Cambridge woman leading mission trip to Guatemala

In less than a week, Cambridge resident Shawn Johnson and four other women will be on a flight to Guatemala to help improve the quality of life for impoverished residents.

The women have been busy fundraising to support their work through BuildinGUATE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving disadvantaged communities of Guatemala through construction, health and education to promote the development of Guatemalan communities with limited economic resources.

Shawn Johnson, right, and Kelly Wichman build a house on a past mission trip. Photo submitted

“The biggest accomplishments are things you can’t see—just coming down and showing people that you have compassion and that you care for the circumstances that they’re in, and that you’re not pitying them, you’re not thinking you’re better than them,” Johnson said. “I’m purely there because my heart so wants to share the abundant blessings that I have here and do it in a way that honors God and honors other human beings. They have so many disadvantages and we have so many advantages.”

Poverty in Guatemala is widespread. According to BuildinGUATE, approximately 49 percent of the population lives in rural areas and the rural population accounts for 71 percent of the country’s poor people. It ranks 131 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s 2011 Human Development Index—a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide.

Johnson has led five teams to Guatemala, usually groups of 10 to 20 people. This year, the team of five women leaves May 13 and will spend two weeks building homes and serving in homeless shelters, schools, malnutrition centers, orphanages, hospitals and nursing homes. Along with Johnson, the team consists of Kelly Wichman, her daughter Amanda, Michelle Jilk and Tiffany Kelley.

Johnson’s teams have built 12 houses, with an average family size of five people. The single-room home may seem small to Americans, but Johnson said it’s a huge step up from what typically is a dirt floor with sugarcane walls and leaking tin roof, compared to a house with a concrete floor and a roof and walls to protect them from the sun, rain and cold nights.

“That’s one of the most rewarding parts of the trip for everybody because it’s so tangible,” she said. “You see the end result of what you did. When you’re all done building, you see what you’ve accomplished.”

Every year, the team receives a photo and biography of the family they’ll build a house for. This year, the new home will be for the Martínez Hernández family that lives in a village called San Miguel Escobar in a house made of dry sugarcane as walls with a tin roof and a dirt floor.

Shawn Johnson and her team will build a house for the Martínez Hernández family in Guatemala. Photo submitted by Oscar Palencia, director of BuildinGUATE

The family consists of mother Alicia Nicolasa Hernández Chavez; Irma Leticia, 16; José Danilo, 12; Miguel Angel, 8; Ana Patricia, 5; and Juan Carlos, 3. Lorenzo Martínez, the family’s father, passed away about three months ago, and now their mother has to go out every day and do different jobs, like washing other peoples’ clothes, selling tortillas, cleaning houses in other neighborhoods and more.

She’s the only support of the family; three of her kids are students. Irma Leticia, the older daughter, quit school because her mother goes out to work every day, leaving no one to take care of the family—especially her 3-year-old brother Juan Carlos. She would like to go back to school, and one of BuildinGUATE’s goals is to turn that desire into a reality.

“We have seen their living and their house conditions and we know for sure that through your help—through a new house—they will not only have better living and health conditions, but more importantly, they will have hope for a better future,” BuildinGUATE Director Oscar Palencia stated in a letter to Johnson.

As a physical therapist, one of Johnson’s long-term goals is to organize a volunteer site for physical therapy. Currently, she tries to do physical therapy as much as possible, such as when the team visits a malnutrition center.

“What really drives me is partly my own upbringing. By our standards, I grew up lower-middle class. I compare that to what Guatemala’s level of poor is; it’s so starkly in contrast to what we think of as poor,” she said. “My heart really breaks for anybody that is disadvantaged. That’s why I went into physical therapy; I really like helping people and getting to know people for who they are, their roots and where they came from. Guatemala is so rich in culture. They have a huge level of thankfulness for even little things they have and they can appreciate life. I’ve learned so much more about appreciating life. I’m really thankful for where I’m at and life in general.”

This year, Johnson will be bringing sewing kits—sewing machine, material and sewing supplies—to make blankets and other craft items for the families to sell to earn funds for food.  The families will be able to sell their items to future traveling teams as well as at local crafters’ markets for tourists.

“I’m excited to see how a $200 kit will help start a business for at least three families in Guatemala,” she said.

She said she would like to return again in July with a team to bring additional supplies for the organization, families she has built for and continue her efforts of getting an organized volunteer site for physical therapy started. Any donations made from the community would go to helping this cause.

Bringing together a team for a common cause to help others has become a passion for Johnson. Through this work, she said she’s grown to love the Guatemalan people and has learned a lot from them.

“They’re very resourceful for what little they have,” she said. “They’re amazingly generous, too, and they don’t expect anything. I don’t like the word ‘handout’ because that’s not what it is. Many of these people have lots of pride and it takes a lot for them to accept help. You go with an attitude of compassion and humanity and humbleness and appreciation.”

For more information on Shawn Johnson’s work, visit To donate, visit For more information on BuildinGUATE, visit