Winter break is a time when most of the travelling done by college students is the 10 mile trek down the road to grandma’s house on Christmas morning or a short drive to a friend’s house for New Year’s Eve.
Last winter break, however, one Blugold found herself 3,000 miles from home in an effort to solve fuel efficiency issues in South America.
Lindsey Drachenberg, a psychology major and family studies minor at UW-Eau Claire, spent a portion of her winter break in Guatemala, where she dedicated countless volunteer hours to help create a safer cooking environment for women.
“Most women in rural villages in Guatemala cook over an open fire, wood burning stove,” Drachenberg said.
However, this is not necessarily the issue. The issue, Drachenberg explained, arises when these women are cooking in small, almost claustrophobic, areas. Cooking over an open fire in tightly enclosed spaces leaves nowhere for the smoke to be released.
Ultimately, this causes dangerous living conditions for the entire family, but especially for the women. In Guatemala, and many of the surrounding countries as well, women are expected to remain in the home to prepare meals. This puts them at a much greater disadvantage when it comes to inhaling the hazardous fumes.
Drachenberg noted that a typical day of her mission trip started with a 7:00 a.m. wake up call in the basement of a school, which served as her home for the entirety of the trip.
After breakfast, the volunteer team would head out for a long day of manual labor. During the week-long trip, the team was mainly focused on building fuel efficient stoves to be installed in homes throughout rural Guatemala.
“We would work on things like building metal frames, pouring and mixing cement, situating wires, and eventually the home installation,” Drachenberg explained.
With this great responsibility, however, also came immense pressure. Having no prior experience in building home appliances, the fear of messing up weighed heavily on their shoulders. After all, even the slightest hiccup in the building process could mean even bigger problems for the women utilizing the end product.
Lucky for them, Drachenberg noted, the locals who walked them through the building process were exceptionally supportive and made sure every single detail was completed correctly.
Another way Drachenberg was able to overcome the nerves surrounding her work was the immense personal connection she had to the project. Her grandfather, who has since passed, was the one who built the Guatemalan school in which they were staying for the week.
She also noted that her time in Guatemala, although short, will leave a lifelong imprint on her heart and mind.
“With any humanitarian work, you really come to realize how much you truly have in life,” Drachenberg said; “I think, for me, it was especially the days that we went into the homes. These people were literally living in shacks, but they were so grateful. It just really puts things into perspective.”
Drachenberg recalls a specific home she visited, where the family had nothing but a liter of soda. In a selfless, yet heartbreaking, sentiment, the family wanted to offer the entire bottle to the volunteers as a thank you for the work they were doing.
One afternoon, Drachenberg and her fellow volunteers took a break from stove building to help set up a classroom at a local school. It was here that she met a little boy, who was nicknamed Mario after the Mario hat he loved to wear.
She played soccer with him in a field outside the school and noted that her conversations with him ended up serving as a huge turning point for her.
“I saw so much hope in him even though he had so little,” Drachenberg recalled; “his mom was an alcoholic and his dad had left them behind. Yet, despite all of this, he was so excited about the work we were doing and what was to come. He even told me about his career ambitions. It was so hard for me to leave him, but in the end I found hope, because I knew the community members were going to take care of him.”
It is from experiences like this that we are reminded of the colossal impact that we, as Blugolds, can make in communities local [AND] abroad. Painting a brighter future, bettering our communities, and sparking bits of hope is our Blugold tradition.