Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands students lent a hand sweeping and shoveling volcanic ash from the streets following the deadly Fuego volcano eruptions that started June 3 in Guatemala and continued for more than a week. The students also volunteered in a residential hospital for special needs children and adults.
The Highlands 10-member International Service Group was based in Antigua, Guatemala, for a planned volunteer mission June 2 – 9 when they found themselves nine miles from a natural disaster which reportedly left more than 100 people dead. Hundreds more were injured and at least 200 are still missing.
“When we got to Guatemala we were expecting a lifechanging experience helping orphans, but when the volcano exploded on our second day we were immersed in a culture built on love and pride,” said Megan Thursby, a Highlands 2018 biology graduate. “We’d never experienced anything of this magnitude. Originally it was very frightening learning that the volcano had swept away an entire village at its base.
There was heavy ash but no molten lava or debris in Antigua. Before these explosions, the Fuego volcano, which means fire in Spanish, hadn’t erupted in more than 40 years.
“When we started helping sweep the Antigua streets we felt like part of the community because we worked side-by-side with storefront owners,” said Thursby, a 22-year-old from Chesapeake, Virginia, who is the group’s outgoing president and lead organizer for the mission.
Aside from time spent cleaning up volcanic ash, the Highlands’ students volunteered as planned in the mornings at Virgen del Socorro, a large residential hospital serving children and adults with special needs. They also took Spanish classes in the afternoon.
“It was very gratifying working with orphans with cerebral palsy and adults with different disabilities. The entire experience in Guatemala made a profound impact on all of us in the group,” Thursby said.
Erica Herrera is the International Service Group’s incoming president for the 2018-2019 academic year and is a senior biology major.
“The most rewarding part of the experience in Guatemala was being able to help people in such a time of devastation and need,” said Herrera, a 21-year-old Las Vegas native. “The Guatemalan people are very strong and didn’t ask for help but were very grateful and hospitable when we were sweeping the streets and helping in the Virgen del Socorro hospital. It was reassuring that the Guatemalans were so calm and went about their daily lives despite the heavy ash from the volcano.”
Carol Litherland, Highlands’ American Sign Language professor, became the faculty leader for the trip when retired School of Business Dean Bill Taylor and his wife, Rose, were unable to join the group as planned because their flight to the Guatemalan airport was canceled.
“We have very astute college students who showed a great deal of leadership, responsibility, flexibility and caring during this crisis,” Litherland said. “Megan did an amazing job of coordinating communication on-site and back home while also acting as an interface with Máximo Nivel, the volunteer organization we worked with in Guatemala.
“Erica Herrera was great at making sure everyone was safe and fine, and keeping our group updated on the reports about the volcano’s activities. Overall, Highlands should be very proud of this super group of young adults who stepped up and gave of themselves during a major crisis,” Litherland said.
The other members of the International Service Group who served in Guatemala include Estrella Gutiérrez, 2018 biology graduate and outgoing group vice president, biology majors Deanna Bustos, Joedy Quintana, and Nicole Talamantes; Jorge Gallardo, biochemistry; Christina Litherland, English graduate student; Lyah Lujan, health/exercise and sport sciences; and Zach Schroer, chemistry.
The group’s original adviser was former Highlands biology professor Carol Linder, who left the university in June to assume a provost position at East Central Oklahoma University. The students did multiple fundraisers for the Guatemala mission and also received funding from the Associated Students of New Mexico Highlands University.