Guatemala Stories: How I Became “Team Photographer”

I found out that I was pregnant on December 6th, 2013. This was welcomed news, but in the back of my mind I was wondering how this was going to impact my ability to serve in Guatemala just two months later. I knew that I would be in the beginning of the second trimester when we left, so in theory I would be feeling well enough and would have the energy to serve; but, I also knew that pregnancy places restrictions on a woman and makes her more “high maintenance” than a non-pregnant woman, so I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do.

I spoke with one of our team leaders about it and she assured me that there would be plenty for me to do that would still allow me to take care of my baby. What I didn’t realize at the time was that God was planning to use me in a way I never would have expected.

I discovered last summer that my dream job was to do photography for missions organizations…to tell the stories that need to be told and to inspire people to act.

My dream...

I have had the privilege of doing missions photography in Tunisia, Brazil, Haiti and New Orleans in the past…

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…but I didn’t go to Guatemala thinking I would be able to do much with it. We had a full and exciting schedule of service and I was ready to jump right in alongside the team. I hoped that I would be able to take pictures along the way, but it was in no way something I expected to be able to do.

When we got to Guatemala and were talking through the projects for the first few days, our leaders mentioned that they (and many of the team members) wanted shots of several of the group activities that would be going on simultaneously and asked if I would focus on capturing everything for the team during this trip.

I was amazed, humbled, excited, and ready to dive in. I couldn’t believe that I was being asked to use my passion, my gift, my dream to bless the team in such a unique way. 

Because I was taking pictures for everyone, they were able to focus solely on ministering to the beautiful children in our care. They were able to set their cameras aside when necessary in order to just be in the moment, while I did something that I love to do and could do even while pregnant.

I may have been unable to help paint the bedroom or the hallway at Mi Pequeno Refugio.
I may have been unable to lift things and carry boxes of food.
I may have been unable to be outside at The Ravine due to the burning trash and smoke.
But, I was able to use my gift to capture the team doing all of these things while still serving the Lord in Guatemala, just not in the way I had planned.

Thank you, Ronne and Courtney, for seeing this gift in me and allowing me to use it.
Thank you, team, for being so supportive and excited about what I was capturing.

I came home with over 5,800 images of our week. I’m currently down to 3,800 images with the promise of a snow day tomorrow during which I can edit. This experience gave me a glimpse of what it really would be like to do photography for missions organizations, and it confirmed in my heart that this is what I was made to do. I can’t wait for what God has in store for me next!

Guatemala Stories: The Ravine

“All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all”

We had been told about The Ravine. We had been briefed on what we should expect and the few things we should/shouldn’t do while there.

But, words can only go so far; some things have to be seen, touched, smelled, experienced for full impact to occur. The Ravine is one of those things.

Entrance to The Ravine

The Ravine is a garbage dump in Chimaltenango. There are over 50 families there who live and work among the heaps of garbage, hoping to scrape a living out of the waste of others.

Our team traveled there on Friday morning to bring small bags of staple food items and soap to 50 of these families and to pray with them.

Gathering the families...

Their situation seems hopeless. They have been stuck in the cycle of poverty for generations, with seemingly no way out. Each day is the same: work until dark, hoping to find treasures that can be reused/cleaned/recycled and sold to buy food for their families.

“All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all”

Hope is present...

Hope doesn’t seem to exist here at first glance. However, we have seen first-hand that God is indeed redeeming and restoring these people, starting with their precious children. We saw hope in the eyes of each person with whom we prayed and spoke that day. We saw hope in the eyes of their children when we visited them later that day. He is literally taking them from the ashes and making them new, opening doors to a life they never dreamed would be possible. And this is all because of the love of two precious people: Cesar and Carol.

Cesar and Carol decided that they needed to open a school for the children of The Ravine – a school where they could break free from the cycle of poverty and literally change their community forever. That’s how The Ravine School was born only a little more than a year ago – completely out of faith in God. Carol and Cesar did not have a “nest egg” or any riches to speak of, but they believed in a God who redeems, and had faith that He would rescue these children.

There are now 114 children in The Ravine School who are learning to read, write, use computers, and grasp their full potential instead of carrying on the work of their parents and grandparents in the dump with no hope of escape. From a one room building to a beautiful space with classrooms and plenty of light in only a year, God’s redeeming love and faithfulness is abundant in this place.

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

– Gungor’s “Beautiful Things” (lyrics throughout post) is the perfect song for what God is doing at The Ravine…Hear the song here.

The color and lighting are imperfect due to shooting from inside a vehicle (in order to avoid making the families feel uncomfortable), but these images still show how God is continuing to make beautiful things out of bad situations.

Stay tuned for more about The Ravine School and the beautiful things happening there.

Guatemala Stories: The Avocado Lady

I first saw her after our first day of ministry at The Ravine School in Chimaltenango.

She was sitting on a stool with her produce to the left of the school’s entrance. She was beautiful, and she was selling my favorite thing: avocados. With my photographer’s eye, I noted the perfect contrast of her green sweater, the green-blue building, her colorful dress, and the gorgeous avocados in the orange basket. I had to take her picture.

I took a few stealthy shots but they weren’t at an ideal angle. Unfortunately, that’s what happens sometimes when trying to be sneaky.

Avocado Lady

I worked up the courage to ask her if I could take her photo, only to be told “no” by this beautiful lady. I respected her wishes and retreated to the van.

I couldn’t get her out of my mind, and as I talked with the other ladies in the van about her, we came up with a plan for the next day to try to win her over – not solely for the purpose of taking her picture, though. We had something bigger in mind.

I mentioned that I would love to buy some of her avocados, and one of my teammates said, “Why don’t we buy ALL of them?” And the plan was set.

As we prepared to leave the school that day, “Avocado Lady” laughed at us silly Americans because we were so excited about a man with two cows walking down the street. That broke the ice a little. I waved to her as we drove away and she was still smiling at us.

Silly Americans, so easily amused...

When we returned to the school the next day, we were so excited about our plan. Sure enough, as soon as school was finished, she was there with her goods, hoping to sell enough to provide for her family.

We approached her and I asked her, in Spanish, how much each avocado cost. She replied that they were 1 Quetzal each (about $0.13). The three of us had decided to give her $20 for all of them, so I held up the money and told her that we wanted to buy them ALL. Her eyes widened and she smiled as she gladly accepted the money. She put the avocados into my teammate’s backpack with a smile on her face the entire time.

To give perspective, had she sold all of her avocados at the normal price, she would have made $4. Most of the time, these ladies who sell produce don’t sell everything that they prepare (fruit in bags, etc.), and it goes to waste. We paid her $0.75 an avocado (a great price here in Pennsylvania!) in an effort to bless her and provide some extra money for her and her family because we could.

Because $20 isn’t a whole lot of money to most Americans, but to a Guatemalan woman who is working hard for pennies a day, it’s an abundant gift (about 150 Q). It was worth every penny to see the gratitude in her eyes. We didn’t just make an impression on her – there were quite a few children around who kept saying (in Spanish) “$20!” and smiling in wonder at the $20 from the strange American women.

After we bought all of her produce, she agreed to let us take a picture with her.

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She may not be smiling in this picture, but she was definitely smiling inside.

Hopefully she decided that these crazy Americans weren’t so bad after all.

Hopefully she’ll wonder what we were doing in the school next door. And if her children aren’t already in school, hopefully that will change.

We decided to give some of the avocados to our team’s drivers, and we gave the rest to the orphanage at which we served that afternoon and the next day so that Papa Cesar could make some more of his famous guacamole for the girls, which made this mutual blessing stretch even further.

I can’t think of a better way to spend $20.

Guatemala-Bound…

Tomorrow’s the day! I can’t believe it’s already been six months since I began preparing for this journey. I cannot thank all of you enough for your support, prayers, and encouragement! Between your financial generosity and all the supplies you so generously provided, I’m fully-funded and taking FIFTY POUNDS of supplies with me!

For updates on our trip, you can check out this blog  and I will also try to post updates on Facebook when possible.

Here’s our general itinerary:

Sunday, February 2nd – Team arrives in Guatemala City and prepare for ministry (shopping, orientation, supply sorting, etc).
Monday, February 3rd – Team travels to Xela and meets children at Little House of Refuge. There will be cooking classes for the older girls, a cardboard boat regatta for the boys, and playtime for the younger girls.
Tuesday, February 4th – Team serves at Little House of Refuge (project work and teaching in the morning and time with the kids in the afternoon).
Wednesday, February 5th – Team travels to Antigua (a 3-5 hour journey), and has an afternoon of respite before preparing for ministry on Thursday.
Thursday, February 6th – Team distributes food and shares the Gospel at a local garbage dump called “The Ravine” in the morning in Chimatenango (a 45-minute journey), and spends time with the girls at Mi Especial Tesoro in the afternoon.
Friday, February 7th – Team serves at the Ravine School in Chimaltenango in the morning, and spends the afternoon with the girls at Mi Especial Tesoro.
Saturday, February 8th – Team serves alongside girls of Mi Especial Tesoro, ministering to the elderly at Cabacitas de Algodon in the morning, followed by a special farewell lunch. Team returns to Guatemala City in the afternoon.
Saturday, February 9th – Team returns to the United States.
Here is some information about the ministries with which we will be serving, as provided by our team leaders:
Casa Hogar: Mi Pequeño Refugio (Little House of Refuge or Little House) – Xela, Guatemala
(on a map, look for the city of Quetzaltenango)
Pequeño Refugio is a private orphanage run by sisters Lourdes and Teresa. This Christian children’s home houses up to 70 kids at a time ages 4 – 18.  All of the children that reside at “Little House” have been removed from their families due to abuse of some kind.  In addition to the home, there is a school on the property. In addition to education, each child receives psychological counseling and Bible teaching. These children are amazing when it comes to Biblical knowledge – chances are, they’ll be able to recite all the scriptures we’ll use in our time with them! Courtney and Ronne (the team leaders) have considered Little House our “home away from home” since 2009, when we were privileged to be a part of the first team of missionaries to visit the orphanage.  Orphan Outreach “adopted” Little House that same year, and now church teams from all over the US have answered prayer after prayer. These teams have done construction & painting, helped provide livestock and clean drinking water, taught job skills, established a sponsorship program, and most importantly, just spent time loving on kids.

Mi Especial Tesoro – Chimaltenango, Guatemala
Houseparents Cesar and Carol provide a loving home for 13 teenage girls as well as an 18-year old daughter and 9-year old son of their own.  Tesoro is a private Christian girl’s home where the girls receive biblical guidance, emotional support, and stability to aid in their healing.  The girls in this home have been removed from their families by the court system due to abuse or neglect.  Orphan Outreach just celebrated their first anniversary ministering to Mi Especial Tesoro, and we have been blessed to be there every step of the way so far. In just a year, tremendous work has been done to provide improvements to living facilities, give the girls much-needed personal items, build a sponsorship program for ongoing care and support of each girl, and establish a loving, nurturing relationship with everyone there.

The Ravine and The Ravine School – Chimaltenango, Guatemala

The Ravine School serves the children of the families that work in the city of Chimaltenango’s garbage dump, which is located in a ravine outside the city. The school was created in the minds and souls of the Mi Especial Tesoro caregivers, Carol and Cesar. The school started from an effort to teach the girls of My Special Treasure about serving others. In 2012, Carol and Cesar starting bringing the MST girls to the ravine dump to assist the children and families each Saturday. Around 100 people work at the ravine dump everyday, searching and sorting for things they can re-sell at the market on the weekends.  These families work from 12 to 14 hours a day of work making roughly between 3 to 4 US dollars a day. Their job is difficult, but it is worthy of admiration and respect because these parents work hard to be able to provide for their children in an honest and worthy way.

Cabecitas de Algodon 
Just a short walk from the center of Antigua, this nursing home provides a place for elderly residents that would otherwise be homeless.  Many of the residents either have no family to care for them or have been dropped off because their families don’t have the resources to provide basic necessities.  Though our visit will be brief, it will bring joy to the residents who are happy to see friendly faces.
  • Please pray for our team as we serve the beautiful people of Guatemala. We are all excited and can’t wait to see what God does in and around us this week.
  • Pray that we will be flexible and open to whatever God has in store!
  • For me specifically, please pray for the continued safety of our little baby (14 weeks tomorrow) as I travel. We’re starting him/her as a traveler from the beginning! 🙂
  • Please also pray that God will work in my heart this week in mighty ways.
There will be plenty of pictures and stories when I return! 🙂

Book Review: “Dangerous” by Caleb Bislow

Dangerous: Engaging the People and Places No One Else Will

Being a missionary overseas often means putting your life at risk in one way or another. It isn’t easy, and it definitely isn’t for the weak. But we often have pictures in our heads of missionaries living an idyllic life, far from harm, and having great success in their ministries all the time. While that might be true in some cases, this book focuses on the realities of ministering in the tough places.

Dangerous by Caleb Bislow is fascinating and filled with adventure. Caleb is no ordinary missionary – he travels to the most extreme places following the Lord’s leading, and his stories will keep you engaged!

God is using Caleb in extraordinary ways to reach people who might not be reached otherwise. I loved this quote:

“Jesus didn’t let locked doors keep him from being with his disciples, so let’s not let locked doors keep us from outsiders. Sometimes the best opportunities are just beyond the “locked doors” in front of us.”
(pg. 140)

This book definitely challenged me because, like most people, I like being comfortable and playing it safe. But there is also part of me that longs for adventure, that longs to go to distant lands to tell people about Jesus even if it is dangerous.

Read this book and allow God to use it to challenge you. This isn’t everyone’s calling, but we can all learn from Caleb’s mission and testimony and apply it to our lives.

I received a copy of this book from Bethany House in exchange for my honest review.

Day Twenty-One: I’m Thankful For…Traveling.

Preface: Last year I decided to express my thanks during the month of November for something new each day, as so many others have done before me. I never finished this series, so that’s my goal this year. I am re-posting the ones I wrote last year and adding new ones. This was originally posted on 11/21/12 (with slight changes made today).

One of my greatest passions is traveling and exploring God’s beautiful and wondrous creation.

God has blessed me with opportunities to travel to three continentssix countries, and thirty-eight states in my first thirty-one years of life.

I love experiencing new cultures…learning from them…enjoying them…photographing them.

There’s a whole lot of the world left to see (including Guatemala in February!), and I can’t wait to experience it with Brennan!

So thankful that God has created such a diverse world for us to enjoy…

The Start Experiment, Round 2: Day Three

The further into this Start Experiment I go, the more I am filled with wonder and anticipation at what God is doing in my life and in my marriage. The second round is already proving to be more amazing than the first, and I think part of that is simply due to the fact that I have been able to figure out my dream. The other part is that this community of people continues to grow closer together and the momentum continues to build. We’re all in this together.

So far, I am 4.5 lbs down from when I started this project, which isn’t impressive considering that it has been a month. However, I wasn’t as strict as I wanted to be during the first round. I admittedly didn’t try as hard as I should have. But, that has changed. I have newfound determination.

To give myself a visual goal, I hung a dress on my closet door that I want to wear on our anniversary. I currently cannot fit into this dress, but I love it. I really want to wear it on November 6th. But, in order to wear it, I need to lose probably 20 more pounds in the next 83 days. That is a little over 11 weeks from now, and if I lose the recommended 2 pounds per week, I can lose more than 20 by then. That will be about half of my weight-loss goal.

So this is my audacious health-related goal: to lose 20 pounds by my anniversary so that I can wear the black dress.

I have nearly finished my photography portfolio and already submitted it to one organization. I am working with a new friend to finalize captions and things before she helps me submit it to people who might be able to help me reach my audacious dream of being a travel photographer.
Here’s the link to my portfolio: http://www.flickr.com/lesabrackbill

I am also going on a mission trip to Guatemala in February!

God is definitely moving in our lives, and I am SO excited to see what happens.