Experiencing Social Work with Mayan Kids

LaShana Jones
Social Work Graduate Program
Community Health and Permaculture in Guatemala
This study abroad experience has helped me professionally to be a better social worker. The mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being, and help meet the basic human needs of all people, especially the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Social work gives special attention to the environmental factors that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. “Clients” refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination,
oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. It is critical to apply the foundations of social work education, especially locally-specific self-determination, in the practice of international social work. International social work education should take the first steps in providing critical educational initiatives to begin the process of helping to develop rural areas of third-world countries.

Lashana Jones Guatemala 161
WMU Study Abroad Students with preschool children at Mayan Families. Children are holding up Quetzal birds that they created.

I desired to study abroad in Guatemala.  I wanted to learn about the culture, increase my Spanish language skills as well as gain experience working with indigenous people. Before I left for Guatemala, I had already heard a lot of positive comments about the trip from the previous group of students who went last year. During the Community Health and Permaculture in Guatemala study abroad program in Spring 2016, I learned about globalization, the context that makes globalization, and its consequences meaningful. I increased my cultural awareness and global awareness, humility, reciprocity and responsiveness to other cultures. I used collaborative skills as well as some foreign language skills. I learned how to explain the history, culture, literature, language, arts, religion, intellectual traditions, and institutions of the host country in comparison with the United States. I also prepared a capstone project by researching and creating culturally relevant art projects for the Mayan preschool children we visited.

According to the article, “Guatemala’s current and future globalization: Social work’s continuing education role” (Villereal, 2007). Central America is experiencing the effects of globalization. Guatemala is an example of the effects of globalization in recent trends and patterns. The author of this article defines globalization as the shift from traditional ways and means to universal similarities. This shift relates to changes and adaptations from outside influences that would not have occurred in the normal way of things. Globalization is creating what the author describes as “anti-syzygy effects”. Anti-syzygy is the tension between two opposing forces, traditional culture versus modernization. This tension happens before the two cultures merge together and co-exist. In the rural areas of Guatemala, where the Mayan and other indigenous people live, this anti-syzygy effect is very present especially since the rapid tourism growth in Guatemala. After the December 1996 Peace Accord Guatemala has become known as a safe place for travelers.

The knowledge of global differences influences the traditions in Guatemala that have been carried out in rural regions. These remote regions have had no prior education on international industrialization. Information is passed on to remote areas even though it may be distorted by the messenger. Tourism in Guatemala, is one of the most important new resources for the economy. This is evident by the goods available in rural areas, such as blue jeans and baseball caps, which represent an example of visible anti-syzygy, as locals attempt to incorporate new styles into traditional dress. (Villereal, 2007).

I am passionate about working with children as well as families in poverty. I loved my study abroad in Guatemala because of the Mayan children and families I got to work with. My favorite volunteer experience was working with the preschool children from the Mayan Families Foundation in Panajachel, Guatemala. I created Guatemalan flags for 140 preschool children as well as prepared Quetzal birds for the children to make with my partner.  Creating these projects allowed me to us my social work as well as education skills to teach the children about the colors of their flag. These Mayan preschoolers were learning Spanish as a second language. I had to learn Spanish in order to communicate with them. I was able to rely on my fellow classmates to help me give directions to children on how to make each project, the flag and the bird. The reason why I chose to create the Guatemalan flag and the Quetzal bird with the children as a part of my legacy project for study abroad is because they are both symbols of the children’s culture. Research shows that art can be used to teach young children cultural heritage. Hamblen (2003) explored the differences between school and local art knowledge with young children to develop the rational that art instruction includes local art knowledge and experiences that directly relate to the lives of young children.

Mayan Families Foundation is an organization that works to “educate, feed, shelter and heal the impoverished populations of Lake Atitlán.” They are an accredited 501(c) (3) non-governmental organization. Mayan Families mission is to facilitate enduring, sustainable programs that promote community development. Their objective is to stimulate long-term progress through school sponsorships, health initiatives, vocational training and microfinance while providing emergency services to those in critical need. Mayan Families aims to empower and collaborate with each community they work with to create lasting positive growth. (Mayan Families Website About Us, 2016)

I desire to learn about social work in other countries such as Guatemala. I am currently a School Social Work intern at Linden Grove Middle School in Kalamazoo. My career goals include working as a School Social Worker, or in an agency that serves families and children in poverty. I wanted to learn what it is like to be a social worker in Guatemala. I hope to develop the knowledge and skills that I need to better serve Spanish speaking children and families who are in poverty.



Hamblen, K.A. (2003). “Local art knowledge: Within children’s art work and outside school culture.” Visual Arts Research, 29 (57), 109-119

Mayan Families Website About Us. (2016) https://www.mayanfamilies.org/page/about

Villereal, G. L. (2007). “Guatemala’s current and future globalization Social work’s continuing education role.” International Social Work50(1), 41-51.


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