Improving the community is the goal for most local leaders, but a group of Northwest suburban officials traveled far from their municipalities this month to help improve a community thousands of miles away.
A group that included park district directors, library directors and a police chief traveled to Livingston, Guatemala this month as part of a Rotary International trip to work at the Ak'Tenamit School.
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"The trip really gave new meaning to the Rotary motto of 'service over self,' said Kathi Nowicki, director of the Prospect Heights Park District. "It was a team effort."
The team of 13 volunteers spent a little over a week in Guatemala installing water filters, building a library and a deck at the school, and working on a tilapia farm so the students can raise fish to eat and sell, said Ron Crawford, international service director for the Arlington Heights Rotary Club. The group was one of three from Rotary District 6440 to travel to the school this winter.
Ak'Tenamit is a secondary boarding school that teaches students sustainable tourism and rural community development. Students learn skills not only to find a job, but to become leaders in their home communities after graduation. Most of the students come from villages without running water or electricity. To be selected for the school, which has more than 500 people on its waiting list, is considered an honor, said Crawford who made his sixth trip to the school this year.
"We're not giving them handouts, we're helping them make a better life for themselves," he said.
Volunteers paid $1,600 for travel, food and other expenses, but said the cost was well worth it.
"It shows an empathy that we should have for people in other cultures," Crawford said. "It shows that you're just one person in a big, wide world."
Hearing the students' goals was inspirational, said Amy Charlesworth, director of the Rolling Meadows Park District.
"Even though they live very simply, they still have high hopes and dreams like all young people," she said.
Students at the school speak a Mayan dialect and are learning Spanish. But even with the culture and language gap, Charlesworth said communication wasn't a problem -- work got done with a lot of pointing, smiling and laughing.
During part of the trip Charlesworth and a few other volunteers went shopping for presents for the students, but their purchases -- brooms, mops and trash cans -- weren't gifts a typical American high school student would enjoy.
"They take pride in their dorm and want to be able to keep it clean. They were so grateful for that," she said.
The group also was building and organizing a library for the school, something some Americans may take for granted, said Stephanie Sarnoff, director of the Schaumburg Township Library.
"There's no example of public libraries in this country and the entire concept of being able to go into a building, find a book and take it out with you is so unknown to these kids," Sarnoff said. "It was an absolute eye-opener.
"They come in and swarm all over and can't wait to get their hands on books," she added. "I've never seen anything like it. It's refreshing."
The trip to rural Guatemala wasn't always an easy one for the volunteers.
"The most difficult part was being away from the things I take for granted," Nowicki said, highlighting the constant connectivity most Americans have to their families through cellphones and email.
"It's definitely not a vacation," Sarnoff added. "I never thought I'd be building a deck, standing in the mud in a place where there are no bathrooms, but I loved it. It just did my heart good to be able to serve others."