A Lifelong Love for Latin America
Her high school trip to Peru in Latin America was in 2007, but Abby Sawyer talks about it now like she’s telling a story from last month.
She vividly recalls witnessing Macchu Picchu, tasting traditional Peruvian cuisine, and hunting for alligators in the Amazon. “I remember thinking, ‘Why are we looking for them? I thought we wanted to avoid them!’” she laughs. “It was so dark, and when we looked up at the stars, I remember I could see the Milky Way galaxy. I had never seen that before. That was really amazing.”
Abby and a friend in the Sacred Valley in 2007
The week-long trip was led by her Spanish teacher, Ms. Kevan Sano, and it was Abby’s first time in Latin America. Before traveling, Abby worked with Ms. Sano to organize a fundraiser to bring bags of school supplies to students in the indigenous region high in the Andes. That school visit is a memory that particularly stands out in her mind – a moment that shaped her future.
Ms. Sano asked Abby to stand up in front of the class to present the students with computers that they’d brought as part of their fundraiser. “It was frightening. It was my first time speaking Spanish in a big setting like that,” Abby remembers. “As scary as it was, I just started talking. And people were understanding! It wasn’t perfect, but just to know they understood me…it motivated me more.”
Abby with goodies for the students in the Sacred Valley
Abby went on to major in Spanish in college, and when the time came to study abroad, she choose to return to Peru. She spent a year living with a Peruvian family and studying at a small university. Six months after she returned to the United States, she graduated and accepted a position with Partners in Development in Guatemala. “I didn’t know anybody. I just knew that I could speak Spanish, and I felt confident in that part,” she says.
“As a teacher we rarely hear about how the trips or classroom experiences have inspired students,” notes Ms. Sano. “Every so often I will hear from a student about the impact of a trip or how learning Spanish has changed the direction of their lives.”
Abby’s direction hasn’t just changed her life: as field director for the nonprofit, Abby manages a medical clinic, a child sponsorship program, service trips, and an effort to build homes for the indigenous families in the area. Two years ago, she married a young man from Guatemala. “He worked in town at a bank where the organization has an account,” Abby explains. “I would go in there a lot and he eventually asked for my number.”
His family is now hers too, of course, and Abby marvels at how far her love of Latin American culture has come. “I feel like I am part Guatemalan now. I feel like it has become a part of me. Instead of something that I’m looking at from the outside; now I’m in it. This is me now,” she says. She also credits some of her altruistic instinct to the example Ms. Sano set with the school fundraiser they did in 2007. Ms. Sano continues to visit the school in the Andes, and her groups bring hundreds of pounds in supplies to donate.
“I’m a big fan of maintaining the relationship – not just going once to drop off a donation,” Abby says. “That instilled in me that yes we are going to this place, but we can also do something good. We aren’t just going to be loud high school kids and take pictures, but to do something good.”