To Guatemala with Love
Writer / Joyce Long
Spring break often means a beach vacation, a cruise with friends or day trips around the region. For one Center Grove family, it involved building a house in Guatemala. Each of the Heffner family had been there before, but their kids didn’t remember. When Mike and Kelly adopted them from foster care in Guatemala, Kaitlyn was 11 months old and Brandon was 7 months old.
Kaitlyn, 15, treasures the scrapbook that pictures her birth mother and her parents’ trip to Guatemala City to bring her home. Mike and Kelly kept her birth mother’s original middle name — Yomilet — so Kaitlyn would remember her heritage. Four years later Mike and Kelly returned to adopt their son, Brandon.
Kelly was impressed with Island Coast International Adoptions because “it had an in-country representative, which made it much easier. Also it was an easy process because at the time, it was one of the few countries where you would only need to visit once.” She notes that people can no longer adopt children from Guatemala, due to political conditions.
Another blessing for the parents awaiting adoption was the continual communication about their daughter’s birth and early months. “We always said Kaitlyn came to us through UPS because the adoption agency sent monthly photos right after she was born,” says Kelly.
In 1999, Mike and Kelly stayed in Guatemala City longer than the mandatory three days to better understand the culture. Kelly remembers a unique thing about Guatemala is their babies are bundled tightly. Car seats were never used, making that a difficult transition once they were back in Greenwood. In addition, babies are truly enjoyed by everyone as evidenced when they were dining in a Guatemalan restaurant and the waitress “just took off with Kaitlyn, showing her off to everyone in the place.”
Four years later Mike and Kelly returned to adopt Brandon, “a happy, easygoing baby” according to his mother. Less is known about his birth family. While they were gone, Kelly’s niece watched Kaitlyn, who remembers being excited about having a baby brother.
Where Housing Is Appreciated
The Heffners prepared well for the spring break mission trip sponsored by Mount Pleasant Christian Church (MPCC) and Casas por Cristo (a house-building mission organization in Central America). Each night they prayed for the family whose house they would build. They purchased tape measures and miscellaneous materials. Kaitlyn even tried to teach herself Spanish by practicing on YouTube. They bought clothing from Goodwill to wear and leave behind for others. March 23 through 29 was the perfect time to be away since it was moratorium week for Kaitlyn, a member of the Center Grove High School softball team. Taylor Watters, Kaitlyn’s best friend since preschool, joined them on the trip, making it even more memorable for Kaitlyn.
To raise money for the trip, the Heffners purchased gift cards from the Scrip (Great Lakes Scrip Center) table at MPCC. People use these cards for routine personal expenses just as they would cash. According to Diana Satkamp, “Each person who buys a gift card is set up with an account. An amount depending upon the retailer is returned into that personal account, usually designated for mission trips or camps.”
Sixteen adults and eight school-age kids left MPCC Sunday morning, flying through Dallas to Guatemala City, where they rode a bus for 90 minutes to San Raimundo, a city of 30,000 surrounded by several villages. There they began the build with two Casas por Cristo missionaries, including Greenwood High School graduate Rachel Weller, who had gone on similar builds as a teenager.
MPCC’s associate pastor Chad Ransom explains that in-country pastors identify individuals who need houses. Those families must own land, which is often passed down through generations. The problem is they don’t have the money to build a house. “For this build, the dad actually slept on the 2×6’s each night so no one would steal them.”
When Giving Makes a Difference
Trip leader Rob Weisbach, who has led several mission trips for MPCC, noticed something unique about the local family’s involvement in the building process. The grandfather cooked for the group and came every day to the site. Even after receiving the keys to the house, a few nights later the family traveled to the city so that they could again thank the group. “This family was more intertwined with the mission group than any other family we’ve ever worked with,” says Weisbach.
Pastor Ransom likes the idea of the in-country church being the main connection for the family. “I think the Lord is being honored because the gift comes from the local church in Guatemala. All Mount Pleasant does is to partner with Casas por Cristo, which is like a middle man connecting the message to the church.”
After a day of acclimation and rest, the group spent three full days building two houses with two rooms. The Heffners helped build a 550-square-foot home to house seven people — a family with two preschool-age children and the wife’s parents and sister. Their build group pooled an additional $300 to purchase beds for the parents and grandparents. It was the first time any of the adults had slept on beds. The donation also included pots and pans along with rice and beans. While the Guatemalan family received blessings, so did those who came to build. During the trip Kaitlyn’s friend Taylor committed her life to the Lord. Pastor Ransom notes that it was neat to see Brandon understand how blessed he and his sister are to be chosen. “I was honored to be there to see the heart change of both the local family and trip participants,” says Ransom.
How Lives Change Forever
Thinking about the trip’s surprises, Kelly explains, “It’s just how quickly the local kids bonded with our group. Kaitlyn had a constant sidekick in six-year-old Any Analy.” Mike was surprised by “how happy they are with so little.” “It surprised me how they are motivated to keep trying,” says Kaitlyn. One of the special memories the Heffners experienced was worshipping at the church in San Raimundo on Wednesday night. Gathered together, united in Christ, and singing in both English and Spanish will always be remembered.
Weisbach had been to Guatemala two years ago as a participant during spring break. But he notes that this trip was unique on so many different levels. “From a person who has been on many mission trips, this is the first time I’ve been on a trip with people who were going back to their birth country.” He also observed the Heffner children were equally engaged both in the culture and in the mission to build the house. But it wasn’t all work. “From a fellowship standpoint, we laughed and had lots of fun together.”
Paraphrasing Scott DeWitt, one of the Casas’ missionaries, Weisbach says, “There were two people who loved enough and cared enough to go adopt children and then loved and cared enough to take them back to show them what could have been.” This experience changed the entire Heffner family and many who accompanied them.
Obviously, Kaitlyn and Brandon Heffner don’t remember their native Guatemala from their first months of life, although their parents have made cherished scrapbooks chronicling those trips. Yet they will always remember their first trip back. “We wanted to wait to visit Guatemala when the kids were old enough to remember,” says their father, Mike. Kaitlyn and Brandon admit they have a fresh appreciation for the opportunities they now enjoy. To Guatemala with love has changed several lives, especially the Heffners.
Joyce Long, Greenwood Middle School language arts teacher from 1992-2000, has called Center Grove home for the past 25 years. Currently Joyce works as the communications coordinator for Center for Global Impact and is passionate about engaging people to empower the poor.