On Measuring Impact, Not Distance

By Fiona Wong, Outreach Trip Participant, Santa Apolonia, Guatemala, May 2016

Before I left for Guatemala, there was a lot of talk about “impacting” the local community through our outreach trip. I had the intention of creating a positive one, but I didn’t think the “impact” of a school kitchen would extend beyond the local community that we interacted with in Santa Apolonia. Yet it did.

On our returning flight from Guatemala to Dallas, while everyone else sat together, I sat beside a woman not part of our group. I’m not usually one who enjoys making conversation with strangers, especially on the plane. I was so exhausted from the night before that I slept the entire journey anyway.

When we landed, she probably heard me babbling to the other volunteers, about how excited we were to finally be one step closer to home after two weeks in Guatemala. I could hardly wait to deplane that I was already on my feet. I was eager to breathe some fresh air, to use the bathroom, and to enjoy a glass of ice-cold, unfiltered water at last.

Curious, she started speaking to me in Spanish. I felt quite ashamed for not being able to respond to her in the same language (after having spent two weeks in a full-Spanish environment), so at best I could only shake my head with a polite smile.

Seeing this, she switched to English and asked, “Are you all travelling in a group?”

Oh, she speaks English, I thought to myself. “Yes!” I replied, relieved.

“What for?” Passengers in front of us were slowly retrieving luggage from overhead compartments and making their way down the narrow aisle.

“We just spent two weeks in Guatemala – to be exact, Santa Apolonia, in Chimaltenango – if you know where that is, to build a kitchen for a local school. We also went to Iximche, where Mayan ruins lay, and Panajachel for a weekend trip.”

She smiled. “I’m from there [Chimaltenango], and I was there to visit some family. I live in Dallas now. Thank you for what you’ve all done in Guatemala.”

We never even exchanged names, but she wished me a good day and disappeared as I remained with the group.

I didn’t know what to say in that moment. I didn’t know whether I was more shocked that she happened to be from the same region (out of many across the country), or the fact that our actions in a foreign country just impacted a total stranger that sat beside me on the plane.

Two weeks was not enough to build a school kitchen, and as a result I completely underestimated the effect an infrastructure project would have on local and their neighbouring communities. I was wrong. Impact can be far-reaching, and cannot be simply measured in terms of distance or time.

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