a foursquare court, and a giant snake with the alphabet spelled out across its body.

We also painted a food pyramid and the school logo on a wall, while Lacho and Ann-Marie created a Mayan calendar with various nahuales (Mayan spirit animals) on another wall. These murals will be a great resource, allowing the teachers make learning more hands-on, and will give the kids a fun, colorful space in which to play. We’ll return tomorrow to continue our work.

 After driving back to San Juan for the night, we met in a café to discuss what we’d seen of the Guatemalan education system. Some of the students shared conversations they’d had with their host families, such as learning that their host siblings had to attend private schools because there are no public ones in San Juan after sixth grade.

Another student observed that her host brother seemed so much more excited about school than she had at his age. We then talked about how time off from school is different for rural Guatemalan children: instead of having summers off, they probably have to work picking coffee. Therefore, school has a very different meaning for them. 

Here are the students’ “I had nevers” from the day: Before today, I had never…painted a floor, been to the aldeas, learned so many shape names in Spanish, met people from Quebec (Mateo and Ann-Marie), written the Spanish alphabet, seen a beautiful mural of the Mayan calendar, written Mayan numbers. 

Day 8

Lizzy and Elizabeth:

Whew! Today was an incredibly rewarding but exhausting day. We started the day off by finishing our work in the school garden. When we were done, we had made two new garden beds, constructed a log structure for a hanging garden, and hung several bottle planters from the surrounding fence. Once again, several children from Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta San Juanerita joined us to help with filling the bottle planters. All in all, the work we accomplished in just three days was amazing, and the students talked about how rewarding it was to see the direct impact of what we had done.

We are also excited that the children who helped will be able to use this garden in the future for their gardening and nutrition classes. They will reuse more plastic bottles, build more beds, and start growing healthy foods in a formerly empty lot. We are excited about this program because the kids at the school will be able to gain important skills like seed-saving and will learn how to take care of gardens of their own.

During the afternoon we hosted the grand finale for our youth leadership days: a carnival. About 50 excited children from the San Juanerita neighborhood showed up and had a blast doing pillowcase races, playing limbo and Twister, getting their faces painted, and trying out jump rope, ring toss, and bean bag toss games. It was a successful day, and we look forward to hearing updates from Rising Minds on how their youth leadership program continues to progress in the future. 

Here are the students’ “I had nevers” from the day:

Before today, I had never…played sack races with little kids, taught Guatemalan kids “Ring Around the Rosie,” finished a structure from start to finish, played “a sailor went to sea-sea-sea” in Spanish, made friends with a Guatemalan tween, made up my own directions to the game Twister in Spanish.  

Tomorrow, we are headed to a school in Panyebar, one of the aldeas (rural mountain communities, to paint an educational mural, including maps, multiplication tables, and hopscotch designs using Mayan numbers. The students, teachers, and parents will all be there to help us.


Today we completed our second day of working in the sustainable bottle garden. Already the garden area looks vastly different than it did yesterday morning. It is a great feeling to see the garden begin to take shape, and an even better feeling to know this is something that will benefit the entire community. As we were working, children offered their help with whatever task we were doing, showing that this is indeed something they the community is interested in. It also made me realize that this is a garden that will be taken care of and used long after our expedition is over.

It was impressive that something as simple as using plastic bottles in a garden could turn out to be so beautiful and practical. The plastic bottles are an inexpensive alternative to planters, putting to good use something that would have otherwise been thrown away. I was told that the pesticides are to be all-natural, too, meaning that some plants will be grown in the garden for their naturally occurring pesticide properties. This project made me reassess my perception of gardening, which I consider a hobby, whereas here it is more of a necessity.

After the gardening we got to play games with a large number of the children of San Juan. I was nervous because my Spanish isn’t very good, and I wasn’t sure how well I was could explain the rules to games. To my surprise, the language barrier wasn’t a problem. The children were quick to jump right into the games and work with us.

What also surprised me was how outgoing they were. They were not as shy as I had thought they might be. This was a cultural difference for me, as I know many U.S. children would be much more reserved with strangers. I also noticed that these children were more independent.

Because outdoor play with other children is so important to child development, I was glad to see how well the kids played together, and to know that we were able to offer a safe place for them to play.

Although there are many things about the culture of San Juan, Guatemala, that are extremely different from the U.S., working with children seems to reduce the culture shock a bit. Children everywhere just want to be cared for and played with.


Today was another fun-filled day working with La Escuela San Juanerita. We again spent the morning working in the school garden, continuing to fill recycled bottles with soil for planting. Several students also helped build a wooden structure from which we will hang bottle planters.

Partway through our gardening, several kids returned to help us out. We asked them how their school has used the previous smaller garden. They said they had helped plant some of the herbs, and they look forward to planting carrots, guisquil (a local type of squash), and lettuce. It was fun talking and working with them, and we hope more kids will join us tomorrow.

After lunch—and the chance to savor some chocolate-dipped fruit—we hosted our second day of games for children from the San Juanerita neighborhood. This included some giant group games of pato, pato, ganzo (duck, duck, goose) and a game of Capture the Flag, chicos vs. chicas. For our last day with the kids tomorrow, we plan on hosting a carnival using materials brought from the U.S. Through hosting these days of fun with the community, we hope the students are inspired to return for Rising Minds’ youth leadership programs. Such programs will include not just games but also academic reinforcement and homework help.

After this fun but exhausting day, we headed to a local restaurant to Skype once more with Courtney, the founder of Rising Minds. Courtney asked each of the students to share one of the most poignant things we had learned so far. While the students gave a variety of answers, two themes emerged. One theme involved becoming more aware of the privileges we take for granted every day back in the U.S., such as having easy access to potable water. In the communities where Rising Minds works, purified water is difficult and expensive to get, and many families in the surrounding mountain communities cannot afford it.

Another theme involved learning how important it is to build relationships with community members and involve them in development projects, such as having children work in the garden with us. If communities are not involved in these projects, the experience is not empowering for them, and they will not be as invested in sustaining the projects.

The students will use what they have learned from this trip to map out transference projects that they will carry out once they return to the U.S. In this way, this trip to Guatemala will not just be a two-week stop-out from their everyday lives, but will have a longer reaching impact. We will keep you posted on the students’ ideas for these projects as they unfold.

Here is a list of the students’ “I had nevers” from the day:

Before today, I had never…participated in creating a bottle garden, eaten a frozen chocolate pineapple, built a structure out of tree logs

-gone to a political meeting, been to a centro de salud, played Uno in another country, made planters out of recycled pop bottles, built a garden structure, eaten the fruit jocote, enjoyed working on a garden.

Blog by Kaitlyn Lindaman

We all arrived at the park, our usual meeting spot, a bit earlier today. While we were waiting, we were able to explore the city a bit more. Next, we all made our way over to a part of San Juan most of us hadn’t seen yet. This was our first day of three working with a school in this area. Many of the families in this area only stay for coffee-picking season, which makes this a unique part of San Juan.

We spent the next few hours setting up the school garden. We all had various tasks, and the kids of the area helped out. One of the jobs was to fill old plastic bottles with dirt to use in a sustainable manner. The plan for this garden looks super cool, and I am excited to see what it looks like after day three.

The kids really liked to help and were a lot quicker filling up the bottles than we were. Fortunately, they teamed up with us, making the whole group very efficient. Unfortunately, though, the kids were moving so quickly that dirt was flying everywhere.

After we were done, we went looking for some ice cream, which gave us the energy we needed for the youth leadership games. The next few hours were fun and tiring as kids of all ages came down to play. We played games like Sharks and Minnows, Red Light Green Light, and Freeze Dance. It was a super energetic and fun atmosphere. The kids wore all of us out, especially when they all decided they wanted piggyback rides.

After our group meeting we all went together to a café. We all used the WiFi before returning home to our respective families. I met my host dad for the first time because he works in Antigua every other week. It was a fun first meal with the whole family.

day 6

Today was a day filled with laughter, fun, and time with kids! It was our first day working at La Escuela San Juanerita, a local school attended by children from many of the community’s impoverished families. The students are mainly the children of migrant workers who come into San Juan to pick coffee, so their education is often interrupted.

During the morning we started constructing a garden that the school will use to teach kids how to raise vegetables. The school hopes that by teaching children gardening skills early on, they will be empowered to eat nutritious food throughout their lives. Just to make things even more exciting, when we arrived at the garden this morning, about 15 grade school-aged children came running in. Eager to help us, they assisted with filling about 60 recycled bottles with dirt. These bottles will serve as a wall lining the garden, and plants that are natural pesticides will grown in what was formerly trash. We had fun working with the kids, and it’s great that they played a part in constructing the garden they will use in the future.

In the afternoon we held a fun day of games and music for kids in the San Juanerita neighborhood. The students worked in teams to lead games such as Sharks and Minnows, Chunga, Red Light Green Light, and Freeze Dance. It was a fun, action-packed afternoon and a fantastic opportunity for Rising Minds to continue building a relationship with this school and community.

Here are the Mac students’ “I had nevers”: used lime as salad dressing, been tackled by a swarm of little children, given so many piggyback rides, prepared ceviche by the beach, made  tortillas, used tortillas as utensils.

Rachel Naasz: Family Day

Since Sunday is a day of rest, everyone in the family slept in this morning. I got up at 8:30 and chatted with my host mom, Flora, while she prepared breakfast. Then we went to the market. The family dog came with us as a sort of guard, but she was more afraid of the traffic than we were. Flora explained that since everyone is busy working during the week, people normally do all their grocery shopping on Sundays. She was right; the market was packed when we got there. Flora bought the ingredients for the chicken soup we were going to make for lunch.

I was supposed to help Flora make the soup, but the recipe is really easy so she just explained it to me. You simply boil chicken with a bunch of vegetables and a couple spices and herbs, one of which is similar to parsley. While it was cooking, I hung out with my host siblings and their cousins as they tended a fruit stand in the street, and we played Fruit Ninja on my phone. We had fun doing that until the soup was ready. The soup was delicious, and everyone had seconds.

After lunch, the entire extended family went to the beach. I was really excited because I´ve been dying to swim ever since we got here. The beach was a few miles away, so we took a tuktuk, their version of a taxi. It´s a very small car, but somehow we managed to fit in nine people. Going uphill was terrifying. The engine made a lot of strange noises the entire time, but the car somehow held up.

When we got to the beach, we immediately ran for the water. Even though it´s winter here, I thought the water was really warm. The members of my host family did not agree. They started shivering immediately, and Flora wouldn’t even go in. Her two sons and some of her nieces and nephews splashed her until she went underwater. We swam for a long time, and before we left everyone sunned themselves on the beach. The sun felt so great! Before long we had to leave to get ready for Mass. 

Flora and her sisters helped me dress in the traditional clothing of the region, the traje. They fussed over me for 20 minutes, making sure everything was perfect, and then my host dad took photos of everyone wearing their traje. The mass itself was similar to those I’d attended in the United States. It was very festive since today was the last day of Christmas. The priest was funny and personable, and connected well with all his parishioners.

After Mass, we returned home for dinner, enjoying more of the same delicious chicken soup we’d had for lunch. Tonight I plan to play Uno with the kids— the perfect ending to a fantastic day.

Day 5

Today was a free day to relax and spend time with host families. Our students spent the day doing a variety of activities, such as cooking with their host moms, attending church, and dressing up in traje típico (the traditional style of dress in San Juan). We also ran into several students at the lake, where they seemed to be having a wonderful time splashing around in the water with their host siblings.

Day 4

Today we heard the unfortunate news that funding had been cut for a program that employs several women, including a daycare program for impoverished children that provides healthy food and developmental activities. Due to these salary cuts, the women may not have jobs next month, and the program may suffer significantly. Although we were powerless to do anything about this, we had a meaningful discussion about our own privilege and the benefits we take for granted every day. What seems like a small amount of money to us can be a person’s livelihood here in Guatemala. 

We are hopeful that once Rising Minds’ new program gets off the ground, it will make a difference in Panyebar, even when other programs are not doing as well. Overall, the health workers had very positive feedback about the opportunity to talk with the students and hear their ideas. They were especially excited to learn about household disinfectants, which can be made out of simple ingredients such as vinegar and water. They also appreciated our ideas for games they could play with children to teach them about health. We are very excited for Rising Minds to build on these relationships and use the information we learned today to shape future health programs.

After a very full day, we headed out to a restaurant to celebrate Jacob’s birthday! This was especially fun because it is the same restaurant where our (Lizzy and Elizabeth’s) host mom works as a chef. We ended the night with dancing and singing.

Here are the students’ “I had nevers” from the past two days:

I had never….watched the sunset over Lake Atitlán, eaten dinner in San Pedro, rridden in a tuk-tuk, maintained a long conversation in Spanish, connected with women so different from me, talked about sexual health practices with women from Guatemala, had a coconut popsicle, met someone from Israel.

Day 3 

Wow! Today was incredible. It was our first day meeting with the six community health workers whom Rising Minds has hired to carry out its new health and nutrition program. Four of the health workers come from the rural mountain town of Panyebar (one is an expert in gardening), and two come from San Juan.

During the morning, the students asked the health workers about their experiences working in the aldeas (surrounding mountain communities, which tend to be more impoverished than San Juan). In addition to asking about what health care is like in Guatemala, we shared with them what health care is like in the United States. Then we took a break to play some games, which broke the ice and got everybody laughing and moving.

After lunch, the students broke into groups, with two health workers per group. They shared their lesson plans and asked the health workers whether their lessons would be applicable in the aldeas and whether the information was new or useful. The health workers thought it would be especially helpful to explain the nutritional reasons behind why people should eat certain foods. They also liked the students’ handouts and thought those visuals would be useful.

Tomorrow’s focus will be on finding out more about which health programs already exist in the aldeas and what support from Rising Minds would be most beneficial. Based on the feedback they received today, all the students have questions in mind whose answers will help Rising Minds shape this new program.

We were inspired by the conversations today between the students and health workers, and can’t wait to see them continue tomorrow. By working together with the local health workers, we believe this program could make a big impact on community health.


We began our day today using the most unusual transportation I’ve ever employed: 13 of us hopping into the back of a pick-up truck and grabbing onto various handholds to steady ourselves as the truck flew down a series of winding, bumpy roads to the neighboring city of San Pedro. Although I was scared at first, I quickly realized that the refreshing breezes and amazing lake views we got from this unconventional mode of transportation made it preferable to a boring car ride.

Upon arriving in San Pedro, we went to the Rising Minds office and began working in the garden there. Although the garden is mostly dirt and weeds right now, we were preparing it to be planted in February. Once the growing season begins, this garden will be used by Rising Minds to teach local community members about important plants for good nutrition. This in turn is important to help combat the malnutrition that exists in Guatemala’s highlands. Rising Minds also will provide communities with their own plants or seedlings to grow. It was cool to work on something that will have such a great impact, even if we won’t be able to see it carried out.

After lunch, we began working on our health exposes, which we’ll share with the community health workers tomorrow. Although we did most of the research for these lessons back home, we practiced our presentations in Spanish and made sure we were using the correct vocabulary. It’s exciting, and a little nerve-wracking, to prepare for our time with the community health workers.

The rest of the day we explored San Pedro and Skyped with Courtney (the founder of Rising Minds, who isn’t able to be with us because she’s about to have a baby), before hopping back into the pickup truck and riding back to San Juan. On the way back, in the dark, we looked out across Lake Atitlan and saw the lights of various towns, all filled with people enjoying their own evenings in this lakeside paradise.

Clay Whipp:

I used to hate gardening, but working in the Rising MInds garden today was relaxing and productive. We cleaned, moved dirt, and repaired a fence while chatting and jamming out to some music. Since I had forgotten my lunch, Lacho took me to a market to buy food. We munched on an avocado-spaghetti-tortilla sandwich, a new invention to me.

Hannah Whitney:

I had never taken a shower using just buckets of water boiled over a fire. It was an interesting experience that led to many questions: How do I wash my hair without leaving suds? How do I leave suds without getting them in the bucket? The shower drain clogged and it started flooding and covering my feet. My shampoo and body wash travel sized bottles were covered in sand. A doormat was my shower curtain. Somehow, it was cool. I began to appreciate the strategic, more sustainable ways that my host family chose to live—one bucket of water was enough for a whole shower. How many buckets does an average U.S. citizen use per shower? I began to appreciate every time the water caressed my hair—it was efficient, simple. I then got ready sans mirror and ate a breakfast of rice and chicken—the whole process allowed for more reflection, more appreciation.


Today was our first full day in Guatemala with this Rising Minds Expedition (RME). It was an exciting day, focused on immersing ourselves in the local culture. The students spent the morning exploring San Juan and completing a scavenger hunt. We assigned them various questions to ask people that they encountered along the way.

In this way, they got to learn more about San Juan culture by actually talking to the people who live here. This led to some interesting conversations, including one with a Mayan priest who apparently wanted the students to participate in a two-hour ceremony (they politely declined). However, he did tell them some fascinating legends, such as the story of nahuales (different spirit animals that align with people’s birthdays, similar to Mayan horoscopes). The students also learned about some new vegetables, such as guisquil (a type of squash, which several students had in the lunches that their host moms packed for them)

After lunch, the students headed over to ADEMVI (Asociacion de Desarrollo Economico de Mujeres Viudas or Association for Economic Development of Widowed Women), a local women’s cooperative that makes scarves, bags, and other woven products using natural plant dyes. Here they worked one-on-one with the women to weave their own scarves using a traditional Mayan backstrap loom. Jacob and Clay got some big laughs when they sat down to make their scarves—the Guatemalan women were not used to seeing men weave.

Throughout the process, the students spoke with the women about how they learned to weave, where they get the materials for weaving, and where they sell their products. The students also found that, though using artificial dyes and making machine-made scarves would be cheaper and easier, the women use natural dyes and hand-worked looms because tradition is very important to them.

After learning how to weave, the students got to see the process of using natural dyes by dyeing white shirts or socks that they had brought along. Micaela, the head of ADEMVI and Clay’s host mom, showed us how she boils the plant sacatintas to make a blue dye. The students then got to take home their newly blue shirts and socks.

At the end of the day, we discussed how the students’ perceptions of woven products had changed since completing the weaving/dyeing workshop. While walking around San Juan during the morning, the students had seen many vendors selling scarves and bags; however, they had not realized then how much work goes into the process when these products are made traditionally. This workshop gave the students the chance to go a step beyond being everyday tourists. Not only will they take home some beautiful scarves, but they also know the women who helped them make these scarves, and have a deeper appreciation of the traditions behind them.

Here is a list of the students’ “I had nevers” for the day, which are the new experiences they chose to highlight: Flown internationally alone, met a Mayan priest, woken up to a rooster’s crow, met a Guatemalan artist, ridden in a tuk-tuk, spoken a word in a Mayan language, woven a scarf, seen a natural dyeing process.

Expect more updates from us tomorrow, including our first student blog and testimonials. Everyone seems to be having a great time so far. 

—Lizzy and Elizabeth

January 7

Hola from Guatemala! We are Elizabeth Lieske ’15 (Rochester, Minn.) and Lizzy Kelleher ’15 (Oakland, Calif.), Guatemala trip veterans and this year’s leaders. We are all looking forward to an amazing two weeks immersing ourselves in Guatemalan culture and assisting with Rising Minds’ community development projects.

We are working with Zalaya Simmons, the on-the-ground volunteer coordinator for Rising Minds, and Lacho Mendoza, Rising Minds’ program director. This is the first of the daily emails that you will receive from us over the next two weeks. Future emails will include updates on the day’s activities, a blog written by a student from the previous day, testimonials from the students on the previous day’s activities, photos, and “I had nevers…” from the students.

Today’s update is fairly short. We just wanted to let everyone know that the students arrived and made it safely to San Juan de la Laguna, where they were greeted by their homestay families with warm smiles and big hugs. They are now enjoying dinner and getting to know their families.

January 8 2015

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