By Tyree Mack
When I was asked to join the Changing the Streets team for the Guatemala trip, I instantly said yes. My dog, Quetzal, was rescued from Xela, Guatemala, 5 years ago. I wanted to gain a first-hand experience of his home country. I’ve only grown up in ignorance about the livelihood of Guatemala: poverty, high crime, corrupt police, kidnapping, etc. This was my opportunity to connect with Quetzal’s past to see why some of his doggy behavior has stayed with him to this day. With little understanding of Guatemala’s culture and almost no knowledge of Spanish, I threw myself into this exciting adventure.
The concept of Changing the Streets is summed up in their slogan “hands and paws together” because our human emotions reflect on the canine/animal emotional support. I am neither a doctor nor a veterinarian; I was at a loss as to where to I would fit in with this project. Because of this, I feared that I would only be in the way of the professionals. Yet, I knew somehow my hands would be useful; I just had to look for those opportunities. I was fortunate enough to meet amazing people who have given much of their time and energy into helping others and years of experience. It was my mission to gain as much insight from their experience in order to prepare myself. This was my first time partnering with a nonprofit and my nerves were getting the best of me.
Luckily for me, we had a rough start on the first day of the clinic. Upon our arrival to the women’s community center in Alotenango, there was already a line with many pets and their owners waiting to be seen; I think my heart rate increased in proportion to the number of people in line!. Word had clearly gotten out about the clinic. It was unfortunate that the “expect the unexpected” had occurred. Much of the medical equipment was in a car that was being towed to Alotenago, which delayed our start time. The delay was my saving grace because my internal organs were being twisted by the monarch butterflies in my stomach. Although my nerves did not show on the outside, my fear of lack of experience made me think the worst could happen. This delay gave me time to calm my nerves. I had been assigned to the ‘recovery room’ to care for the animals after their surgery as they woke up from the anesthesia. I went over the procedures multiple times to memorize what was needed. Of course, nothing could prepare me more than getting my hands together with some paws.
When the time came to care for my first animal, I instantly kicked into high gear. I followed all the instructions from the lead veterinary technician. In my head, I had a mental checklist for each animal that I was in charge of. My duty was to awaken the sleepy animal pet into consciousness. I had to continuously check on the animal’s breathing, make sure the tongue was not turning blue, apply tick/flea medicine, and took advantage of the anesthesia to clip their nails. I witnessed the horrible infestation of some pets with ticks and fleas. Whenever I think about this, goosebumps overtake my arms, and my heart fills with sadness that more can be done to care for these animals. I can at least be comforted knowing these animals have loving owners who try to give them the best life possible. The least I could do is pamper them as much as I do with Quetzal. I can only hope my care had put some of their concerns at ease.
The biggest obstacle that prevented me from excelling in my new skill was the language barrier. My forgetful mind kept reminding myself that I was in their territory. I could not communicate with them in English. With the help of Google translator and some of the bilingual volunteers, I was able to learn a few important Spanish words to convey my message to the Spanish speaking volunteers. I knew when I messed up on a word or a sentence, and they would smile and laugh. Not in a rude way. They would kindly help me pronounce the word or correct my sentence structure. Although I was embarrassed to speak their language, I had to overcome this barrier to get the most out of my experience. I was more than willing to make myself look like a fool when trying to get a message across. Body language is always a wonderful way to connect with people. Even when I only knew one word, I would use my body to tell most of the story, followed by silly facial expressions. In the end, I could not have had the experience I did with Changing the Streets if it wasn’t for the volunteers from Alotenango. Although language made us feel like we were worlds apart, our hunger to help others spoke power to the universal language.
I am walking away from this experience knowing that professional knowledge is not necessary, even though it helps tremendously. My life has been changed, knowing that I can make a difference at a micro-level. I don’t need a big platform. All I need are my hands and my heart to make a change. I have conquered some of my fears and strive to take on new challenges to awaken my inner ambitions to make the world a better place.