SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala — Flying to Guatemala and back may have been an adventure, but the work that Donovan Gaffney performed while there helped make a difference in the lives of those with disabilities.

Gaffney, a 2017 Napoleon High School graduate who just finished his sophomore year at Bowling Green State University, recently traveled to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, as part of a week-long mission trip organized through his fraternity Pi Kappa Phi. Members of the fraternity came from all across the United States to help build handicapped accessible ramps, boardwalks, stairs, playgrounds and more.

Although there were barriers to overcome, such as the language, air travel and others, Gaffney shared he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

“There were really only a couple of guys on our crew who knew Spanish, and I only knew a little,” said Gaffney about overcoming the language barrier. “We had translators from CEDEPCA (The Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America that provides educational training), which helped, but it wasn’t easy at times to talk with someone one-on-one, especially with some of the people who are of Mayan descent.

“But, the people were extremely friendly, and they showed us great hospitality,” continued Gaffney. “The food was very good, there were avocados everywhere, and everything was very natural and fresh. I really didn’t know what to expect before I got there, the people were the nicest people I’ve ever met, but so many people live in poverty. It’s not very industrialized there, but the country is very green and beautiful.”

Working with CEDEPCA, Gaffney and the other volunteers from Pi Kappa Phi made their way from Guatemala City to Santiago Atitlan (more than three hours away), where they were assigned to do projects at Escuela Oficial de Educacion Especial (official special education school). Gaffney helped build a staircase, paint and do other projects while at the school.

“While we were there, we worked with an organization called Adisa (Association of Parents and Friends of People with Disabilities) that was founded by a man who had a daughter with disabilities,” began Gaffney. “He founded it because his daughter, and other people with disabilities, weren’t getting the help they needed. So one of the big projects my group worked on was building a staircase from the ground up to the garden on top of the school.

“We had to do everything from scratch,” continued Gaffney. “We had to get the wood to make the forms for the steps, we had to make the cement from mud, rocks and water, and we had to put it all together ... the work was very hard. It’s not like America where you go to the store and buy everything. We also painted classrooms and restrooms at the school.

Gaffney shared that at Escuela Oficial de Educacion Especial, some of the services for the attendees includes speech and physical therapy, financial help for mothers, self-defense classes, and teaching people how to make jewelry, handbaskets and pottery to sell to make an income. Gaffney and the others took part in a dance party the day before they left Santiago Atitlan, before coming back to say their final goodbyes the next day.

“There was a young lady who worked at the school who was joking around with me, and even though I didn’t understand her, I could tell she was joking with me because of her body language,” Gaffney said. “I danced with her during the dance party, and when we said our final goodbye the next day, she hugged me and started crying because we were leaving. She was happy we were there, but she was very sad when we left.”

It was the trip of a lifetime for Gaffney, who shared his gratitude to the many who helped him with his fundraising efforts to go, and for those who donated school supplies he brought to Escuela Oficial de Educacion Especial. Gaffney also admitted his first time ever flying did come with some challenges.

“I flew from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and after getting there, I thought I was at the gate I needed to be for my flight to Guatemala,” said Gaffney. “I didn’t know they changed the gate for my flight, so I had to run to the other side of the airport to catch my flight, but luckily my flight had been delayed for 30 minutes. About halfway to Guatemala, the pilot announced there was a minor engine problem, so we had to turn around and go back to Fort Lauderdale.

“After waiting an hour for another plane, we boarded, but then we had to wait an hour and a half for new pilots,” continued Gaffney. “So we arrived in Guatemala pretty behind schedule. On the way back from Guatemala, I almost missed my connecting flight from Houston to Detroit, because I was pulled aside so security could check the bag of coffee I bought in Guatemala. I barely made my flight, so yes, flying was definitely an adventure.”

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