a charitable trip to McDonald's in Guatemala City

The Accidental Samaritan

A called bluff leads to an international volunteering trip

When Russ Young’s oldest son turned 13, he offered him a one-on-one trip with dad. (Young’s kids get a one-on-one trip with mom when they turn 11.) “I gave him some options,” Young recalls. “We can go on a ski trip together, we can go out to California, we can go visit some national parks. But there was also a local church sponsoring a mission trip to Guatemala, and I gave him that option as well, fully expecting him to say no.”

Young’s son Eric, needless to say, chose Guatemala. “I thought, oh my gosh, bluff called,” Young told Good Turns recently. “So we went down with a group of about a dozen people to work at a charity in La Limonada, a valley near Guatemala City.”

“You come away feeling like you learned more than they did”

The valley—a mile-long ravine in the middle of the city, populated by up to 100,000 people, most of whom were originally refugees from Guatemala’s long civil war—is one of the worst slums in Latin America. A Christian charity, Lemonade International works with local partners to provide services to young people in La Limonada and break the cycles of poverty and violence that plague the community. On Young’s trip, he and his son worked at two schools in the slum, and with a charity called Safe Passage that works with families who live and support themselves by scavenging the city’s huge and dangerous garbage dump.

Young managed to get a little something extra added to his trip, though. Now director of business development for an Oracle Corp. subsidiary known as Oracle+Bronto, Young’s company at the time worked closely with Google, reselling the set of productivity apps now known as G Suite. (We first heard his story at TurnTo Xperience in Chicago.)

Because Bronto at the time was a top reseller, Young was on a partner advisory board for Google. “I just shot out a quick email to people at Google that I knew,” he says. “When you do these mission trips, it’s very common to ask people to contribute. We did that, but a couple of people we worked with at Google said, ‘Hey, we’ll do you one better.’ And they ended up contributing not only a bunch of money, but they figured out a way to let us bring some equipment down there and get it set up. So I was the oil but they were the engine.”

Young, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, ended up bringing down about 15 Chromebooks and set them up at the schools so that kids would have free access to software. He also helped set up broadband services, delivered via mobile phone. “I’m in this slum where people don’t have enough to eat or access to health care, but they will have a cell phone,” Young says. “We were able to set the schools up with broadband access, some Chromebooks, and accounts. We also set them up with access to things like Khan Academy, and we brought down an LCD projector, so that when there weren’t enough laptops, they could use this projector.”

Young and his son were also able to spend time with the children of the schools in which they were working. “It’s almost a way to sell it,” Young says. “You help, but you also sort of connect and fall in love with the people. So once you go, you come back and give them more money.”

Young describes the experience as “fantastic,” especially getting to meet a young boy he and his family had sponsored through Safe Passage.

“You definitely leave feeling like you took away more than you brought,” Young says. “As you’re laying in bed emotionally patting yourself on the back, you come away feeling like you learned more than they did.”

Not everything was smooth sailing on the Youngs’ trip. “We took the family we sponsor to Walmart to buy them shoes and underwear, and my Visa got declined, because the Walmart in Guatemala City is rife with fraud,” Young said. Though he worried at first that he would have gotten the family all the way to the checkout counter only to disappoint them, a few phone calls eventually put the situation right. The Youngs also stopped at a McDonald’s with the family, pictured above (with Russ second from left, and Eric third from left).

Though his son chose the trip, he was exhausted by the end of it, Young reports. “We’d work all day at the school with the kids, which was tough because neither of us spoke Spanish. Having to work through interpreters all day is exhausting in its own way,” Young says. “And at the end of the day we’d go do home visits with the kids from the school, see their houses, which are basically cinderblock shacks with tin roofs and four to five people in one room, with access to a shower and washtub for 12-20 people. My son was exhausted by the end of it, he was ready to go home, he told me, ‘It’s just too much for me.'”

But the pair stuck it out—and tried to do some good. They also learned something along the way. “Imagine this slum. These people don’t have access to education or health care, to some of the basic things we think you need to survive. But there’s a lot of happiness and community. I almost came home saddened,” Young says. “In my neighborhood, we all have these lovely houses with our nuclear families. But you come home after work and unless you’ve arranged to meet someone after dinner, you just hang out with your nuclear family. With all our wealth, it’s very easy to have a sense of loneliness. And they don’t have that. There’s so many things they don’t have, yet you still see a lot of smiles and laughter. Here I came down to help them have a life more like mine, but in reality I learned that I should be focusing on having a like more like theirs.”

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