Allison Stewart


Within my first week as a Primeros Pasos volunteer, I learned that working in public health in a

developing country entails conquering the unexpected. The buses that ran between the city of

Xela and the Palajunoj Valley where Primeros Pasos works stopped operating temporarily. The

other community outreach volunteer and I, along with the nutritionist Monica, found ourselves

walking an hour or two, or even more, to reach the rural communities for open nutrition

workshops and school visits. Wooden measuring boards and scales in hand—to be used to track

the height and weight of the children—we trekked from the city center to the outskirts, hopping

on a pickup truck taxi along the way if we were lucky. The roads became less paved, the air less

polluted of car exhaust, and the terrain more mountainous as we approached the Santa Maria


As a long-term volunteer of seven months, I had the chance to participate in several different

projects of Primeros Pasos (community outreach, non-profit development, pharmacy and

reception work) as well as observe the many hurdles the clinic is forced to comfort and

overcome. Whether it’s a lack of transportation, electricity shortage in the clinic, impromptu

school closings due to religious holidays or other festivities, or merely a resistance in community

engagement, each day Primeros Pasos is adjusting to the local context and creating an adaptable

program that brings healthcare and education to the far-off, most vulnerable community

members. The organization strives to break down the barriers to quality healthcare and proper

nutrition faced by the rural communities of Guatemala and the commitment of the staff to this

mission is undeniable.

After a tiring day out in the communities, we would make the journey home, wash off the dust,

and enjoy the Xela evenings—taking Spanish classes, dancing salsa, exploring local restaurants,

or sharing trivia nights and potluck dinners. My life at home melted away as I fully immersed

myself in a new life abroad, an exciting life filled with international friends, tropical fruit and

friendly market vendors, yoga and hiking, and a backdrop of volcanoes, intricate Mayan textiles,

and a blend of languages.

I left Primeros Pasos and Xela with a clearer idea of both the frustrations of working in public

health and the reward of making even the smallest strides in improving health outcomes for

disadvantaged populations. I left remembering the words of the women in the Palajunoj Valley

who expressed deep appreciation for the help that Primeros Pasos has brought them and their

children. Most importantly, I returned home with the fondest memories of my Xela life and an

enlightened view of Guatemala and the Mayan culture that has shaped its beautiful landscape.

Primeros Pasos