Wellington County seniors spark change in Guatemala

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Travelling to a developing country as a volunteer to improve living conditions can be a daunting task. 

Nonetheless, earlier this year 16 volunteers from around Wellington County, including 11 seniors, embarked on a mission to Parramos, Guatemala to revitalize the electrical infrastructure of the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH – Our Little Brothers and Sisters) children’s home. 

In April, the group of retired electricians and family members offered their expertise to ensure a safer and more reliable environment for the children residing at the home.

Since its creation in 1996, NPH has opened its doors to children at social risk and in extreme poverty and has been growing ever since. It provides a home and family-like atmosphere for children who have faced adversity. 

However, like many charitable organizations, NPH faced challenges in maintaining and upgrading its facilities, including electrical systems critical for daily operations.

With a lack of skilled electricians, the electrical infrastructure had become unsafe and unreliable. 

Recognizing the need for assistance, the volunteers, with decades of combined experience, pooled their skills and resources to make a significant impact. 

Arriving with tools and a determination to make a difference, they worked tirelessly to assess, repair and upgrade the facility. 

A history of giving back

Elora residents Jerry and Terry Wilson spearheaded their first trip to Guatemala in 2019. 

Volunteers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Retiree’s Club from across Wellington County teamed up with Friends of the Orphans Canada (FOTOCAN) and travelled to NPH to begin work at the home. 

After a successful first trip they organized a second mission. 

“In 1969, I received a scholarship through Rotary International to go to Guatemala to study for a post grad year at university. I was sponsored through the Fergus Rotary Club, and I spent a year and a half in Guatemala. That’s how the interest in Guatemala arose to do this electrical mission,” Terry said. 

In 1980, her husband Jerry, an electrician, started working in the Local Union Office. In 1999 he was asked to work for the Canadian office for IBEW.

“We got a call from FOTOCAN based in Guelph. They help orphanages in South America, Central America and the Caribbean,” said Jerry. 

“We developed a relationship, realizing how much good they did, and when I retired in 2012, Terry and I became very active in the Retirees’ Club of which I’m now president. Because of Terry’s strong ties to Guatemala, we said let’s do it.”

The cost for each volunteer was $2,800, which included flights, transportation and meals at NPH. Additionally, through the IBEW Retiree’s club and the community, the group managed to raise $11,000 for materials and brought with them 23 hockey bags full of toys, clothes, linens and school supplies. 

Duffle bags packed and ready at the airport on their way to NPH in Guatemala.

Over a period of 10 days,  the team strung nearly 700 metres of heavy triplex cable across the hilly site and overhauled the electrical systems at a special needs facility as well as an off-site community centre. They also made critical repairs across the main compound. 

“These are mostly seniors that we’re talking about. There were a few young people but we’re old.”

“We were at an altitude of 5,000 feet and there were over 200 steps from the bottom of the compound to the top. I could only do about six steps at a time before I had to stop,” Terry said.

“We had to use ladders and scaffold which was a challenge. It was dangerous, but we had to do it and we got it done with no casualties.”

Included among the volunteers were Speedside residents Neil and Wendy Whittaker. 

“Neil played one of the biggest roles in the Guatemalan mission in 2019 and again this year,” Jerry said. 

A retired electrician, Neil knew what to expect.

“It was a lot of work. The installation of the cable took three days and the changeover and removal of the old wiring was done in nine hours.”

Despite their best efforts planning for the work, much of the material needed was not on site when they arrived, and Jerry spent a day and a half travelling to various locations in Guatemala City. 

“They had let us know beforehand that we were going to have to update all the lighting in the dining room, but upgrading the electrical was about all we knew,” Jerry said.

“Despite taking on this project in a [developing] country where material and equipment were very difficult to obtain, this electrical mission was a huge success. As a result, the orphanage is much safer than before.” 

Volunteers without electrical experience assisted teachers and staff with crafts, reading and meals. They also offered sewing classes for older students, teaching them how to make pyjama bottoms without requiring a pattern.

From left: Neil Whittaker, Jim Speers and Kyran Godreau repair wiring on the hilly property in Guatemala. Submitted photo

Unexpected empowerment

It came as a surprise to the group to see the reaction, not only of the students, but of locals and staff to female volunteers in work clothes doing electrical work. 

“I think one of the biggest takeaways for me was seeing that the director of the home – an educated man – never realized that women could do this type of work,” said Neil.

He was grateful to have witnessed a door opening for the young women there, revealing that they can be more than weavers or homemakers.

“They’re so entrenched in traditional roles for male and female. They weren’t used to seeing women in workmen’s clothes, wearing steel-toed boots, and a tool belt,” Terry added.

“They were blown away. They actually verbalized that they had never imagined that a woman could do anything other than bear children, do laundry or cook and clean. It was like us seeing a unicorn.”

Heartwarming hotdogs

In the late afternoon on their last day at NPH, the volunteers hosted a barbecue for the all the children who ranged in age from about 18 months to 16 or 17 years old.

“We had 350 hot dogs, chips and drinks and everything else that goes with it. And those hotdogs disappeared fast,” Terry said. 

“There was one little guy, he already had enough hotdogs – and there he was getting more,” she said. 

It turned out that the boy had not been at NPH very long and was not used to seeing so much food. He had been storing the hotdogs away for later. 

“I guess it’s not something that they get very often, and that was really cute,” Terry said.

Contributing to the children’s well-being is something Neil and Wendy are honoured to have been a part of. 

“The children there have so little and they’re happier than we are – they almost impacted us more than we impacted them,” said Wendy.

“They’re such happy little kids and are so lucky to be there, because much of Guatemala is not a good place for children. There are maybe 10 or 12 families that have all the money in the country and the rest are in poverty.”

“You hear about kids in Ontario that don’t like going to school, but the kids down there really look forward to it. For them it’s a privilege,” said Neil.

Enriching lives

Saribel García has worked full time at NPH since 2020 overseeing the planning, organization and logistics for the various groups that come to the facility. 

She worked with the Wilsons, Whittakers and other volunteers. García also grew up at the home, arriving when she was 10 years old with her five siblings.

“We all had the opportunity to get ahead thanks to the support of the foundation,” she said. 

“Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos helped me throughout my educational process until 2019 when I graduated from college with a degree in business administration.”

García added, “For me working with the group of electricians was a very enriching experience. It was the first time I received a large group. At first, I was very nervous but as soon as they arrived, they were very warm, understanding and funny.” 

“Saribel had a one-year-old daughter and a husband that she didn’t see for just about the whole time that we were there because she was at our beck and call,” Terry said. 

García was thrilled to work with the group, whose members she said were very committed to the mission and development of the project. 

“There will always be a project to carry out and contributions not only impact a place, but directly impact and change the lives of the children,” said García.

“NPH not only focuses on children within the foundation, but also changes the lives of children in the community with more need.”

To learn more about NPH or to make a donation, visit nph.org or fotocan.org.

Group of four on right clockwise from top: Neil Whittaker, Jerry Wilson, Terry Wilson, Wendy Whittaker. Saribel García is in the front row wearing a white t-shirt


Advertorial Writer