Group From IU Northwest’s Division of Social Work Travels to Guatemala

By: Indiana University Northwest Last Updated: July 12, 2010

Service trip led by Prof. Chris Cotten and local organization, Hearts in Motion iunlogo

In May, a group of 10 individuals from Indiana University Northwest’s Division of Social Work traveled nearly 2,000 miles to bring aid and a glimmer of Hoosier hospitality to a rural and impoverished region of Guatemala.

The majority of the assistance was centered in Zacapa, a city located on the east side of the country. While renowned locally for its manual crafting of cigars, hard dry cheese and flavored cake, it is also known for its extreme poverty.

The trip was inspired by Assistant Professor of Social Work Chris Cotten, Ph.D., after meeting Karen Scheeringa-Parra, founder and executive director of Hearts in Motion (HIM). The organization, located in Highland, Ind., sends volunteer groups monthly to Central America.

The poverty is really staggering in Guatemala,” Cotten said. “The towns we visited had no electricity, no plumbing, and in most instances they did not even have wells. And (in Guatemala) there are no social welfare systems like we have in the United States. There truly is no safety net for the people.”

Prior to departure, the group organized several donation drives collecting much-needed supplies that most Americans see as disposable: clothing, toothbrushes and vitamins. The group was able to enrich the lives of thousands by collecting and donating these basic items.

At the donation sites, the people were so kind and generous to us,” Cotten said. “We were getting hugged and kissed. The people were very grateful for these very simple, yet essential items.

Life-defining moment

When Scott Fulk, a master’s-level social work student at IU Northwest, first heard about the service trip to Guatemala, he was intrigued and felt it would be a good opportunity to use the skills he’s learned from his studies. What he didn’t anticipate was the life-changing quality of the experience.

People told me this trip would be life-changing,” he said. “I laughed and said, ‘I’m in my mid-50s, how life-changing can anything be?’ Surprisingly, I was wrong and they were right.”

The IU Northwest group was fortunate to help and touch the lives of so many, and in turn be touched.

The 10-day trip’s objective was to assist as many individuals as possible. In addition to providing much-needed service to the residents, the students also benefitted from visits to a regional university, a local hospital, a women’s co-op where crafts were made and sold, and a nutritional center, operated by HIM, that provided children with a healthy meal.

Fulk, who is also a Coordinator of Student Life Programs at IUN, said that he smiled through every one of his experiences in Guatemala.

The founder of Hearts in Motion, Karen, traveled with us,” he said. “Since the majority of us did not speak Spanish, she told us the best way to communicate was through a smile. She told us to not look at them like they are pathetic and needy. So, I just smiled at people and it was incredible how much people would open up to us.”

One of the most touching experiences during the trip occurred when the group visited a senior center on Mother’s Day, a highly celebrated day in Guatemala. The group brought joy to the center by playing games and dancing with the seniors, sharing food, and providing manicures and haircuts.

Social Work skills in action

The group found it extremely beneficial to participate in nightly process groups because the trip was so emotionally draining, Cotten said.

Following dinner we would all join and talk about the day,” he continued. “This was an opportunity for all of us to talk about what we had seen, what had touched us, (and) what we were feeling, and provide us with an opportunity to discharge some of our feelings and get support.

Each individual had the chance to lead the process group, which is a skill all social workers need to acquire, he explained.

While the entire trip was a learning experience, other core social work themes and concepts were ever-present.

We were able to better understand cultural exposure and sensitivities,” said Cotten. “And we learned a lot about and saw the results of a lacking social welfare system.

The group also learned about social work as a career (in Guatemala). Most social workers end up working for the government. Social workers are often called to a house to investigate child or domestic abuse, but because there is no human service infrastructure, in most instances, the social worker is not empowered by statutes to do anything about it. They basically do a study and assessment of the family.”

Fulk summed up the trip’s overall theme with a sobering, yet hopeful assessment.

You can’t solve all the problems there (in Guatemala), but you do what you can,” he said.

Due to the success of this excursion, Cotten is already planning next year’s trip, which will take place May 6 through May 15, 2011. The trip will be organized through Hearts in Motion. He is hopeful he can expand the trip beyond the Division of Social Work so that students from other departments can also participate. Those who are interested can contact Prof. Chris Cotten at or (219) 981-5689.