Rye Coombs and Megan Flanagan both had to take a moment to collect their thoughts.
Their 10 days spent in Rabinal, Guatemala, last month was filled with so many memorable experiences it was hard to put into words. The two teenagers were part of a group of 18 to travel to Guatemala.
For 16-year-old Coombs, he admitted a visit to Rio Negro to hear about the 1983 genocide was emotional for him, something that doesn’t happen often. The genocide killed 170 women and children, and 16 families returned to the site in Rio Negro to start an historical and educational centre.
“It was very heavy,” he said, about walking up the trail and hearing the stories of survivors. “It definitely hit me in that sense.”
Coombs said their guide was 16 when the massacre occurred, but survived because he left home that morning after their dog was barking.
“He thought he lost his brother, but two years later they reconnected,” said Flanagan.
The teenager said the military then came looking for survivors, and found their guide’s brother, and he was never seen alive again.
“It was really intense and really important to get a sense on how they deal with it. It was amazing we could experience that, for them to share that with us.”
Flanagan, 17, agreed.
“The history was a lot to take in, and was emotionally exhausting,” she said. “We’ve read the books and watched the movie, but to hear someone talk about it, it was just so deep. I kept thinking, how are they feeling telling us this. But they want to tell their history so it doesn’t happen again.”
During their trip, the group spent many of their days at the New Hope Foundation, working with students there on various projects and learning their culture.
Even though they didn’t speak the same language, Flanagan knew they were happy to see the group from Tatamagouche.
“They were so welcoming and happy to see us. It was heartwarming,” she said. “Our bodies spoke for us. Our facial expressions showed we were happy to be in the same place. I found that cool.”
Flanagan said by spending more than a week in Guatemala gave her the understanding that she, and so many others, take things for granted.
“Here, we have this brand new school and it’s huge and nice, but they’re happy with their one-room school that’s open. We complain about different things here, and they’re so happy with what they have,” she said.
Having done some travelling in previous years, Coombs has an interest in other cultures – how they’re different, yet the same.
“Quality and solidarity are very important,” he said. “Going to Guatemala was a great way to explore different groups and areas. It was a fantastic, wonderful time.”
Being a teenager, Coombs said he loved seeing how people were so hard working.
“It gave me a sense of wanting to be more like that,” he said. “No matter how bad things get, we should always hope to work toward a better existence for ourselves, and others.”
Coombs said Tatamagouche has a lot of activists in the area, so it’s important for the village to build relationships, like it is with Guatemala.
“It’s a good way to use large amounts of activism, to encourage local youth to be exposed,” he said.
Hannah Martin was the main inspiration behind Tatamagouche forming a relationship with Guatemala. She spent three months volunteering in Rabinal, and her parents were inspired by the change they saw in her.
Martin returned to Guatemala with the group, and had a whole new experience.
“It was really different, but a lot that was the same for me,” she said. “Because I was with a different group, everyone adds a different dynamic. It was incredible and by far one of the best weeks of my life.”
She said she was excited to see the group from her home community experience what she did for three months, and excited to experience it with them.
She was also happy to return, to visit with old friends, mentors, and colleagues, and continue to build on the relationships she had formed.
“It was great to see, especially the youth, because they’re closer to my age when I went previously,” Martin said.
Since her previous experience, Martin has been doing numerous presentations on her experience, and is excited there will now be others who can lead those presentations.
“It was really important to me to provide my mentorship with the youth. To see them taking a leadership role in the community – it’s really important for me this time around.”
Martin said the next step for the North Shore Guatemala-Tatamagouche Schools Project, with support from the Breaking the Silence Network, is to have a debrief with all their participants and decide on the next step. The plan, Martin believes, is to focus on an ongoing youth exchange and seeing how they can host more youth and support the New Hope Foundation.
All three of the participants agree in that they’d love to be part of that future relationship, with hopes of returning.
If she can’t go but can offer encouraging words to others thinking about it, Flanagan says to just do it, just go.
“You may be nervous and you might not know what to expect, but it’s so life-changing. It makes you stop and think, ‘is this necessary’ and ‘do I really need this’. Don’t think about it. Just do it,” she said.