Same Goals, Worlds Apart

A New York principal who traveled to Guatemala for the Lifetouch Memory Mission to help build a bottle school recounts her lifechanging trip that proves the power of community no matter where you are in the world.

Topics: NAESP Partner, Principal Leadership

At the 2022 NAESP National Distinguished Principal (NDP) award ceremony in Washington, D.C., where I was one of 41 NDPs receiving the honor, I was offered the opportunity to put my name into a lottery pool to join the 2023 Lifetime Memory Mission. The mission would team up with a nonprofit called Hug It Forward to build a bottle school for a community in rural Guatemala. I never actually thought I’d be chosen, but I threw my name into the pool anyway—and then I heard my name being announced. It took me 10 long seconds to realize it was me. I knew then that this was going to be a trip of a lifetime. But it ended up being so much more.

Going into this trip I didn’t know much about Guatemala or the community I was about to meet, but I have always been open to seeing the world. I was packed and ready for everything this Memory Mission had planned for me. Along with 37 volunteers—strangers who would quickly become friends—I showed up in Houston, Texas, Jan. 18. The next day, as a group, we flew to Guatemala.

The first day, we drove 20 minutes to the site where we would spend the next few days building eco-bricks for a three-room school. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the bus stopped on the side of a main road. The smiling faces of 50 students greeted us as we got off the bus. The school was a few disconnected cement classrooms and buildings with corrugated roofs, 50 feet from the road. But the soul of the school was the students, teachers, principal, families, and community members welcoming us—a group of people they had never met, treating us as though they were ushering us back after a long time apart. Their smiling welcome told me exactly why I was there.

The Power of Connection

I made connections in Guatemala that I will never forget.

I made connections with these volunteers who were fellow principals, superintendents, and Lifetouch employees from across the U.S. and Canada. We were all on this Memory Mission for a reason. We all felt a passion to do more. Or did we all need a little more? No matter how you look at it, we made connections for life after being changed in ways we might never be able to explain, thanks to this unique, unifying experience.

I made connections with 500 students. I pride myself on building connections with my students as their principal, and I did just that in a new country with children who speak a different language than I do. It didn’t matter; they could see that I was showing up every day, just as I do back home. Their smiles and laughter filled my heart.

I made connections with 20 teachers who are facing the same challenges that my teachers are facing daily. How do we prepare our students for the future while still allowing them to be kids?

I made a connection with the principal, who I immediately saw myself in. She wants more for her students, who face challenges with poverty and limited resources that we experience in the U.S. She leads with her heart on her sleeve. The love this principal brought to her staff, students, and community was clear. I strive every day to build this sense of connection with my community, too.

And I made a connection with a community that shows up for their children just like in New York. They were there to get their hands dirty and work alongside us each day. You could see that each one of them wanted better for their kids.

The Power of a Hug

I am leaving Guatemala with a newfound appreciation and love for a hug. Yes, you read that right: a hug. And not a hug from your family member or someone you have known forever but rather a hug from a complete stranger.

The hugs I received from strangers didn’t feel strange. They felt like something I have been missing for years. They changed my life. I encourage you to take more time to be present and just hug! I hope to bring the power of a hug back home to my personal and professional life.

This quote by Angela Schwindt sums up the Lifetouch Memory Mission perfectly: “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”

By the end of our mission, we had installed 10,000 bottles, which will act as insulation for new classrooms. I’m proud of this project and grateful for what I learned while I contributed to it.

Regardless of the material things we have, nothing means more than the love of culture and community we can build. The sense of community is sometimes lost in our American lives, but I got to experience it over the past week in Guatemala. I’m leaving Tecpan, Guatemala, with the mindset to live in the present, listen more, and continue to lead with an open heart.

Nicole Ey is principal of Ellenville Elementary School in Ellenville, New York. Learn more about longtime NAESP partner Lifetouch’s Memory Mission.