Every summer since I started college, I have been traveling down to Guatemala. I intern with a group called Los Patojos, which serves as an alternative school, health clinic, youth group, after school program, sports team, hiphop crew, occupation training center, English school, night school, and much more in its community of Jocotenango. My position at the program changes every year. This past summer my plan was to run a shoe drive for three months in Wisconsin (during a different internship), then transport the shoes to Guatemala to help start a youth athletic program. It seemed simple enough.
“I’m sorry miss, you can only bring two bags.”
“I mean, I’ll pay more.”
“There’s an embargo. You can’t pay more.”
This was really just the beginning of the twists and turns. I had spent all summer running four shoe drives an hour from where I lived. I had coordinated with area gyms/businesses to hold the drives, and I had done so while playing a club sport and working 40+ hours a week. So when I landed in Tucson the night before flying out for Guatemala, the last thing on my mind was checking for an embargo in Guatemala. Lesson learned.
“Why is there an embargo?”
“It’s a highly traveled place during the summer season.”
“When does it end?”
“Next week, but it says that may change.”
I was a week late. I called my friend to pick up one of my suitcases, and I moved on. I would figure out how to get it down to the kids later. I thought it was looking up when I breezed through security, only to have the flight attendant at the gate tell me I had two carry-ons. I was only permitted one carry on and one “personal item,” which was neither a duffle bag nor a suitcase. However, I couldn’t check one of them because I had exceeded my two-bag limit. After some pleading I was allowed on the plane and all went well. I even had an entire row of seats to myself.
“Tiene zapatos. Why do you have so many shoes?” The security guard asked me in Spanish at the Guatemalan customs. The security was unusually tight that night. I had never seen so many guards. I had definitely never scanned my bags before leaving the airport. The guard questioned me again, but in English. I stammered something about the children, and he begrudgingly let me move on. The driver met me outside, and we flew to my host parent’s house in Antigua.
I worked with the program director to find a truck to bring the suitcases to the school. Once there, I told them about the missing suitcase, but I assured them I would find a way to get it to them. The teachers took the shoes into an auditorium and laid them out across the first row of benches. Groups of kids soon came filing in, and like kids in an unbelievably large candy store, their faces lit up and their jaws dropped. They were grabbing the brightest ones, the biggest, or the most stylish. They were trading cleats for keds or nikes. There wasn’t an argument over a size or shoe. Children of all ages were trying on shoes, comparing with their friends, and searching for the perfect pair. The smiles on their faces were unreal, and their gratitude was profound. Twenty minutes in that room made the countless hours, meetings, fundraisers, and airport confrontations worth every minute.
I would do it again and a hundred times over, just to be in that room again. My host mom managed to help me find another University of Arizona student that would be coming down to study abroad over the school year. And on the day of my departure, Michael Chikos, saved the day by bringing down the last suitcase.