Tricia Downie started to cry.
The way the children’s eyes lighted up as they hugged their new toys was “miraculous,” she said, making the volunteers – most of whom had adopted children from Guatemala – feel as if what they were doing really mattered.
But then that joy came crashing down as the group left the orphanage, only to be confronted by a seemingly endless line of hungry families stretching the entire length of the street.
Grandmothers, mothers, and children were waiting for hours for a food basket and the chance to take home secondhand clothes.
“We felt good at first, because we felt like we had made a difference," says Ms. Downie, mother to a 2-year-old adopted Guatemalan, Sofia. "But then we get back to all these people who still need help, and you realize that what we're doing just isn't enough, and can never be enough. I'll never be able to give enough because there's no way to put a value on children and what they mean to a family."
Downie, of Roanoke, Va., is one of some 25 volunteers from across the United States who spent one week last month in Panajachel, Guatemala, "honoring" their adopted children by working with Mayan Families, a small nonprofit organization serving indigenous populations in the Lake Atitlan region in the highlands of Guatemala.
What started as a simple service trip for a handful of women who had bonded as they all went through the Guatemalan adoption process at the same time has snowballed into Helping Mayan Families, an effort that raised more than $30,000 worth of supplies to help provide free medical and veterinary clinics, Christmas baskets of food, and toys, clothes, and shoes to 1,000 poor indigenous families.
As soon as Sarah Hryniewicz of Santa Fe, N.M., heard about Downie's plans for a trip, she jumped on board. She had spent 14 months living in Guatemala waiting to adopt her two children, Sophia Linda and Alexander.
"All of us moms are here for the same reason," said Hryniewicz, searching through piles of donated shoes to find a pair for a boy whose old shoes were so tight his mother couldn't pry them off his squished toes. "There's no way to say thank you for the sacrifice they made in giving up their children, so if you can't say thank you to the birth parent, you say it to their cousins and friends and community."
Sharon Smart-Poage, one of the founders of Mayan Families, says more and more adoptive parents have started volunteering in Guatemala. This group is the largest she's worked with yet, she said.
"Once they've been here, they can't forget about the need they've seen," says Ms. Smart-Poage, herself the mother of two adopted Guatemalan girls. "They look at all the children on the streets, and they see their own child's face."
Last year, more than 5,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by US families, with this small Central American nation second only to China in international adoptions. But this year all new adoptions have been halted while the government tries to regulate a corrupt adoption system awash in accusations that children were being stolen or mothers bribed to give up their children.
With no more adoptions going forward, the volunteers say, their trip is that much more important.
Cheri Peluso-Verdend, the first person Downie invited on the trip, said that once Helping Mayan Families set up a website (www.helpingmayanfamilies.org), she was deluged with people wanting to contribute or join.
"We didn't realize how desperately adoptive families wanted to connect with where their child was born," says Ms. Peluso-Verdend of Tulsa, Okla. "I think this is only going to grow, with more people coming next year, and maybe adding more projects that are spread throughout the year. It's a way to show Guatemalans that we want our children to stay connected, that we want to help, and that we don't just see Guatemala as a Wal-Mart for kids."
When Victoria, Downie's biological 5-year-old, went to Guatemala, she wanted to know why the children were on the streets polishing shoes or selling beads, why they weren't in school, and where their parents were. She told Downie she wanted to give the children the toys she'd brought on the trip, because she knew she had more at home.
"She says they look like Sofia," Downie said. "She asks what would have happened to her sister if we didn't have Sofia. I don't have an answer for her."
Meredith Vargas, who, with her husband, adopted two Guatemalan children, said she never would have guessed that she'd be here volunteering with the friends she made during the five months they lived in Guatemala.
"It's amazing what this has turned into, with all of us doing what we're good at, using our skills to help out," says Ms. Vargas, a veterinarian who owns an animal hospital in Culpepper, Va. She and five of her animal-loving friends from Virginia spent the week giving rabies shots and spaying and neutering animals – mostly dogs rounded up off the streets.
"It feels good to know we're accomplishing what we came for," she says.
Maria Eulalio, a Guatemalan mother of four who said it had been a year since her children had received new toys, said it physically hurts her when she can't afford to feed her family.
"Life is very hard here," she said, waiting in line to receive a brightly wrapped basket filled with rice, beans, oatmeal, raisins, salt, bread, and even marshmallows and Christmas cookies. "It's good that these mothers are here helping, that they didn't forget where their children came from."
Downie, whose eyes again filled with tears when she finally met the four children she sponsors so they can attend school, said it's impossible to forget. "Guatemala has changed me to the core, changed my perspective on everything," she says. "I can't even find the words."
When the family brought Sofia home to a nice house with two cars and a pantry full of food, Downie said she began reevaluating everything.
"We had too much; more than we needed," she said. "I was literally sickened by everything we had."
So the family cleaned house, selling off toys, clothes, anything that hadn't been used in the previous six months.
They made $750, and donated it all to Mayan Families.
"My husband always says that when we adopted our daughter, we adopted Guatemala, and it's true, because our daughter isn't going away and neither is Guatemala," she says. "Guatemala was her home, and now we feel like it's ours, too. It's part of her, so that means it's part of us."