Hope and Opportunity in Guatemala: Joe Koenig, President of WWT Visits Boys Hope Girls Hope in Guatemala City

Joe Koenig, a member of the Boys Hope Girls Hope board, discusses his trip to Guatemala City and how students and staff of Esperanza Juvenil inspired him and his son, Jake.

June 6, 2016 6 minute read

For the past three years, I’ve served on the board of Boys Hope Girls Hope, an international non-profit organization founded in 1977 that helps children from difficult backgrounds to realize their full potential. The organization recently asked if I could take on more leadership responsibilities, which I was happy to do.

With these new responsibilities, I wanted to immerse myself more into the Boys Hope Girls Hope experience. I connected with Kristin Ostby, Vice President of Boys Hope Girls Hope International, who was kind enough to create a jam-packed itinerary for my 21-year-old son, Jake, and me. This was the first step of our truly unforgettable trip to Guatemala.

The journey begins

While not that long of a flight from St. Louis, stepping foot in Guatemala City was like stepping into a different world. I immediately knew the next four days were going to be a life-changing experience for us.

A note about Guatemala: it’s a beautiful country about the size of Tennessee, but there are many impoverished people. Over half of Guatemala’s population of 14 million live below the poverty line, especially in Guatemala City where we spent the majority of our time.

In Guatemala City, our first stop was to Esperanza Juvenil, Boys Hope Girls Hope affiliate in Guatemala. Esperanza Juvenil takes a holistic approach to helping the boys and girls of Guatemala. Its goal is to instill independence and character into the students through not only a rigorous school program but also after-school responsibilities, like chores around the house, cooking for the members of their home, and rotating with other students and homes to clean the school.

Several students took us on a tour of the school, and then we were treated to a private concert where we enjoyed a children’s choir singing Spanish renditions of songs like “It’s a Small World” and The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”

Meeting with the Boys Hope Girls Hope students and tías in Guatemala City

It was a great experience for me and Jake to see a small part of what the children live every day. We attended classes, spoke with teachers and counselors, met the residential house parents, known as “tías,” and got to know the students in the program.

I saw that the school was clean, well organized and the teachers were very passionate about their mission. It was also quite obvious the time and dedication the house parents and educators put into developing the students outside of their academic activities. This holistic program, inside and outside the classroom, is making a very positive impact on the children’s lives.

Favorite moments

Getting to know the students was my main mission for this trip. I wanted to learn more about the environments these students come from and see the daily operations of the program.

One of my favorite moments was sitting around a small kitchen table with the students and just listening to them tell their stories.

Talking with the students and the school principal of Esperanza Juvenil.

Jake and I heard about the challenges these young students have experienced, from losing parents and siblings to family members who had to work in the city dump to find recyclable items they could sell for money. Despite their troubled backgrounds and difficult family life before Boys Hope Girls Hope, these students were very optimistic about their futures. While some spoke quietly, you could tell they all had a very strong sense of determination. With big smiles, you could tell they were also hopeful about their future and shared big aspirations, like graduating from college and starting their own businesses to give back and improve life in their communities.

I was truly inspired by the students when I asked, “If you had to describe your experience in Boys Hope Girls Hope and at Esperanza Juvenil in one word, what would it be?” After a brief pause, many replied with thoughts about family, opportunities they’ve been granted through the program and hope for their future. One small child answered with “food,” which really touched me and made me think about things we take for granted.

All of these answers made me realize that these are all things the students didn’t have before joining Boys Hope Girls Hope. It was also great to see the core values of Boys Hope Girls Hope shine through during our conversations – especially when hearing about how the students aspired to give back to their own communities.

We also had the opportunity to celebrate one of the students, Luis Zamora, graduating from college — something that is definitely a momentous occasion for the Boys Hope Girls Hope program. We celebrated over dinner with Luis, several of the boys in the program who live with him and many of the staff from Esperanza Juvenil. The conversation was light and kind hearted and everyone at the table sang their praises of Luis. One of the 10-year-old boys who lives with him even spoke about his admiration for the graduate as a big brother and thought all of his hard work and dedication made him a great role model for everyone in their home.

Playing soccer with the students at Esperanza Juvenil.

In Guatemala, soccer is by far the most popular sport. As former players and current fans, Jake and I were very excited to bring some donated soccer gear for the students to use. Leading up to our trip this past spring, St. Louis Scott Gallagher Soccer Club ran a shoe drive and collected over 200 pairs in all with WWT donating the soccer balls and jerseys.

The students had their choice between green and white jerseys which they proudly wore. We spent almost the entire afternoon playing soccer with the faculty members and students. Fortunately, I managed to make it through with no injuries!

Taking action

The Boys Hope Girls Hope students have a rigor and discipline I’ve never witnessed before and, despite the language barrier, the excitement and happiness exuberating from them was infectious. Their constant smiles always kept us smiling.

From this trip, Jake and I have gained a new perspective and feel inspired to continue on with the Boys Hope Girls Hope mission. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey by visiting other Boys Hope Girls Hope affiliates in the U.S. and Latin America.

Getting great hugs from happy students

I can’t thank the Boys Hope Girls Hope organization and faculty and staff at Esperanza Juvenil enough for what they’ve done for these students. I was amazed by their dedication and devotion to the Boys Hope Girls Hope mission and enjoyed seeing how they inspire the students and bring all of them so much hope and opportunity. I’d like to think our visit made a difference in these students’ lives, but in all honestly, I think they’ve made more of an impact on ours.

To learn more about the Boys Hope Girls Hope mission and how you can help, visit http://www.boyshopegirlshope.org.

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