They served 10 days this summer at a mission in San Lucas Toliman.
GREEN When she heard her parish was organizing a mission trip to Guatemala, Hannah Blawas knew she had to take part.
"I felt immediately drawn to it," she recalled.
Eva Klockner said the poverty is pervasive, but she would return in a heartbeat.
"I've always been interested in mission work," said Klockner, an 18-year-old senior at Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron. "I went to a mission in Texas for five weeks in 2018, but I was ready to expand a little bit. I felt like I needed that wake-up call. Our scope here (U.S.) feels so limited."
The two were part of a team sent by Queen of Heaven Catholic Church at 1800 Steese Road. They served 10 days this summer at a mission in San Lucas Toliman, a city of about 20,000 with an economy driven by coffee agriculture.
The mission was founded by the late Monsignor Gregory Schaffer, who arrived there in 1963 with the goal of strengthening the faith and helping the villagers achieve self-sufficiency. Over the years, the mission has built a school, a hospital, a women's center and a coffee business.
Schaffer died in 2012.
"This was our first attempt at a foreign mission trip," said Daphne Stewart, who said she learned about the mission from a friend who went to San Lucas two years ago. "We had a nearly three-hour conversation. I got really psyched about it."
Stewart is the wife of Canton Repository photographer Ray Stewart, who also went on the mission.
Sixteen parishioners signed on, including seven teens. The group had to raise their own funds for travel and accommodations.
Daphne Stewart said the team was assisted in San Lucas by long-term American missionaries who speak Spanish. The mission also employs about 100 people.
"They do not speak English at all down there," she said. "Their native language is Mayan, but they were forced to speak Spanish."
Blawas 16, took the trip with her dad, James, and sister Katie, 17. The siblings are home-schooled.
"I've been wanting to go on a mission trip for a long time," Katie Balwas said. "I had some expectations, but the poverty, really seeing it, was so difficult. It's beyond what you can imagine."
Klockner said their team worked on the construction of a block house for a family of 10.
"They had been living in a steel shack," she said.
The mission builds 12 to 14 concrete block houses every year, along with 200 outdoor cooking stoves.
James Blawas said they lugged blocks to the site, dug some of the foundation, mixed concrete and tied Rebar. Locals and the family did the actual home construction in keeping with Schaffer's vision.
"They want to keep it that way - independent," Stewart said. "The whole point is the dignity of work. Father Greg wanted them to be self-sufficient and not have to go somewhere else. San Lucas is a very rare little gem in Guatemala."
Through the mission's Charity With Dignity program, the team also purchased food to feed 12 local families for a week, as well as clothing, and furniture, including eight children's beds for the family of 10.
James Blawas noted that while the majority of the country is Catholic - the church in San Lucas was built in the 1580s - the region also hosts a variety of Protestant churches, including a large contingent of Mennonite missionaries.
And not everyone is poor.
"I met people who left for other Guatemalan cities for an education but came back to help their community," he said.
Lives of joy
"They have their own way of doing things than we do, " Kate Blawas observed. "But it's not a 'lesser' way."
"The point is you go there, you help, you share the faith," her father said. "I was impressed with the simplicity and joy they show in their lives. They're happy people who are friendly and resourceful."
"It made me realize that as an American, we over-complicate things by putting too much in our lives," Stewart said. "The result is we're not appreciating what we have. As Jim said, I was struck with their overall joy and gratitude."
Klockner said the mission has made her more grateful.
"I have such a beautiful life," she said. "I have people who are so important to me, and I'm blessed that I do. Because of what I have, it's so important that I live with purpose and make the most of the time I've been given."
"It's made me much humbler," Hannah Blawas said of the mission. "I went there thinking I knew a lot. In trying to communicate with people, I realized I didn't. Guatemala is an amazing place. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to serve."
Contrary to news reports, the team members, who stayed in a hotel, said they felt safe in Guatemala.
"There's a big misconception that people want to get out of where they live, but we did not see that," Stewart said. "Because of what Father Greg did, they want to stay."
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