Gap Year, Guatemala

Gabby and Sabrina after they went horseback riding. Photo Courtesy of Sabrina Reppert

For the past three years, The MV Times has asked four recent Vineyard high school graduates to share their experiences during their first year after graduation. This is the second dispatch from Sabrina Reppert, who wrote earlier about spending the fall studying dance in New York City. After Sabrina left New York, she traveled to Guatemala.

A few weeks ago, I returned home from Guatemala. Since then, my heart and mind have been wrapped up in a whirlwind of emotions, thoughts, and experiences. It was not easy to return to the Island with the holidays in full swing, a bittersweet reminder of the luxury of my life. My time in Guatemala was filled with learning and a myriad of experiences. I took Spanish lessons, lived with host families, volunteered at camps for people with disabilities and in schools, traveled on chicken buses, hiked a volcano, and witnessed breathtaking sights.

Arriving in Guatemala with my mom, Suzanne, and Kristine Hopkins, a former MVRHS classmate, we were immersed in a completely different world from our own. Nothing was the same! We couldn’t drink out of the tap. We couldn’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. We had to be wary of what we ate, how we dressed, and what we did.

After we familiarized ourselves with this foreign country, my mom left the two of us alone to continue our travels. Hesitant and a bit scared at first to be left alone, I realized what a gift it was, and a real confidence boost as we tackled new challenges on our own. We accomplished over and beyond what we imagined we could have done! We had to make our own decisions, travel independently, and were forced to speak Spanish out of sheer necessity to communicate, which was completely unnerving and embarrassing.

In Guatemala, we worked in three different camps through an organization named Viamistad. Each camp was attended by individuals with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and autism. The camps were started by a former Camp Jabberwocky counselor, Sarah Peller. She was my oldest sister Shirley’s camp counselor at Jabberwocky for 10 years. Shirley was born with cerebral palsy, and for 16 years they have maintained a beautiful friendship. Sarah started the camp with the same vision and goals as Camp Jabberwocky: Anything is possible. Shirley, my older siblings Christina and Mark, my aunt, and my mom have had the privilege of participating in these amazing camps.

Currently in Guatemala, the social consciousness around people with disabilities reflects the United States’ view and treatment of people with disabilities 50 years ago. Many people never leave their homes, while others are trapped in institutions where they are never allowed to leave or have visitors. Very slowly, poco a poco, Guatemala is moving toward a larger acceptance of individuals with disabilities. Sarah came to Guatemala to help change these perceptions within the smaller community and to inspire campers, who struggle with self-acceptance.

During the first camp, Achki’, meaning “dream” in Tz’utujil, the local Mayan language, I was paired with Gabby, a 22-year-old woman with autism who lived in the city of Antigua. Gabby could not walk alone, feed herself, talk or communicate many of her wants and needs, and required total care. Initially I was wary. I didn’t speak very much Spanish after only 20 hours of classes, and I had never worked with a person with autism.

Gabby could only say three words, “mama,” “agua,” and her favorite, “broom broom,” which stood for the chicken buses. She was infatuated and completely absorbed with her doll Mimi. Mimi would never leave her sight or hands. During most activities, Gabby would sit cross-legged in a chair and just stare into Mimi’s eyes. For me, it was hard to compete with Mimi. Although I had been told, Gaby did not understand much and would nod her head “yes” to every question I asked, Gabby was a girl who knew what she wanted. She knew more than others thought.

Over the days, Gabby and I developed a deep bond. I cannot explain how we connected, or how our relationship may have looked to other people, but to me what Gaby and I had was a meaningful friendship. We always laughed together. She would wipe my mouth as I ate, just as I did for her, and sometimes she gave me kisses — mostly to get what she wanted, though I liked to believe they were given out of affection. And though she called many people “Mama,” I truly felt when she said “Mama” to me, it was different. If one asked Gabby who her mama was, she would point to me. This made me feel as though I was doing something right.

On our last evening at camp, we gathered as a whole group, forming a circle. Each person was invited to share what our week at camp meant to us. Being the emotional girl I am, all I could do was sit there, speechless, tears rolling down my cheeks, not wanting to share my feelings. I had had a great week at camp! It felt as if I were on vacation. We went on boat rides on Lake Atitlán, surrounded by spectacular views of volcanoes; went horseback riding and swimming at black-sand beaches; had dance parties; performed skits; and were given baby sea turtles to release into the Pacific Ocean. I made many new friends and felt tremendously happy being at camp, surrounded by all these wonderful people, but mostly, I was going to miss my Gabby and our inexplicable friendship. Gabby saw my tears and reached for a napkin on the table beside us and used it to wipe my tears away. She truly is a special person with so much more than meets the eye.

On our last evening together, Gabby and I retreated into our room, away from the loud noises of the camp party, to have our own dance party. We spent two hours sitting on the bed, laughing and dancing, with screams of happiness springing up from Gabby. These tender moments filled me with joy, and gave me such a high.

When it was time to say our final tearful farewell, I thought about how I might never see Gabby again. I was going to miss my friend, and oh, how I miss her now. This bond of friendship was the most powerful thing and best experience I received from my trip to Guatemala. No words can explain how my heart is warmed to know I have met Gabby.