Kahleah Guibault appeared to be in a perfect situation. She was studying psychology on a full scholarship at Saint Mary’s University, had a year and a half remaining in her studies and was set to graduate in April 2014. She also had a part-time job and when school wasn’t in session, she would go to Guatemala, her birth country, to volunteer at orphanages.
But the Bedford resident faced a dilemma. While the volunteer work was extremely rewarding, her studies left her less enthused. “Every time I went [to Guatemala], it was getting harder and harder to come back [to Nova Scotia],” says the 24-year-old. Faced with the option of cutting down on the number of trips to Guatemala or focusing fully on her studies, Guibault found a compromise, with some major help from her family, especially her mom.
Kahleah came to Canada as a five-month-old in 1991. Faced with long waiting lists in Canada for adoption, her parents Jean Guibault and Leceta Chisholm Guibault hired an American adoption agency. The first match was for a child in Guatemala.
Today, the Guibaults have three adopted children, two from Guatemala, Kahleah and Chus, and one from Colombia, Tristan.
Volunteerism is important in the Guibault family. Leceta began volunteering at orphanages in Guatemala in 2000. Before that, she was providing pre- and post-adoption support for both provincial and national organizations here at home in Canada.
In 2009, Leceta began facilitating service trips to Guatemala where groups of volunteers would bring aid and care to children in orphanages. In 2013, the Guibault family decided to make in into the business Our Guatemala: Travel with Purpose.
At the orphanages, people can be assigned many tasks (building a basketball court, painting a wall, etc.) but most important is paying attention to the children. When Chus was growing up in an orphanage, staff discouraged children and volunteers from interacting.
“As kids, they just used to wish they could sit and ask questions and spend time with the volunteers,” says Leceta. “When you grow up behind four walls, that’s your life and you’re so curious about what life is like and what people are like outside.” Chus also told her the volunteers “can come and bring us new toys and we can break them in a week, but if you come and spend time with us, we won’t forget that.”
The trips Our Guatemala organizes last about 10 days, taking about 20 people at a time. Participants spend the bulk of their time volunteering, but also take a couple of days to discover local culture and attractions.
The work can be emotionally taxing. Donna Buckland is the owner/director of Giants Steps Children’s Centre in Upper Tantallon. She’s used to working with children, but her service trip to Guatemala in May 2014 was a revelation.
Buckland spoke with Halifax Magazine before and after the trip. Before leaving, she was excited. She told the kids at Giant Steps about it, explaining orphanages were like a daycare, except there were beds and the kids lived there all the time.
After the trip, she decided she wouldn’t tell the kids about it. “It just hit me too hard to really talk a whole lot about it,” she says, “especially with the kids. I don’t even know how I would verbalize it with them.”
At one of the orphanages, there was a teen who showed up unexpectedly. The girl’s name was Cindy and she had lived there years ago, but had run away. She was now pregnant and had been doing drugs, smoking and drinking alcohol. Out of desperation, she returned to the orphanage. The people at the orphanage spent the day trying to determine whether she could stay and if it would be safe because she may have had gang affiliations.
Leceta had first met Cindy years before. In 2010, she even begged Leceta to adopt her. (At the time, adoption was closed to foreigners and still remains closed. Adoption is only open domestically today.)
Seeing this unfold, Buckland thought about Leceta and what must be going through her head. “I just saw how emotional she got that day and how much it was hurting her to see all this happen and how she felt like there was nothing she could do to fix it,” says Buckland.
Cindy was allowed to stay.
Often, the work is incredibly rewarding. Buckland says when the volunteers arrive, the kids gravitate them. “Next thing, you’re looking down and this little hand is looking for your hand,” she says. “It’s a pretty cool feeling.” Upon leaving, a lot of tears were shed. It is these kinds of memories which have her planning a return trip.
To get Our Guatemala going, Leceta and Kahleah decided to live in Guatemala. (Chus was already living in Guatemala. The family met the 22-year-old a few years ago and while not officially his parents, both sides have embraced each other as family. Chus even lists his last name on Facebook as Guibault.) Life in Guatemala required a lot of adjustment. The tap water isn’t safe to drink, so they had to disinfect all fruits and vegetables, and have jugs of purified water delivered to the house they rented.
While not officially a non-profit business, Our Guatemala essentially acts as one. The hope is the business will allow the Guibaults to make enough to continue volunteering there.
Prior to starting the business, Jean paid for the family’s volunteer trips to Guatemala. Kahleah describes him as the most selfless person she knows. The family says it was Jean’s idea to start Our Guatemala, not surprising given he is a lifelong entrepreneur who has worked in diverse fields such as software, excavation and plastics. He sees the business as being a way to allow Kahleah and Chus (and others the family has taken under its wings) to follow their passion.
For Kahleah, she can’t imagine herself doing anything else. “I can’t imagine being happy not doing it. It’s rewarding, but it’s also humbling at the same time,” she says.
The business also says a lot about the strength of Leceta and Jean’s marriage. The two will have been married 30 years come 2015. Leceta says some people have been surprised by Jean’s support. “My husband would never allow me to go off to another country,” others have told her. “The ‘allow’ part bothers me a lot,” says Leceta.
When the business was launched, the plan was to give it a year to see if it was feasible. While it hasn’t quite achieved the profitability levels they were hoping for, the business is getting where it needs to be.
While Kahleah is it in for the long haul, the same can’t be said of Leceta. Turning 53 in June, with her husband in Nova Scotia, she spends a lot of time separated from him. Leceta plans to spend most of her time in the coming years in Guatemala and then scale back her involvement.
One of the side effects of the business is it has increased the local understanding of children living in orphanages. (The Guatemalan government doesn’t track the number of children living in orphanages, but it’s clearly a large number.) Our Guatemala’s trips include a cultural component, so the team meets with tourism industry personnel from hotels, restaurants, tour operators and transport companies for business purposes. As part of the meetings, naturally, the Our Guatemala team talks about what it does. Some of the people the team has encountered are unaware of children living in orphanages. As a result, the team started inviting these people to spend a day volunteering at an orphanage. Some visitors have said they’re interested in adoption.
But most of the children living in orphanages in Guatemala won’t be adopted. “To hold a child that’s never going to have a mother, it’s sad, but it also feels like you’re doing something important for this child,” says Buckland.
Leceta has similar motivations. “I know what we’re leaving behind, and sometimes that is just really good memories,” she says.