Con permiso Santa Avelina

Elizabeth's selfie with elementary students

This post was contributed by Elizabeth Ollila (at right), who is currently a senior at Carrboro High School in North Carolina. T2T-I thanks her for participating on the 2016 Teacher Trip to Santa Avelina, Guatemala. Here are her words….

If only it were possible to explain to you the love, passion, and respect that travels through the streets and halls of Santa Avelina. Here’s a mental picture…

  • your host’s home has a kitchen stove that doubles as a counter for preparing food and where the children play and do homework
  • you sleep on a cot in a school, waking up to a shower that releases exactly five drips of an unpredictable temperature
  • you live in an ankle-length skirt for a week, which means teaching, playing soccer, and hiking to a waterfall, all in a sweaty, dusty skirt (while your hosts do the same and remain immaculate)
  • you stand outside of a school at 7:30AM to welcome all the students, knowing that most of them slept on hard beds shared among the entire family, some haven’t had breakfast, and others have already worked in the field

But along with all of this hardship, picture children with radiant smiles bigger than you have ever seen. Imagine the happiness on their faces as they line up first thing in the morning to get toothpaste from the teacher to brush their teeth. And their gratefulness during the morning break while they scoop their mugs into the big bucket of warm Mosh, a protein drink that provides many their only meal. Picture every kid greeting you with a buenos días as if you are the best thing in their day, while their teachers look so ready to make an impact.

Warm Welcome in Guatemala

Santa Avelina, Guatemala, is a community where everyone is welcome. Although I came with a team of strangers who clearly stood out, I was accepted with open arms. I could not walk down the street without children coming out of their homes asking me to play or just to scream a warm hello (laughing at my attempt to reply in Spanish). This community is poor, it has no medical care, and every piece of food is treasured, but I believe this community has learned how to thrive.

Santa Avelina is a place filled with simple brilliance that could be used in every part of the world. These people have close to nothing, yet they have done everything with it. They have created a school where the kindergarteners learn a second language, they are given responsibilities, high expectations, freedom and trust.


Elizabeth with students at the William Botnan School, Santa Avelina

Highlights From the Heart

I know you have heard of poverty, and probably seen it too, but living in it at my age of 17 is life changing. Going back to my spoiled life seemed so unfair after my heart melted for these kids. These are my most vivid memories:

  • the cheerful chants of the six year olds as they entered their classroom
  • the crowd of kids that surrounded me during recess firing the question, ¿Vamos a jugar? (are we going to play?) over and over
  • the corn grinder beginning at 5:00AM to create the tortilla base for those who brought their own corn
  • the dog fights in the middle of the night and the chickens and pigs making noise at odd hours of the morning
  • the chunk of grassy dirt used as a soccer field by people of all ages with many games going on at once, not one with an actual soccer ball

Perspective Check

I went to Santa Avelina with the idea that we were going to live exactly like the community for a week, but how can I even claim we did that when a warm, delicious meal was never in question, when I had all my clothing from home, when my shower was guaranteed, when, in an emergency, we had a bus and money to leave, and when the circumstances were always temporary.


Elizabeth and a local teacher prepare a lesson

An experience like this cannot help but change your view on everything around you. Being a part of Teachers2Teachers-International in Guatemala is not something I can explain to you. Instead, it is something you must experience. It has, in every way, made me a better person. It showed and reminded me of the simple things that are truly important in life. It showed me pain and struggle and made me realize stuff does not equal happiness. I was forced to see the world, and my country, in a new light, and to improve my global view.

Lessons Learned

I left Santa Avelina with so much more knowledge than I ever could have given. The people there taught me tradition, respect, love, simplicity, and brilliance in little things. They exemplified kindness and heart in everything they did, because they were neither afraid nor too proud to ask for help to improve their children’s future.

I was forced to remember that there is no difference between Edwin and me, or Marvin and me, or María and me, or anyone of those children and me. They did not choose their lives any more than I chose mine. I did nothing to deserve the luxurious, resource-filled life I live, and they did nothing to deserve theirs.

Santa Avelina gave me a desire to see the world as well as knowledge to help understand it. It showed me harsh reality and gave me the desire to change the struggles in the lives of those in poverty.

Hopeful Wishes

I can only hope that my limited knowledge, time, smile, attempt at Spanish, and (lack of) soccer skills made a difference in just a few kids’ or teachers’ lives. These people have the toughest lives I have ever witnessed, yet somehow they also have the softest smiles. While they are two airplane flights and a 12-hour, switch-back, bus ride away, I can’t imagine I won’t be back. Santa Avelina, you are forever in my heart.

Elizabeth and her mother in front of a waterfall

Elizabeth and her mother Mary, who is a public school math teacher, in front of the Santa Avelina waterfall


What does the title, Con permiso Santa Avelina, mean in English? In Guatemala, when you approach the door to another person’s house, classroom, etc, you ask con permiso to request permission to enter. The response of pase grants you entry.


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