2011: Lessons from Guatemala

2011: Lessons from Guatemala

Laureen washing her clothes in a pila.

Laureen washing her clothes in a pila.

In June of 2011, I took part in SSP’s inaugural Study and Serve program in Guatemala. I boarded a red eye flight from Los Angeles with eleven strangers to a place none of us had ever been, where we would be led by two women, only one of whom any of us had met. It was a journey to grow in faith through our good works and trust in each other, and true to the name of the program, I learned a lot along the way.

I learned how to be really open with people I had only known for days. I spent quality time with almost every member of our team. We talked about relationships, family, school, religion, how to handle traveler’s sicknesses, and who we hope to be someday.

I worked for local foremen who, despite speaking a foreign language, were clearer and more caring than some English speakers I have worked with.

I ate my first Guatemala-style spaghetti: in tortillas.

I learned that from 1960-1996, a civil war raged in Guatemala. A country in my hemisphere was at war during the first decade of my life and I had no idea. In Fatima and Santa Anita, my group and I came face to face with the reality of history as we met people who fought in the war, and people who were driven from their homes by the escalating violence.

Before the trip, we read “I, Rigoberta Menchú,” which describes Mayan culture and the injustices which led to war. Discussions about the book brought new meaning to our experiences on the trip, and to our lives back home.

I washed my clothes by hand in a pila (great big concrete sink).

I learned the difference between fair trade and free trade, and that local actions can sometimes have global consequences.

I was shown the meaning of true generosity when a woman named Giorgina invited Patrick and me into her home. It was the size of my apartment, and a good amount of space was taken up by a loom she used to weave cortes, traditional Mayan skirts. Taped to the cinder-block wall were the prayer of Saint Francis and pictures of her sister in Los Angeles. In that humble place, she served us rich vegetable soup and an abundance of fresh tortillas.

I learned what a gringa I am when having mild salsa with dinner on day six instead of salsa picante sent me into a tizzy of excitement.

A member of our team taught us all a lesson in friendship and welcoming during a soccer game with some local teens. During the work day, a deaf boy was helping us out. He caught on to the work quickly, but I was sorry we couldn’t talk with him more, and that we didn’t even learn his name. While the boys were getting ready for the game, Nick didn’t see the deaf boy on the bus, and specifically asked that he be invited. One of our leaders said this was the high point of the trip for her.

I practiced Spanish with people who were always patient and helpful, which made me reflect on how those struggling with English in the US are treated.

We learned the difference between heritage and home when we met Gio. Though Guatemalan born, he had lived as an undocumented immigrant in the US since childhood. He was deported in his early 20s to Guatemala City, a place he’d never been, with only the clothes on his back. He made the best of his situation and now teaches music and poetry in Xela, encouraging kids to achieve their dreams while staying in Guatemala.

I am grateful for all that I learned with my team, and for the chance to grow in faith with my new Central American brothers and sisters in Christ.

As anyone can see, I learned a lot about myself and the world around me on this trip. But perhaps most importantly, I learned that this SSP thing isn’t just for high schoolers. In the grand scheme of the SSP world, I’m on the cusp of old age. Most people are inclined to make a transition go from camper to staff, and doing the opposite is unprecedented. But my experience of becoming a camper again in this exciting new opportunity made it a rewarding experience. Though it was a challenge to overcome the trepidation I felt in taking such a big step outside my comfort zone, I am grateful for all that I learned with my team, and for the chance to grow in faith with my new Central American brothers and sisters in Christ.

Laureen Jenson
First United Methodist Church, Sacramento
Participated as a youth with Malibu United Methodist Church

Editor’s Note: The Central American program has shifted over the years from home building in Honduras, to Study and Serve trips in Guatemala to now serving with Seeds of Learning in Nicaragua.

2003: Urban And Honduras pilot programs

Here are a few of the highlights from the 2003 Summer:

  • We successfully piloted the Urban Connection program for one week. 27 participants from three youth groups worked on the homes of several Native American families in Orange County, CA.
  • Our first-ever project outside the U.S. was also ask or success. 14 youth, young adults and adults spent 15 days in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where the team built two complete homes.
  • Spiritual Gurus on work teams and daily spiritual questions were introduced (we still do this in 2015!)
  • Fifth site was opened. This was made possible by the generous donation of a tool trailer by former board member John Baudouine. This trailer serves our Arizona site locations (Navajo Nation and Phoenix.)

Site locations:

  • Tselani Valley, Arizona (Navajo Nation). Staff lived in two tents.
  • Owyhee, Nevada (Duck Valley Reservation). First year here.
  • Covelo, California (Round Valley Reservation)
  • Anaheim, California (Urban Connection). First urban site.
  • Spencer Valley, California (Santa Ysabel and La Jolla Reservation)
  • Warm Springs Reservation, Oregon


  • 1,377 youth, young adults and counselors from 101 churches from Alaska to New Mexico.


  • In 2003 donations made up 13.2% of SSP’s revenue (half of what it is today in 2015.)


2003 shirt


1992 & 1993: Sierra Service Project from Two Angles

1992 & 1993: Sierra Service Project from Two Angles

In 2007 I served as a Sierra Service Project counselor for the first time. I took a small group of youth from Palo Alto First United Methodist Church to Weitchpec, the site that I had been to as a camper in 1993. Before the youth and I left, my dad (who was a counselor at this site in 2006 and earlier in 1993) challenged me to find the project I’d worked on as a fifteen year old. I laughed, given my sense of direction, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t remember where I’d worked 14 years earlier.

One morning before most of the campers were awake I got up to take a walk. Leaving the firehouse where we slept, I headed toward the elementary school that had housed us years before. There was a short little road, which I wandered down, and sure enough, there was the trailer that my work team had begun an addition to years before. The trailer was now abandoned and overgrown with blackberry brambles, but our addition was still standing.

In 1993 my work team, I think that year we were the 16 penny screwers, because we were using 16d nails and screws, worked mostly with hand tools. On Friday someone brought us a generator – we got a lot done that Friday. We cleared brush, dug holes for posts, and built the subfloor. In my four years as a camper, it was probably the SSP project where I left feeling like we made the most difference in a family’s life. We got to meet the girls whose bedroom we were building, and there was very clear progress at the end of the week. Plus, it was a team that had a lot of fun together. In 1994 (and 1995) I ended up serving with a young woman whose team had finished the 1993 addition, so I eventually got to see pictures of the finished work. It looked a lot better in those pictures than it did in 2007!

As I reflect on my call to young adult mission work, seminary, and eventually ordained ministry as a small church pastor, I say with confidence that the understanding of the Gospel that I learned at SSP, the importance of putting my Christian faith into action, has been a key element shaping who I am today.

It’s memories like these that cause me to marvel at the continuity of Sierra Service Project in my life – as a first time camper in 1992 to a board member in 2011, with stops as a staff member and counselor along the way. As I reflect on my call to young adult mission work, seminary, and eventually ordained ministry as a small church pastor, I say with confidence that the understanding of the Gospel that I learned at SSP, the importance of putting my Christian faith into action, has been a key element shaping who I am today. I am grateful for those who envisioned opportunities for young people to be in ministry and mission in this corner of the globe before I was born, and I am grateful for the opportunity to now do my small part to provide such opportunities for a new generation of youth and young adults.

Katie Goetz

Trinity United Methodist Church, Sunnyvale
Redwood City, California

Send us your stories, memories and photos to be included in the 2nd edition of SSP’s book set to be published Fall 2015.

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