Ariel Gonzales ’21 admits he was lonely when he arrived in Guatemala City at the start of the summer—but it didn’t last long. “Right from the start, I was greeted with open arms and smiles, which definitely took me aback at first. The culture of friendliness here is refreshing,” said Gonzales, “since I’m familiar with people being absorbed in their own bubbles.”
He is one of eighty students awarded grants this summer from Bowdoin’s funded internship program, which provides them with a generous stipend to live on while they pursue work of their choice. Gonzales is a teacher’s assistant at Safe Passage/Camino Seguro, a Maine-based nonprofit founded in 1999 by Bowdoin graduate Hanley Denning. It provides opportunities and resources for children and their families who live near the garbage dump in Guatemala City, one of the poorest areas in the country. Denning, who was class of 1992, was tragically killed in an auto accident in 2007, but her legacy endures, with hundreds of children being helped every year. As well as educational assistance, the group also provides medical help through health clinics and wellness services.
In March, Gonzales, a double major in chemistry and math, visited Safe Passage courtesy of the McKeen’s Center’s Alternative Spring Break program. The native Spanish speaker decided one week wasn’t enough: he wanted to make more of a difference, so he secured the internship and returned to spend the entire summer in Guatemala.
He has been paired with a third and fourth grade social studies teacher in an elementary school known as the Colegio, which is supported by the organization. His duties include creating worksheets, translating documents, and simply helping children stay on task. “One of the favorite aspects of my work Is a program called CREW: a small gathering of students that promotes good mental health, quality relationships amongst one another, and the importance of having certain virtues,” said Gonzales. “In CREW, I have discussed the importance of sharing one’s feelings and being empathetic towards their peers.”
Among the highlights of Gonzales’ summer—helping at an event known as Quinceañera, an annual coming of age ceremony for females who are turning fifteen, popular in Latin America countries; and assembling gift bags filled with clothing and other basic necessities for Family Day, when students invite their families to school to meet with the teachers and with each other.
“These communities endure ongoing issues of poverty, malnutrition, violence, lack of education, and so forth,” said Gonzales. “Nonetheless,” he continued, “the opportunities that Safe Passage has provided throughout the years bring a touch of hope, and it’s great to be able to witness this first-hand, and to play a role in providing those opportunities.”
One simple but curious thing he has taken away from the experience? “It’s the fact that children, no matter their backgrounds, will always be children.”