John Wesley School students

by Erika Usui

In the four years that had passed since I first visited the John Wesley School in Santa Cruz del Quiché, much had changed – namely, an increased student body and an accommodating expansion of classrooms.  But as I greeted one student after another on my first day at the school where I would be  helping out with English classes, I was promptly reminded that some things had not changed: the infinitely curious minds and tender hearts of the students. 

“Como se dice mi amor in Ingles?” they asked me.

“My love,” I answered. 

“Y en Japones?” they asked, after having found out about my upbringing in Japan.

“Well, in Japanese, the exact phrase mi amor doesn’t exist,” I answered. 

Then, in a classic case of lost in translation, they exclaimed, “no existe amor en Japon?!”

Thus began my second visit to the school, a three-week course on language – and love. 

I had first visited the John Wesley School in spring of 2007 as a junior journalism and education major at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  The local Wesley Foundation, with its hip vibe and cool pastor, was making a trip to Guatemala for its alternative spring break program.  I signed on for the second of three trips that I would make with the group, eager to play my part in the gospel of social justice.  As a young college student, I finished the trip with a newfound awakening for international development.

Working on the Lemoa orphanage in 2007

Erika at the Lemoa orphanage in 2007

Fast forward to my college graduation and a somewhat scatterbrained few years in New York as a freelancer, and I found myself desperately yearning for some sort of inspiration.  What had inspired me in college? I thought.  Guatemala instantly came to mind.

So in April, 2011 I enthusiastically embarked on my second trip to Santa Cruz del Quiché, eager to share what I had learned at CU and in New York.  But three weeks later I had become very self-conscious, sheepishly wondering if I, not the students, was the biggest benefactor of this trip – and of the last trip, too. 

I especially remembered a conversation I had with a first grade student.  After a barrage of questions she had regarding her writing assignment (demonstrating a very high level of critical analysis), she turned the topic to the much-discussed one of love, and asked me, “estas feliz?” (“are you happy?”)

It was a perfect-weather April afternoon, the teachers had generously shared their midday snacks with me, and I was working with some of the sharpest gradeschoolers I had ever met. 

So my obvious answer was, “yes.”

With Pura Vida scholarship students in 2011

I suppose there is no easy moral in what I had learned on my first or second, trip to Guatemala.  But I’ve come to understand Pura Vida’s approach as one that maintains a sustainable solution to many of the challenges that we all – in both the developed and developing worlds – face.  And that approach is part of a global movement that not only advocates for literacy in rural communities, but also for a higher standard of living for everyone involved.

Back in New York and now preparing for further studies in public health, I continue my relationship with my beloved John Wesley School friends through e-mail and social media.  I also look back frequently at my journal to recall beautiful memories, and I continually remind myself of a conversation I had with Amilcar, one of the directors at the school.

“I hope that you will be an ambassador for the school when you are back in North America,” he had said. “I hope that you will be an ambassador for the students.”

And so I, in turn, would like to encourage more individuals to support the scholarship and construction programs, to nurture the education of incredibly intelligent minds.  I would also like to encourage more groups to take part in service trips, because a firsthand account provides a rich understanding of humanity that is unmatched by any other source.  And as I continue my discussion of language and love, I hope that I can make a positive difference in the students’ lives, as they have, for me.

Erika with JWS students

JWS students