Written by Karl in January of 2004 for a medical school application for Wayne State University.

A noteworthy diverse cultural experience in the spring of this year was staying for three months in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, where I did volunteer work for the mission church’s medical clinics in the pueblo communities. I worked with a nurse practitioner who single-handedly ran the clinics. While learning much about the general health and medical needs of the people, I wanted to know more about them, especially their family structures and social customs. I left the security and comfort of the mission lodgings to live with the Mucias, a family of nine children headed by Teresa. Seven children, ranging in age from twelve months to twenty years, were biologically hers; two more were orphans, taken in when their parents died. During my stay with the Mucias, I was welcomed as a family member, which gave me a unique opportunity to witness how individuals and families survive in spite of terrible hardships. In this environment I learned first hand the importance of values that I had tended to take for granted.

The first lesson I learned was the value of optimism. The circumstances of the Mucia family would be demoralizing to the average American. Teresa’s husband left her two years ago, leaving a huge debt on the modest house where they live. He has not sent money, has no desire to return and essentially has abandoned the children. To keep food on the table and the bank at bay, Teresa opened a small tienda, a store where the children, barely in their teens, take turns waiting on customers. They also clean houses and baby-sit to augment the family income. Teresa, in addition to maintaining the household, struggles with three jobs to pay the mortgage and buy supplies. In this extremely poor environment their problems are endless, but through it all they remain positive. This optimism, mutual support, and self-sacrifice will eventually, I believe, create stability and improve their ability to overcome most obstacles.

Optimism alone, however, is nothing without perseverance. Giving up or giving in would never occur to them. When things do not work, they invariably try something new. They seldom complain about how hard life is; they only think of other ways to solve their problems. When Teresa failed to close a purchase of egg-laying chickens, she said the important thing was to never give up. Within days she closed the deal. Her determination set an example for the rest of the family who worked hard to smooth conflicts, share in family labors, and persevere both at home and school.

The most important value the Mucias embrace unquestioningly is family. The children cooperate and sacrifice for the general welfare of the entire family. To help the family out of debt, the eldest daughter, Maria, left home to find a better paying job far away from San Lucas, with the intention of sending money back to her family. When Maria left, it felt as if a member of the family had died and that the integrity of the family unit had been damaged. But soon the checks began to arrive along with weekly phone calls from her. Everyone worked harder at home to make up for her absence, and with the help of each other, they have become even stronger as a family.

After I left my Guatemalan family, I realized that they had taught me so much more than I had taught them. They demonstrated first hand important lessons and invaluable teachings that will last the rest of my life.