A Littlestown woman left for what she thought would be a yearlong mission in Guatemala; four years later, she has no intentions of returning home any time soon.
Erin Schumaker, 27, is a speech therapist for a missionary group called Recycled & Redeemed, which provides medical and educational services to people in Guatemala. Schumaker grew up in Gettysburg and graduated from Littlestown Senior High School in 2008. With bachelors and master's degrees in speech pathology in hand, Schumaker left the United States in 2014 to volunteer as a speech therapist at a Guatemalan orphanage. She went on to teach English for two years, then discovered Recycled & Redeemed through a mutual friend. She has been with the group since January.
"I'm doing what I love, working with people with communication disorders in a country that I love," Schumaker said.
She returned to Littlestown briefly this month to get paperwork together to apply for a temporary residency in Guatemala, and also to visit friends and family.
Schumaker just received a $3,200 grant from Lutherans in Medical Missions, so she's spending part of her time at home acquiring speech therapy tools, such as an iPad and Spanish-language children's books.
Schumaker's four-person team visits local communities in need on a rotating schedule. The organization survives on donations and does not take money from the people they help, according to Schumaker. Their goal is to give people skills and knowledge they can use on their own, so they can be independent from Recycled & Redeemed or any outside group, she said.
Schumaker, who is bilingual, conducts most of her speech therapy sessions in Spanish. Sometimes she is assisted by a translator who speaks the indigenous language, Kaqchikel, which Schumaker is learning.
Schumaker's patients range in age from just over a year old to 50-something. People arrive with a variety of struggles. Some were born with speech impediments and others suffered strokes that affected their speech, she said.
Living in Guatemala on a tourist visa, Schumaker has to return to the United States every six months, but this will change when her temporary residency is approved.
Lifestyle changes, such as boiling water before drinking it, washing fruit before eating, and staying inside after dark, are a few of the adjustments Schumaker had to make.
Schumaker lives in Antigua, just eight miles from Mount Fuego. The volcano just erupted earlier this month, right after Schumaker happened to leave for the United States. Schumaker said her colleagues and friends are OK, but hundreds were killed throughout the country. She said it's perfectly normal to experience tremors day-to-day or see a puff of smoke come from Fuego.
It's not just the environment that differs from the United States.
While Americans are very much about independence, Guatemalans are more family-centered, she said. Guatemala is also a lot noisier. Schumaker said music and barking dogs always seem to be in the background. While Americans tend to plan ahead with their lives and careers, Schumaker said Guatemalans focus on the present.
"I think there's a sense of living in the moment," Schumaker said.
She believes part of this is due to poverty; many people are in survival mode, just trying to get through the day.
"On a daily basis I see a lot of suffering, a lot of pain," Schumaker said.
Despite this, Schumaker said the people are welcoming and feel like family to her. Her job teaches her to be more empathetic, she said.
"I think it's given me a lot of compassion for humans in general," Schumaker said.
The live-in-the-moment attitude has rubbed off on Schumaker. She doesn't see herself leaving Guatemala for 10 years or so, but says no plans are set in stone.
"When life gives us opportunities like this, you have to take it," Schumaker said.
She said her parents Judy and Don are her "biggest cheerleader" and her church, St. Paul's Lutheran, is highly supportive.
Schumaker is spending her month at home visiting family and friends, but she is eager to return to Guatemala. People can help Schumaker continue her work by donating through recycledandredeemed.com.