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Ellie Frechette: Casa Guatemala

Izabal, Guatemala

In June 2018, Ellie traveled to Casa Guatemala, an orphanage and foster home of 300 children on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala. The primary goals for this project was to developing a dance program to fit the educational needs of the children, foster a sense of motivation and self-confidence through movement, and encourage young students to explore new ideas within the context of dance. Ellie achieved her goals.

Thank you for joining me on my journey to Guatemala, June 2018! I’m looking forward to sharing this experience with you. You can follow my full experience by reading the blog below. Glad to have you on my journey! ~Ellie

Hi Everyone! Thank you for checking out my blog page and for following my journey to Casa Guatemala, a once orphanage now school located on the Río Dulce in Guatemala’s eastern jungles.

I am very excited to get started! I officially leave on May 27 out of Newark. I will be traveling roughly six hours to get to the school!

For those of you who don’t know, I have been preparing for this project for over a year in the JUNTOS Ambassador program. I have created a detailed proposal, budget, and fundraising plan to allow this project to come to fruition.

With JUNTOS, I have been to Mexico and Guatemala, and have also done local outreach here in New York City and San Francisco. My work with this organization sparked my passion for social justice, and inspired me to pursue a degree in social work! Through my studies, I have learned many of the intricacies of social injustices and the oppressive structures in place in our world. My goal as an aspiring social worker is to continue to learn about these issues of human rights so I can be better equipped to catalyze change. As a dancer, I aim to give to others the gift I was given as a young girl: the gift to explore my world through movement. Finally, as humans, it is our ultimate responsibility to be empathetic, to listen, and to learn from our fellow humans.

The primary goals for this project include developing a dance program to fit the educational needs of the children at the orphanage, foster a sense of motivation and self-confidence through movement, and encourage young students to explore new ideas within the context of dance. At Casa Guatemala, I will be exploring all of these goals and will be challenging myself to think critically.

As I prepare for this project, I reflect on what it means to do social work and why art is so important for change. While I do have some travel-jitters (as is to be expected), I am mostly filled with excitement.

I can’t thank my family, friends, JUNTOS, mentors, and donors enough for their support and words of encouragement. I’m ready to embark on this journey!

Peace, Ellie

Blog Post Number 2:

Hello Everyone! Thank you for checking in to see how my project down here in Guatemala is going. Currently, I am reflecting on my week while sitting on the deck of my hostel. There’s truly nothing more beautiful: the air is sweet, the breeze is frequent, and the sun isn’t too hot. Calidad! The volunteer coordinator the other day walked me through Casa and how incredible it is. The literacy rates in Guatemala are strikingly low, especially for women. Many families can be as large as ten children, meaning that the girls have to stay home to help the parents. Many kids don’t get to go to college, high school, middle school, and some never go to elementary school. There are some kids at Casa that are, for example, 13 or 14, and are just beginning the first or second grade. There are many intersectional issues at play here, all rooted in Guatemala’s tumultuous history of violence. Of course, the United States’ involvement in Guatemalan history is despicable, and Guatemalans are still feeling the very real repercussions of such violence. In fact, over 200,000 people were either murdered or went missing in the 1980s.  Casa Guatemala is so important because it brings education to students who normally would not have access to it. In several remote villages here, schools will only open once a month, or maybe there isn’t a proper school at all. Children are often severely malnourished, as well. Casa is changing this, because they have the opportunity to bring a well-rounded education to children who wouldn’t have education otherwise. This gives them the opportunity to grow, dream, and learn in a loving and supportive environment.

Entonces, vamos a empezar.

May 27: I woke up around 7:00 AM at my house in Branford, Connecticut ready to get going! After double checking the rest of my bags and making sure I had my passport, I said goodbye to my sweet Dad and dog, Oakley, and my Mom and I headed to get breakfast at Scotty’s. Of course, we both have tears in our eyes as she leaves me on the train to the Newark, NJ airport, but we know this is the adventure of a lifetime! My first flight is delayed around an hour, which is unfortunate because my layover to get to Guatemala is just forty five minutes. I ran through the Houston airport and made it onto my Guatemala flight by the skin of my teeth! When myself and Joanna finally arrive in Guatemala, it’s about 9:30 PM (11:30 PM ET). We head to our hotel, and as I settle into bed, I am amazed at the fact that I am finally here–after over a year of planning, fundraising, budgeting, sharing my project, stress, anxiety, excitement, etc. I have really made it! The whole night I can hardly sleep.

May 28: We wake up at 4:30 AM at the hotel and get coffee while we load up the van. The rest of the JUNTOS Abroad trip is here and ready to get going! (I wish all of you the very best of luck in your adventure here in Guatemala, and can’t wait to hear how it goes!) Of course, it takes us nearly two hours to get out of Guatemala City because of Monday morning traffic, but after about 8-9 hours we finally make it to Puerto Barrios, where we are going to drop off the rest of the Abroad trip. Myself and Doñ Lucas, our wonderful driver, stay behind and go to lunch. We spend great company together at lunch, but had to physically push the van to get the engine to start! On our journey to Hotel Backpackers on the Río Dulce, myself and Doñ Lucas stop for fresh pineapples on the side that melt in your mouth. Thankfully, Doñ Lucas helps me with my Spanish while we make conversation on our trip! Finally, around 5:00 PM, I make it to Hotel Backpackers and get settled into my room.

May 29: My first day at Casa Guatemala! Myself and a lovely group from Canada take the lancha (small boat) to Casa around 7:30 AM. We get a tour from Heather, the Executive Director of Casa, and spend time looking at the 100 acres of land. The part that excites me so much about Casa is that it’s a completely sustainable organization; the agriculture they grow on site is for the kids, the scraps are for the animals, etc. Everything is well thought out and nothing ever goes to waste! We spend the day helping in the kitchen, assisting in English class, painting desks, and hanging out with the kids. Immediately, I feel right at home. These kids are so affectionate, loving, and sweet.

May 30: Today is my first day teaching! I am working with Prof. Yoni, the Physical Education teacher, to teach my dance classes. I teach three classes that day! The kids are so awesome–there’s really no words to describe how sweet and kind they are. I admire their ability to be vulnerable with me, a newcomer asking them to do dance moves. I teach them the first few positions of ballet, we do a big warm up, across the floor “grapevines,” and do a short combination to Otra Vez. They’re so funny because there are certain songs they just LOVE to hear! Today was a special day because they celebrate all of the May birthdays today with special dances. I help decorate the room for the special occasion and we have a special meal of tortillas, guacamole, cabbage, and salsa. The kids are all dressed up in their special clothes, have their hair done extra nice, and are excited to show the dances. After every group goes, we have a dance party with all of the kids! I remember looking up at the sky and just laughing as I “partner” dance with a little girl. Truly, my heart is so happy. I spend the night with the kind volunteers in their home towards the back of Casa’s property. I fall asleep to the sounds of howler monkeys and pigs–sleeping right in nature, right in the jungle.

May 31: Today is a big day because I have five classes to teach today! The kids are eager to learn dances all the time; some kids will grab me on my way to lunch, for instance, and insist on learning a dance move. It makes me so excited! Later in the day, as I’m playing a game of basketball in between classes (our team won, by the way), the JUNTOS Abroad group shows up for their workshop! I’m super excited to see some familiar faces, and ready for the big workshop we’re about to have! We had about 80 kids ranging from 4-8/9 years old on la cancha, which made for a big fun workshop! There’s nothing like having the energy of everyone dancing together in one place to lift everyone up into smiles. Finally, it rains today. I can’t explain in words how necessary the rain was in this moment. The past three days have been so oppressively hot with 100% humidity, it feels like a wet cloth is constantly on your head. Or like you’re doing hot yoga (but all the time). So, the rain was definitely needed ?

June 1: Today, I teach six dance classes! It is a lot, especially in the oppressive heat, but I love what I do so much that it doesn’t matter. Today, my combination is to X by Nicky Jam and J Balvin. I teach it so many times, not just in class but during breaks, because the kids LOVE this song. Love is an understatement. A couple kids and myself make up a dance on our own, and they come up with the dance move we call “el reloj” aka the clock. The eager looks of excitement to dance in these kids faces makes me more excited to share with them the knowledge I have. The JUNTOS Abroad team does a beautiful workshop and performance that the kids are obsessed with-they are so excited to see people dancing in front of their eyes! (Shout out to the Abroad team for their wonderful work).

June 2: Sadly, today, I wake up quite ill with a stomach issue. It’s a long day of reading, writing in my books, and just relaxing while I give my body a chance to catch up. Anyone who has been to Guatemala knows, things like this happen. I am just grateful I have antibiotics, I have people here looking out for me, and that it’s the weekend! There are always silver linings. I have to get healthy in order to do my job well ?

June 3: Today I am still recuperating, but I am feeling loads better! As I sit here, I am reflecting on all of the things I have learned so far on this trip. Here are a few nuggets of information I have gained from my experience:

-“You can’t discover new oceans without consenting to lose sight of the shore.”

-Children love to love. There is much to learn from their ability to be vulnerable, present, compassionate, and open. We owe it to ourselves, as adults, to listen and learn from children. They can be wiser than we are in some instances. Keep it simple.

-There is a lot that can be done with simply a smile. Human connection is one of the most basic, but most necessary, needs we have in this life. Don’t waste the opportunity to connect.

-Good work is good work is good work. Any bit of goodness you can add to the world is ultimately a goodness that we didn’t have before.

-Dance is about communicating and exploring new things. Dance can express things that words cannot. The gift of dance is a gift of confidence, love, kindness, connection, and a commonly felt experience. To dance is to be vulnerable. To share dance with one another is to be vulnerable. Mountains can be moved through dance.

-It’s okay to fail. In fact, please fail more. You have to allow yourself to fail in order to challenge yourself to learn new things. You need to be constantly growing, seeking more, pushing for more.

-Open your heart. We’re on this planet for so little time. Let your heart be alive.


Blog Post Number 3:

Hi Everyone!

Thank you for checking in. Primarily, my heart, thoughts, and deepest prayers for the victims and those suffering from the recent Fuego eruption. The response from Guatemalans has been extraordinary; the pure love and empathy pouring out for those affected by Fuego from Guatemalans is palpable. These acts of kindness, service, dedication, and complete selfless love have been incredibly moving. There are a couple organizations to work with here, like Cruz Rosa Guatemalteca, that are accepting donations. I’m working on gathering some more information from people here on other organizations to support.

The past few days I have been teaching my classes and preparing for our presentation that is in two weeks! The classes will be dancing for their fellow students and showing their moves to the school. All 250 kids will be dancing ?During the lunch hours, I have been spending time with the niñas pequeñas and reading, singing, and assisting with general things the girls need. Human connection is made always: in class, walking in the school, in the comedor, everywhere. We are always connecting with one another and sharing smiles, and that’s whats so beautiful.

Things have been going really well! I am trying new things in classes and figuring out which lesson plans work the best for some kids and which kids want to do what kinds of dance moves. Some of these kids really LOVE TO DANCE, so they will pull me aside at any given moment and ask to learn a dance move or practice. There are, of course, incredible challenges. I have been challenged to think outside the box for some of my classes, and today I realized we get so caught up in planning and trying to make things great when…the kids will tell you what they want to do. It’s quite simple!

I’ve also been reflecting on the following:

  1. A positive mindset is between 80-90% of your battle. This doesn’t mean you have to deny the things that are difficult in life, because, yes, these things can suck. Negative things are still negative. But, in practicing positive thinking every single day, it becomes more of a habit. There is a way in which shifting the mind and getting a fresh perspective moves us leaps and bounds.
  2. Privilege is wide reaching, of course. It’s intersectional to include race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship, religion, etc. There are countless diversity factors that make us who we are. It’s our responsibility to be cognizant of these and be constantly learning, educating ourselves, and seeking to gain more knowledge. Humanity relies on one another. We are responsible for each others’ well being. This is a great and profound responsibility–we have to take great care of our human family (and also our incredibly resourceful and sweet Earth).
  3. Human connection is real, and everyone everyone everyone needs this. Dance is one of the most powerful ways to experience connection, open the mind, and perhaps tap into something that cannot be expressed verbally. Again, we rely on one another.
  4. Empathy multiplies. Goodness multiplies. Take, for instance, the proven trend that holding the door open for someone causes a chain reaction of everyone holding the door. This is a small but important example: kindness multiplies. We should always be seeking to radiate this kind of love, even from the tips of our fingernails. The more goodness we have, it is exponentially increased.
  5. I have been reflecting and strengthening my relationship to my faith and to God as well. Whatever God brings me through, I know He will also bring me through. Connecting to my faith through dance has been one of the most rewarding experiences. I am feeling all of the love and prayers that have been sent to me, and I am sending them back as well. As much as I am loved, my goal is to multiply that ten-fold.

I’m here at Casa because I want to be apart of this organization and be with the people here through using dance as a medium. I’m really looking forward to the rest of my stay and to what these next two weeks will hold ?


Blog Post Number 4:

Hi Everyone!

Thank you so much for checking in again. I have just finished my third week here at Casa Guatemala and am getting settled in to start my fourth and final week. I can’t believe how fast the past three weeks have gone. I have experienced so much happiness, challenges, laughter, tears, and met so many incredible human beings along the way. Here are some highlights and reflections-

  1. We have been working on our dances for this coming Wednesday, June 20! There is going to be a presentation for the whole school of the dances everyone has been working so diligently on for the past few weeks. It’s going to be a special day! I have bought fabric and ribbon for headpieces for all of the children, and Casa has also gotten a donation of shirts so everyone is getting a colorful shirt/costume! Myself and a couple other volunteers are also buying cookies and refreshments for after the show to celebrate all of their hard work! They have no idea about any of these things, but know there is a surprise coming for them on Wednesday. As for myself, I am working on cutting all of the pieces of fabric, getting the music ready, and organizing as much as I can. In the next two days, there is A LOT of work to be done to get ready for a 220 student show! It’s all so worth it, because these kids are so awesome! They deserve all of it and more.
  2. I have met some incredible people here during my travels. Every person is so kind, thoughtful, and has such interesting stories. Talking with all of the children as well is so refreshing. The other volunteers, people I have met at the hostel, and friends I have made on my journey have given me new perspectives.
  3. It’s remarkable how long one month is and yet how short it is. I can’t believe I am already here at my last week. I have two more days at Casa, which is incredibly disheartening. However, I know I’m coming back soon. It’s not a goodbye, but rather a see you later.

As I complete my project here, I am focusing my attentions on being as present as I can and soaking in every moment. I’m so excited because we are having such a special day Wednesday surrounding movement and dance. The whole school is being brought together around dancing, and that is a really special thing. All of the kids have created their own dances, which was an important part of my project. I want them to be creative, be able to make their own chances, and to actually like the dances they are doing. Right now, I have kids stopping me all the time throughout the day showing me that they know the dances (even while they’re brushing their teeth!) It’s really special.

Tonight, I am completing the background for the show, cutting the rest of the fabric for costumes, making playlists, getting the music ready, and doing all of the final arrangements for the show. I’m so incredibly excited for the kids, stay tuned for more details!

In peace ?

Blog Post Number 5:

Hi Everyone!

Thank you again for checking in. I am officially back home in the States as of June 24. I wanted to update everyone on my last week and the final performance the children had!

Monday and Tuesday were spent making the final preparations for the show, teaching my last classes, and trying to soak in as much as possible. I am incredibly thankful to have the help of SO MANY lovely volunteers (shout out to Juan, Humaira, Sofia, Amelia, Prof. Yoni, Heather, Señora Lily and all of the long term volunteers at Casa–you guys were all so incredible. It would not be possible without you).

Wednesday was the big day! It’s really an interesting feeling because not only is this my last day, but I’ve also been preparing for this project for a whole year. The feeling of having something you’ve anticipated for so long actually be here is surreal. The whole day I was living in a dream and filled with such happiness! Each class had time to themselves to practice their dances for the show. Everyone could feel the excitement in the air of the day, and we all knew the day was going to be really special. As soon as the big speakers were brought out and the kids had the opportunity to practice with the music being really loud, we were all ready for the show! We gave out the pieces of fabric I cut for everyone’s hair, and Casa gave out the donation of shirts they received. The kids officially have their own costumes! We also hung up the background I made the night before (the show was called, “Casa de La Danza”).

There was something incredibly special for me to be able to watch the kids practice so much before the show. The goals for my project were always to encourage exploration through creativity and dance movement. The actual steps and how the students execute them was never my goal, of course. Sitting back and watching each class have fun while getting excited for the performance was where I really felt these goals be achieved. One of my happiest moments was when I suddenly looked around to see kids practicing in their classrooms, on the steps, in the bathrooms, and on the walkways. Dance was filling the open spaces and creating a contagious energy in the jungle. I can’t really express in words what it feels like to see dance take up so much beautiful space.

By 1:00 PM we were ready to get started! I gave a short speech at the beginning, thanking everyone for their hospitality, kindness, and assistance over the past four weeks. I directed my thanks mostly to the students, who welcomed me into their community right away. Each grade had their own dance that they themselves created! We even had two groups dancing to the song “Dura” because they just love it so much! For each class, the whole school (220+ students, staff, teachers, volunteers, dogs) was cheering! The support and love everyone showed to each other during these moments was beautiful to see. I couldn’t smile any bigger in this moment if I tried!

By the end, sixth grade threw their confetti from their pockets to celebrate the finale of the show (we cut up old bags of chips to make the confetti)! One of the students in this grade thanked my personally in the microphone for my time at Casa. Afterwards, the teachers and then the volunteers did impromptu performances! It was really special to have not just the whole school but the whole school community be involved in this project, which was one of my goals as well–to use dance as a medium with the whole population of humans at Casa. The energy was so high, one could almost feel it buzzing.

Afterwards, we had a thirty minute dance party where we all just danced to music and had fun! I loved being able to just have a big dance party that we could all participate in and express ourselves in any way we wanted to. Teachers, volunteers, administrators, and students alike were all together in one place. There was one moment that I just looked around at all that was created and a sense of pure unadulterated happiness swept through me from my feet to my head. This is forever pictured in my head!

After the performance, we had special cookies and refreshments that some other volunteers and myself purchased to celebrate their great performance! I was so excited to say “excellent job!” to as many kids as I could possibly say this to. One rewarding moment was that some of the students that I did not assume were particularly engaged in class came up to me after the performance and asked if I were going to be in Physical Education class the next day. They were super excited to dance and move! Every time I answered that I was not going to be back the next day, I got more and more sad.

There are a few kids, like Ana Maria and Heber, that are so obsessed with dancing. They are so interested, eager to learn, and have such a passion for art. All of the kids at Casa Guatemala are incredibly special, talented, and compassionate. They are such a unique group of kindhearted individuals, and I am the lucky one to get to teach them. I definitely learned more from them than they learned from me.

As I said my final goodbyes to the students (and shed many tears), I realized that this is not a goodbye, but is a see you later. I will always have all 220+ students in my heart, no matter where I am. The connections we make on this Earth do not dissipate when we physically leave, of course. Regardless, I am allowing myself to feel as much as I need to as I say goodbye to all of the new friends I have made on my journey. When I got back to the hostel, I laid down on the docks and let the pure joy soak into my pores, so I can always tap into how that feels.

On Thursday, I take a day of rest and go with the other lovely volunteers to Finca El Paraíso, the hot spring waterfalls. We spent the day being adventurous, jumping off rocks, exploring caves, and taking natural mud baths. I couldn’t be happier, and it feels so sweet to spend the day soaking in the experiences of the day before. Guatemala is such a beautiful country, and I am so happy to have been able to experience it! Friday was a day of travel to Guatemala City with the other amazing long term volunteers, and then we spent Saturday at the Guate City Pride Parade on a float! It was a beautiful way to end a beautiful trip.

As I am now home, I am taking time to slowly adjust to life in the United States again. I am taking it day by day, but stay tuned for more reflections!

Thank you for staying with me on this journey. Your support, prayers, and loving energy I have felt and utilized. I am sending love and peace back!