PHOTO: Briar Cliff student Natali Ramirez holds up fresh beans at a coffee farm in Guatemala, where she recently returned from a "life-changing" mission trip.
SIOUX CITY — Natali Ramirez is a theatre major, so she can’t help but smile when she thinks of the 6-year-old boy she saw in Guatemala. He was leading a street circus act for spare change.
“He had all of these lines memorized, monologue after monologue – he was a better actor than I was,” marvels Natali. But the smile fades.
“He didn’t have a choice, because he needed food,” she says. “That’s what I learned most about the people there — they do everything with hunger.
“Hunger is something we don’t feel much here.”
“It made me realize why we're even alive. ... What's the whole point? It's to help others.”
— Natali Ramirez, BCU student
Natali spent January Term on a mission trip to Guatemala, part of a “life-changing” Guatemala Service Learning Course sponsored by Briar Cliff’s social work department. Natalie and her fellow students raised money to build a house for a poor family in the town of Antigua. Then they showed up to help build it.
The house wasn’t a glorious one —“It could have been a dorm room, it was so small,” Natali insists. But it had a tin roof that wouldn’t collapse, gutters to collect rain water, a sun roof to let in light, and most importantly, a cement floor.
“The cement cuts down on 80 percent of diseases that children could get,” Natalie explains. “Most children learn how to walk and play with their toys in the dirt, then they’ll put their fingers in their mouths.”
The Briar Cliff students also spent time at a school run by God’s Child Project, a non-profit organization that gives free education to poor children.
Guatemala is teeming with poverty-stricken mothers, most of them younger than Natali, who have multiple children. Fathers are rarely in the picture, instead turning to alcohol and drug abuse — or worse. Sex trafficking runs rampant, and Natalie estimates that three-quarters of the children at the school had suffered some sort of abuse.
“It was shocking to finally put faces with the statistics,” she says.
Faces she’ll never forget.
“The children, they look at you like you’re a superhero,” she says. “When they look at you, they’re dreaming – you can see it in their eyes. They’re imagining life in America.”
All of this strikes a chord with Natali, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico before she was born. Her mother still suffers from digestive problems, because as a child in Mexico she gave up her food so 10 younger brothers and sisters could eat.
“They wanted to give me a better life than we would have had in Mexico,” Natali says. “Otherwise, that could be me on the side of the street, asking people for change.”
By the end of the two-week trip, Natali wasn’t ready to leave.
“I didn’t want to come back to my house full of fancy stuff, and my room full of brand new clothing from Black Friday,” she says.
So she gave away what she could — all of her clothes, except for the ones she was wearing. She gave them to 10-year-old Maylene, the daughter of the man who received the new house. Natalie also plans to financially sponsor Maylene at one of the God’s Project schools.
As for Natalie’s own future? She graduates in May, and after Guatemala she knows one thing for sure — she plans on helping people.
“It made me realize why we’re even alive,” Natali says. “What’s the whole point? It’s to help others.”