Balancing being a mom of three girls and growing a business makes for a pretty busy life.
But this summer I found myself with a unique opportunity – all three of my girls, 10, 12 and 14, were going to be away for 3.5 weeks at sleepaway camp. This was going to be the longest stretch of having no children around since I became a mother over 14 years ago.
I wanted to have an adventure and find a way to volunteer.
I’ve enjoyed tremendous growth in my photography business in the last couple of years. And as a way of giving thanks, I wanted to take my freedom and volunteer my photography services to a worthy cause.
So, with those two principals as my guidelines, I started looking for opportunities.
Instead of trying to find established volunteer jobs, I reached out to my friend, Alicia, who is involved in the non-profit world. I told her I wanted to volunteer in Central America at an organization that focuses on women or children. I also wanted to find an organization with enough infrastructure that I’d feel safe while I was working with them, but small enough that they’d benefit from my willingness to volunteer my photography services.
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Alicia immediately had a couple organizations in mind when I gave her my criteria. We quickly narrowed it down to Friendship Bridge, a non-profit that provides micro-loans, business education and health education for low-income women in rural Guatemala.
Alicia wrote an introductory email for me to Friendship Bridge, explaining my background and the volunteering I was looking to do. The folks at Friendship Bridge were immediately receptive to the idea.
I told my contact at Friendship Bridge that I wanted to do documentary photography of their clients, so they could use the photos for promotional use and fundraising.
They loved the idea!
Soon after, we were agreeing on dates and making a travel plan.
Before this trip, I really didn’t have any Spanish-speaking skills. So, I decided to start my Guatemalan adventure by signing up for a week of immersion 1-to-1 Spanish classes at the school Tecun Uman in Antigua, Guatemala. In addition to having a Spanish tutor for four hours a day, I also chose to live with in a Guatemalan home instead of a hotel while I was in school. Shortly after I confirmed my travel plans, my husband decided to join me for the week of Spanish school.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting us into when I signed up for school and the homestay, but I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences of my life. While I am certainly not fluent in Spanish in four days, I can have basic conversations and get around the country by myself with my limited vocabulary. And the homestay totally exceeded our expectations! The Mayan housekeeper cooked us an amazing three meals a day. And we loved getting to know our host and practicing our Spanish skills.
After a week in Antigua, my husband went home and I was off to Panajachel, Guatemala, to work with Friendship Bridge. Marta, the Friendship Bridge communications coordinator, contacted the clients she wanted me to photograph, organized the itinerary and hired a driver for us. Marta also went with me to visit all of the clients and acted as translator.
Friendship Bridge scheduled us to visit two clients a day for four days (the fifth day of the week during my trip happened to fall on a national holiday, Military Day). Since I spent about 6 or 7 hours a day in the car with Marta and our driver, we had wonderful long chats about Guatemala, Mayan culture, and the role of women in Guatemala. I learned so much! And I had a great time photographing the country side out my window as we drove through amazing, picturesque landscapes and colorful little towns.
I met amazing women my week working with Friendship Bridge. I photographed Trust Bank Repayment meetings, where women who receive loans come together once a month to discuss their businesses, receive business and health education, and make payments on their loans.
I went to women’s homes and saw where they run their businesses.
I photographed weavers, farmers, tortilla makers, and small store owners.
And sometimes I even got to meet their families.
I am so thankful for the opportunity Friendship Bridge gave me to meet some of the beautiful women who benefit from their charity. My experience learning another language, living in a Guatemalan home, and using my photography skills to help others was truly life changing.
One of my goals is to schedule a volunteer trip at least once a year. And now I know exactly how to do it! Identify the charity I want to work with, reach out, make myself available, and make it happen!
Writing and photography by Susan Ryan Kalina.
About Susan Ryan Kalina: Susan is a former photojournalist who photographs families and events. She specializes in bar mitzvahs and shooting the beauty in your every day. Due to her incredible relationship with her beloved grandparents, she especially enjoys photographing grandparents and grandkids spending time together. Susan lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, Ira, and three daughters, Bree, 14, Eliza, 12 and Sadie, 10. Now that her children are getting older, she often feels like an Uber – ATM. When she isn’t parenting or taking pictures, she is usually reading, playing tennis or outside with her chocolate lab, LuLu.