Senior Guatemala Trip Proves Unforgettable

On the first of two trips to Guatemala, seniors expressed gratitude for hearts opened and memories made during their Senior Service.

After winning the Guatemala Cup during Senior Service Project 2023, the black shirt team celebrates their hard earned victory with Coach Marvin Grilliot and Team Captain Grant Anielak.

Lukas Pitman, Editor

Last month, 30 Rockhurst seniors and seven adult chaperones made the trek to Guatemala as part of Senior Service, giving back to the community of San Andrés Itzapa, on the first of two trips to the community. While in Guatemala, seniors stayed at a Carmelite Convent, living and interacting with the nuns and each other during the week, while going out every day into the community to perform service. 

For some, building concrete stoves, chicken coops or pouring concrete floors might not sound like the most enjoyable way to spend one’s Senior Service, but for the seniors who went, the experience left a lasting impression that won’t go away any time soon.

“It was my first time out of the country, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” said senior Sam Lanter. “Once we got down there, though, after going into people’s homes and seeing how they live really shocked me. Seeing how happy the people I met were with what little they have, just shows how they get a lot of their happiness from their relationships and their faith.”

However, Rockhurst seniors haven’t always had Guatemala as an option when they choose their Senior Service Project. In fact, the structure of the whole trip comes from St. Thomas More Parish, whose former parish priest, Father Bill Bowman, started running service experiences to San Andrés Itzapa more than 30 years ago.

From there, a former Rockhurst counselor, and essentially this trip’s organizer, Bill Munninghoff, pitched the idea of having students go on their Senior Service in Guatemala to Rockhurst administration, as well as Rockhurst teacher Marvin Grilliot. For almost ten years now, Rockhurst seniors have served the community of San Andrés, in a tradition that this year saw the largest ever group of seniors go to Guatemala.

For Munninghoff, the complete immersion of Guatemala is what sets the trip apart from Senior Service Projects performed in the Kansas City area. 

“You don’t go to a tourist town. When you go to an actual third world village and you walk through the town and go into the homes of these Guatemalans, you experience their lives in a more visceral experience than just reading about it or driving by. You experience their lives on a really personal level when they tell you their stories and their situations. It makes all our concerns and worries very insignificant.”

The complete immersion that the Guatemala trip offers also allowed some students to see in a tangible way what they’ve been taught or heard about poverty before.

“We sit in Coach Mo’s class, or whoever else it might be, and we listen to all these statistics [about poverty], but damn if it’s not another animal to see [in-person] how it’s actually affecting people,” said senior Freddy Graham. “It was a very special experience to see the real issues that people deal with that you don’t usually see, and I may never see again. [For me], it really popped the bubble that we live in, being in a so-called ‘first world’ country.”

At the same time seniors dug deep into experiencing and understanding poverty in Guatemala and the world, they still had plenty of time to let loose and have fun. At the convent, seniors spent hours bonding playing basketball or cornhole together, while also having the opportunity to explore an internationally known scenic beauty in Guatemala, Lake Atitlán, the day before leaving for Kansas City. 

However, nothing inspired more fun (or even ruthless competition) than a team soccer match played one afternoon between all the Rockhurst seniors. After being drafted into respective white and black shirt teams, the seniors played in a massive, World Cup sized stadium in the heart of San Andrés Itzapa, vying to win the ‘Guatemala Cup’. 

After a hard fought match, where at one point the soccer ball had to be replaced after flying out of the stadium into someone’s enclosed yard, causing a 20-minute game stoppage, the black shirt team finally pulled off the win.

Coach Marvin Grilliot, a theology teacher and former Hurtado Scholars director at Rockhurst, couldn’t have been more proud of his team.

“It was a great, hard fought game. Goalie George Rebman had some stellar saves, but the difference was made by our locals; their experience on the pitch is what made the difference.”

“We had maybe five good chances [to score], but we really needed to move the ball better,” said senior Andrew Dunn of the white shirt team. “We couldn’t get the passes flowing and I feel that’s where we faltered. There was a little bit of miscommunication in our defense and while we just needed to attack. We couldn’t get that done.”

Mid-interview, however, one of Dunn’s teammates, Graham, had a few (jokingly) harsh words to share about Dunn’s performance.

“You were lost on the field at all times. Never knew what position you were playing. Unacceptable. This loss is on you.”

Throughout the soccer game and during their service, several seniors and adult chaperones commented about how close they saw the group grow together over the course of the trip. 

“There was no boundary,” said Tate Owens, Rockhurst teacher and chair of the Fine Arts Department. “Everybody played [cornhole], everybody played soccer, everybody was invited to play hacky sack. The community the seniors created as students and all accepted was great.”

With COVID-19 and the pandemic hitting this group of seniors starting the spring semester of their freshman year, the trip also served as an opportunity to make up for lost time together over the past couple years. 

“A lot of the downtime we had was stuff you [seniors] actually didn’t get to do over the last four years,” said Timothy Reidy, lacrosse coach and head of the Rockhurst social studies department. “Just chatting when we were on the site, there’s a lot of seniors that didn’t know each other as well as they normally would in their senior year because of COVID, so that was pretty cool to see all the seniors grow.”

When Rockhurst created senior service—setting aside an entire month dedicated almost entirely to performing service in various communities—one of the goals was to create an experience that would have a lasting impact on one’s life, preparing them to live out being ‘Men for Others’ in the world. For many on the trip, the Guatemala experience was particularly designed with that aim in mind, to change oneself permanently.

“We can’t just let this be a singular experience that we say, ‘Well that was fun,’” said Anthony Re, Rockhurst history teacher and director of the Hurtado Scholars program. “If you truly engage in this work and you truly believe in what a Jesuit education and Rockhurst High School is all about, this kind of stuff changes you, and you can’t go back to the way you were. There’s a lot of guys here who maybe weren’t quite sure what we were doing here, and signed up because it sounded interesting. But, what I’ve seen is every guy, all 30, have really dedicated themselves to this place this week. They’ve built beautiful relationships. They’ve seen the beauty and joy of this place. This place just drives you to want to continue to make positive changes. For most of these seniors, this is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

For Tony Esquit-Cortez, a translator, organizer and student favorite, who’s been working with groups from St. Thomas More for years now, he hopes students take time to count their blessings when they return home, while also taking advantage of every opportunity they have.

“I really want [these seniors] to take away from this experience that they need to appreciate what they have at home and take advantage of their education, because education is the key for success in life, especially when you’re trying to raise your own family.”

At the same time, for many seniors, the trip served as almost a last hurrah, one of the last times to connect with each other before heading off to college and beyond.

“I think you can know someone from school and you can just see them in the halls, but when you’re actually living with someone, you spend seven days together pretty consistently,” said Lanter, “you get to know some of them on a much deeper level. It meant so much because we have only one semester of school left, and some of these guys I might never see again. It was good to just get a deeper connection with some guys that I hadn’t really seen that much before.”

While the seniors from the first Guatemala trip have already been home for more than a month now, the experience is one that will likely stick with them for much longer. 

Munninghoff, who continues to organize these Guatemala trips for Rockhurst, offered just a few words of advice to reflect upon for the seniors that have now returned to life as normal, and their daily routines.

“Look beyond material poverty. Look for the abundance the people of Guatemala have in their religion, but also in the love of their family, children, their love of their community. Look at the sisters. They probably have two habits, maybe two pairs of shoes, and that’s all the material possessions they have, but they’re about the happiest people you would ever meet.”

Before leaving, Munninghoff posed just one more thought.

“Some might say they don’t have anything, but maybe they have everything.”