Hilary Hambrick Taft
Hilary Hambrick Taft
Guatemala 2013-2014
I am volunteering at the Monte Cristo Center in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. This family-run community development center provides education, healthcare, & vocational training to the surrounding community. I will assist with teaching English and computer literacy as well as possibly working on a micro-loan fund for local farmers. Read More About Hilary →

Reflection at Halfway

We’ve been here for seven months now, a month past the halfway point of our Lumos journey. People have been asking me, “How does it feel? Like you’ve been here forever or like time is flying by?” I’m not quite sure what the correct answer is. When I think about all that I’ve done in the last seven months, it feels like an eternity.

  • Moving into the casita
  • Sumpango Kite Festival
  • Researching a possible honey business in Jacaltenango
  • Making our first batch of lotions
  • Traveling to Monterrico, Atitlan, and Mexico
  • Celebrating Guatemalan Christmas with tamales and going on posadas
  • Being comfortable in my Spanish abilities for the first time
  • Teaching my first formal English class
  • Making meaningful relationships with our students and co-workers
  • Writing the first semester of our English curriculum
  • Having Belmont here to experience Guatemala
  • Finishing out first round of exams with our students
  • Being truly seen as a teacher & contributor, not just as a volunteer

And when I think about our Nashville life and all my wonderful friends and family that I’ve missed so much these seven months, it also feels like I’ve been in Guatemala for years. But when I remember all the goals and dreams we have yet to accomplish, our time here feels as though it’s only just begun.

  • Getting “Queen Bee” certified and into stores
  • Finishing our English curriculum
  • Traveling to Tikal and El Salvador
  • Making connections in the social enterprise network in Antigua
  • Deepening my daily interactions with our students
  • Leaving a positive mark and influence on their lives
  • Being “conversationally fluent” in Spanish

One thing I do know for sure is that the last seven months has changed me. I’ve learned patience and flexibility that I never thought was possible. I feel integrated to CEMOC life with the responsibilities and leadership it demands. My empathy for those around me has matured and taken root in my heart. Monte Cristo has become a part of me. I know I’m not ready to leave at this halfway point and thankful for the five months we have remaining.


Expression Week

You know all those special activities you had in Middle School? Like talent shows, science fairs, and field day? Well, here in Guatemala we do them all in the same week. It’s called “Expression Week” and it’s the wildest, busiest, most fun week we’ve had yet here with our students at CEMOC.

The week started out with a talent show, which I was honored to be a judge at. The students preformed everything from “Party Rock Anthem” to traditional Guatemalan folklore dances. It was a blast and the 9th graders, our “Seniors,” if you will, swept the whole competition.



We also had a special recycling day where all the students were divided into groups to create and present a product made from recycled materials. My group made a nifty solar light made out of an old coke bottle.


An organization in the Philippines has been making these “Bottle Lights” for a few years in urban areas that don’t have reliable electricity during the day. The plastic bottle filled with water and clorox is installed in the tin roof and reflects sunlight down into the house, acting like a solar lightbulb.


We made a little makeshift house to show how the bottle works. We think it really inspired some of the moms and dads that came to “Recycling Day.” Plus, the kids thought it was pretty great as well. The director of CEMOC has even mentioned putting them in a few of our dimly lit classrooms.


Then on Friday we had field day. I’m not the most athletic and was of the ones most likely to fake an illness during field day in middle school, but even I’ll admit that this day was a blast. We had marathons, biking, zip-lining, and relay competitions. We were a really tired staff at the end of these 5 days, but it was worth it to see how much the students enjoyed it all.


ALSO- my family came to see me!! My awesome parents and little brother came to hang out with Eric and I for five days. They got to see a bit of the Monte Cristo life, meet our Guatemalan family, and explore Antigua a bit.




But for now all the activities are over and it’s back to teaching. We’ve got exams next week and are hoping for some excellent grades! Our students are already writing complete (and correct) sentences in English. We’re super proud of all that they’ve learned in this first semester and can’t wait to see how much they walk away knowing in October.


Belmont Came to Visit!

Two weeks ago, Belmont Study Abroad came to study fair-trade coffee farming and international business here in Guatemala. This trip has special meaning for Eric and I because it’s how we met and also what inspired us to lead the life we’re living right now.

Study abroad is a fantastic experience, but sometimes when you put 20+ personalities together for 10 days straight, you just never know how it will turn out. I can honestly say, I think this group of students was the best bunch the Guatemala trip has ever seen.


They were so ready to dive right into Guatemalan life, no matter how uncomfortable it was. They opened their hearts and minds to truly understanding “Why Guatemala is Poor” and “The Genius of Poverty.” They graciously allowed Eric and I to be their guides, and what follows are some of the highlights of the journey we traveled together.

We started out the trip in Monte Cristo with cultural exchanges between our CEMOC students and the Belmont students. Here’s our Guatemalan kiddos showing off their musical skills playing marimba and the upright bass.


And here’s the Belmont students bravely sharing an impromptu Electric Slide dance lesson with our Guatemalan students.


After our time in Chimaltenango, we headed for Chajul, but first made a stop at the famous market in Chichicastenango.


Here’s the group in Chajul learning about coffee processing and how manual labor is often more efficient than technology for the folks at Asociacion Chajulense.


The next picture is of our home experience in Chajul making boxboles with a local family.


And here I am learning how to grind cornmeal by hand.


After  our lunches we hosted a playtime with children from the Chajul community. This is a picture of our professors and students playing “musical chairs” with the kids.


And here’s a panoramic shot of whole group together playing a game.


After being in Chajul for a few days, we headed to Antigua to enjoy the “Old Town” and relax a bit.


But my work was not done. We met up with the current Belmont Enactus president, faculty advisor, and a group from Father Ryan High School in Nashville to do a service day at the “Be a Blessing” orphanage in Jalapa. We did some serious painting work to start with.


Played with the girls for a while until they were worn out and wanted to be carried by our “Be a Blessing” student leader from Father Ryan.


And here’s a shot of our whole group together.


It was such a dream to hang out with the sweet girls we’ve been raising funds for over the last three years.




And lastly, here’s a final picture of our finished painting project.


All in all, we had a phenomenal time hosting our own little slice of Nashville for a few days. The impact of their time here has been lasting, I believe. There are some students wanting to come back and serve in Guatemala this summer. Others walked away with a new perspective on poverty, wealth, and the lasting effects of US foreign policy. And our Belmont Enactus team had some refreshing life breathed into its international projects.

Thank you, Belmont, for visiting. You all also breathed life into these weary travelers. Guate misses you already!

Surprised by Generosity

This past week I’ve been reminded of the generosity of my Belmont community. We’ve been preparing for the study abroad group that’s coming to CEMOC this Saturday. They’re going to tour the facilities; meet our students, volunteer, and spend the night. The staff here at CEMOC has been frantically preparing for this group of 20 gringos the past couple weeks. They’ve been building bunk beds, buying new bedding, and planning cultural exchanges. With all the time and energy they’ve poured into preparing this visit, I was worried that it was becoming a burden. My biggest fear was that CEMOC would lose money because of all the investment they’ve made to accommodate such a large group. When I sent the final hospitality cost to the study abroad group, they let me know that they had already budgeted for these incidentals that CEMOC would incur. I was amazed at their forethought and wisdom.

There’s also a group from the Belmont Enactus team coming to do work with my former project, “Be a Blessing.” The new project manager, faculty advisor, and our partners at Father Ryan High School are visiting the orphanage that makes the Be a Blessing bracelets. Part of their visit to the orphanage is doing a service day. I contacted the nun who runs the girl’s home and she sent me their “wish list” of repairs: painting various classrooms, electrical repairs, and installing lights. When I went to buy the paint in town I realized how expensive this service day was going to end up being, with each bucket of paint costing more than $100. I emailed the Enactus team to verify that the “wishlist” was far outside the service day budget and have them decide the one or two items they still wanted to do. I was absolutely floored when they said no, we want to do it all.

I’ve been wonderfully surprised by my Alma Mater, especially by Belmont’s willingness to serve and make financial investments in the development of my beautiful new home country.

My study abroad experience in Guatemala changed my life. My visit to the “Be a Blessing” orphanage forever changed my heart. I’m antsy for Belmont to get here, and I’m hopeful that Guatemala will impact these new students the way it did me.






I’ll let the photos talk.

To pick just one story about the last two weeks would be too hard... so I’ll just let the photos do the talking.

At the end of January, Eric and I had to make a visa run to Mexico. Suffice it say, it was an insane trip. If you haven’t read Eric’s blog about the great fire we survived, it’s definitely worth your time. We should’ve known it was going to be a crazy trip considering all the wild things we saw on the way there. Here’s two events that I have pictures from:

1. We had to stop 4 times during our 9 hour trip because of a Guatemalan teachers protest for higher wages (which by they way, they totally deserve). Here’s a policeman stopping our van with hundreds of protesters behind him in the middle of the road.

2. A giant truck carrying cattle flipped over on its side, and yep, that’s a cow stuck between the truckbed and the mountainside. About 10 seconds before this picture was taken, those 4 men were trying to right this massive truck with only their brute strength and a chain. They were not very successful, as you can see.



Once we made it to Jacaltenango with our new visa stamps, we went around to tour the beautiful town and play some games at the fair, not knowing it would be up in flames only a few hours later.



For the festival, Papa Meme (the coolest 93 year old man there ever was) and Don Mario stopped at a local candle store to buy candles for the festivities celebrating Mary, or “The Virgin of the Candelaria” as she’s known in Jacal. Hence, the candles.



Here’s a picture of the town parade with men playing the marimba and dancing in the bull headdress. The next one is of  me dancing around in the headdress later that night! Then there’s a glimpse of the wild pyrotechnics that created the evening’s chaos. 




Once safely back in Monte Cristo, life once again filled with days of teaching English. But on Friday we had a blast celebrating Valentine’s day! I entered my office Friday morning to find a beautiful rose waiting for me from some of my students. In the afternoon, we had an activity where the oldest students gave Valentine’s day cards to the youngest students, and we played games and danced in the classrooms that the students decorated.




Then Friday night we went out for Sushi with the family. It was absolutely delicious. They even brought out an early birthday dessert for Eric!




Then on Sunday for Eric’s birthday, we rode up to a beautiful mountain lodge to spend the day reading and relaxing. Check out this amazing view! You can see all the volcanoes and beautiful Antigua below.

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On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at the “Cerro de la Cruz,” a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. You can see Antigua closer up with the cross carefully watching over, perhaps working hard to keep the volcano at bay.


Tonight, I find myself thankful that we’ve been watched over as well. Thank you all for your thoughts and constant prayers.

Between 7 and 4

We start school together at 7am every morning. We eat the first of several meals together and proceed to clean the campus grounds as a group. We learn together in the classroom and pass countless hours in various activities. They appear so ordinary, like average middle school students submerged in the years of awkwardness and insecurity.

I get frustrated with them when they ask to go to the bathroom, claiming it’s an emergency. I’m dumbfounded when more than half the class doesn’t use punctuation at the end of their sentences. I want to throw my hands up when they can’t follow the simple steps I’ve taught them in dance class. But then I remember, these aren’t “ordinary” school children.

We spend so much time together that I begin to see them only as they are in front of me from 7am-4pm everyday. But they’re so much more. They’re brave young soldiers fighting against the tide of their seemingly already determined futures.

I have to recall that many of their mothers and fathers are illiterate. So, only forgetting a period at the end of a correctly written sentence in a foreign language is really a gold star. I must remember that many of their home lives are filled with responsibility and perhaps abuses that I never could’ve fathomed at their age. Maybe their need to go to the bathroom actually is an emergency beyond their control. I have to remind myself of the malnutrition and underdevelopment they’ve experienced prior to Monte Cristo. For this, the coordination of dance moves between the mind and body truly is a challenge.

And above all, I have to remember that for many of my students, the hours between 7am and 4pm are spent in a safe haven- without the responsibility of providing, cooking, or toiling the fields at home. They are nine hours filled with creativity, values, and new discoveries.

The frustration I have over punctuation is warranted, and I will continue to hold my students to the highest possible standard, but at the end of the day, my pride is in the rest of the correctly formed sentence. By correctly piecing together their pronouns, verbs, and vocabulary, they’ve already thrown a punch in the face of their pre-determined future. From 7am-4pm, my students are warriors, and I’ll gladly lead them into battle every single day.

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I’m sure that compared to some of my peers, I don’t appear to have a ton of responsibility. My expenses have graciously been covered for an entire year, and I’m volunteering abroad without the risk of losing my job, missing a rent payment, or general struggles of a young college graduate. But this gap year has bestowed plenty of responsibility on my young 22-year old shoulders.

I’m responsible for providing quality English classes for 90 middle schoolers, I’m responsible for researching and creating a viable social enterprise, and responsible for using my abilities to the fullest for the benefit of my new workplace. I’m not being paid but I’m treated as an equal member of this brilliant team of educators. I don’t have a teaching degree, but I’m fully trusted to lead the classroom on my own accord. Lastly, I’ve never really started my own business, but I’m putting all my passion and experience behind the creation of our new lotion brand, “Queen Bee.” And all of this is done while stumbling through my new foreign language.

I can’t think of a more stretching experience, or a more worthwhile one. As school starts in full force tomorrow, and we’ve received our first round of branding for our lotion line, the next 8 months are filled with responsibilities that I can’t wait to conquer.


My First Navidad

I’m typically not a huge fan of Christmas. I often find it more focused on materialism than the family time and spiritual reflection I would prefer. However, my first Guatemalan Christmas gave me a new perspective and perhaps a newfound love for the “most wonderful time of the year.”


Starting on December 16th, Guatemalan families begin their posadas (Spanish for “lodging”). Every night until Christmas Eve the families walk together with homemade lanterns from house to house, representing the journey of Mary and Joseph to find a place to stay before the birth of Jesus.


For us, we walked the mile long stretch of road between the Cardenas’ house and the house of their 93-year-old grandfather. The children took turns carrying a large nativity set and playing drums on turtle shells while everyone sang Spanish Christmas songs. Once we arrived, we stood outside the grandfather’s house and sang a song asking if there was room in the inn for us to stay. The family at the house replied with a song welcoming us to stay in their stable. Afterwards, we all said prayers together and ate delicious tamales like a big, happy family.


Then, on Christmas Eve we woke up early and went to a giant breakfast together at a traditional Guatemalan restaurant. The remainder of the day was spent relaxing until 11pm when the champagne came out and the festivities started in full force! I’ve decided that Christmas here is like our Thanksgiving, 4th of July, and New Year’s celebrations all mixed together. Before midnight everyone goes around the table saying what they are thankful for from the past year, then when the clock strikes 12, all the presents are opened in a flurry of excitement, “Christmas hugs” are given to everyone, and the fireworks begin!

Cardenas Family

My first Navidad taught me that a meaningful Christmas truly is possible even in this day of iPads, Christmas light competitions, and Black Friday. All we have to do is take the time as a community to remember the importance of Christ’s birth, and remember as well the importance of the individuals that we share our lives with. It’s not complicated; it just requires a conscious effort.

Merry belated Christmas from Monterrico & Happy New Year’s from Atitlán!

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In November, the administration of CEMOC came to Eric and I with some news. The students of the incoming class of 7th graders were not at all academically prepared for their first year here. In fact, not a single one had passed their diagnostics entrance exam. As a result, CEMOC skillfully called together all the parents of these new students, told them the news, and gave them the exams to review with their child. Afterwards, Miky hosted a townhall meeting of sorts where she asked the parents, “What should we do?” Immediately came the expected answer from one of the fathers in the front row, “We must have classes beforehand to prepare them!”


Miky’s townhall meeting

So then, for two weeks, Eric and I taught English to thirty-five seventh graders. My, it was a challenge. We had students ranging from ages 11 to 15 all in the same grade. Some children had been exposed to English before, but others had never heard it spoken. We worked on the alphabet, numbers, and basic vocabulary to get everyone on the same page. We told the students that on the last day everyone was going to give a small presentation:

“My name is... I’m        years old... My favorite color is... ” You get the idea.

You would’ve thought we’d asked them to swim to England! Some of them were honestly terrified. Which is understandable considering in Primary school they may have never presented anything in front of peers before.


Presentation Day

The day finally came for the presentation, and to tell the truth I was a little nervous that no one would present. The first student went up front and recited his little bit perfectly! I was so proud. But then came student number two, Hector. He sunk down as low as he could in his seat and refused to stand up, much less go to the blackboard. He buried his head in his scarf and shook his head repeatedly. Eric and I were of course encouraging him to try, but my heart almost exploded when his classmates began to chant, “You can do it! You can do it, Hector!” After much persistence, he finally mumbled through it.

Fortunately, all the other students completed their presentations. Afterwards, we asked Hector if he would want to try again, since everyone else had done it. He amazingly said yes, marched right up to the front of the room and completely rocked it! It was a wonderful moment of educational triumph.


Our gifts from students on the last day of class.

On another front, we trial ran our first batch of homemade lotion! Using the beeswax we purchased from the honey co-op in Huehuetenango and other natural ingredients, it’s entirely organic. We’ve had nothing but rave reviews! Our hope is to build up a lotions and chapstick business to help support the work of Monte Cristo in the future.


Trial Run


Final Product

If the last few weeks tell me anything, 2014 is going to be filled with educating and enterprising. I can’t wait to get started!

Up in Flames

           I’m a huge fan of the Hunger Games series. I saw the first film in France in 2012 and loved it so much that I immediatelybought the following two books and read them both in less than a week. So of course, when the second movie came out over Thanksgiving, we went to see it at our local Chimaltenango theatre (tickets plus popcorn for us both was less than $10... bet y’all are jealous of that...). The film was fantastic and lived up to the standards of the brilliantly written novels. When we returned to Cardenas’ house later that evening, I was surprised to see that Señor Mario had already bought a bootleg street version of “En Llamas”- the translation for “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” which roughly means “up in flames.” After our dinner we all sat down to watch the movie and I was excited to get to share one of my favorite stories with our Guatemala family.

            Little did I know the turn it would take. In the first thirty minutes of the movie, President Snow fears a revolt in the districts, so he sends “Peacekeepers” to punish the people and crush the little hope they have. In these scenes, the Peacekeepers storm the people’s houses, looting and burning all of their possessions. They march around kicking and punching the townspeople without reason. When Gale retaliates against them for their brutality, he ends up tied to a post in the town square where the head Peacekeeper is whipping him within an inch of his life. The scene ends when the head Peacekeeper yells, “Everyone back to their homes! If you step out of your home during curfew, you will be shot on sight!” In reply, Señor Mario casually says, “Oh, yeah, this happened here too.”


I scrambled to pause the video and turned to hear as Mario and Miky explained the nightmares they lived in during the armed conflict. They said that every night there was a curfew and no-one was allowed to leave their house, if you left, you would be shot. Miky said that while trapped in their homes they could hear the screams of the people being tortured in the streets, but you couldn’t leave to help them or even find out who was being attacked. They said that there were posts put up in the main areas of town where the “communist subversives” (i.e., priests, community leaders, professors) would be beaten, even killed. Signs were put up above the posts in all the languages of the region explaining that if you disobeyed as well, the same would happen to you.

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In their infinite wisdom, Miky and Mario concluded by saying, “It’s a shame because no one talks about our past. The ones who remember still have too much fear to talk, and the younger generation only knows the propaganda history that is taught by the government. This is why we have Monte Cristo- if we didn’t show the students the videos, didn’t share our story with them, they would have no idea of our past.”

I’m proud to be a part of this community at CEMOC. It’s a safe haven of truth inside of a country stifled with fear.  My love for the fictional “Hunger Games” is completely overshadowed by my love for the people who experienced it in real life. Even though everything they had went “up in flames,” they continue to fight for the rights of the persecuted.


Miky on the left speaking with the parents of the incoming class of students about the history of CEMOC being born out of the civil war peace accords of 1996 & the need for higher academic standards in order to have successful future generations.