Eleven years after leaving Guatemala, Sweet Briar student Ruth Lechner ’21 finally returned home this summer. An internship through Maximo Nivel with Asociación Transiciones, a microbusiness that builds wheelchairs, brought her back to the place she had been adopted from in 2007: Semillas de Amor (“Seeds of Love”), an orphanage just outside Antigua.
Classmate Nora Florio came along to witness the homecoming — and to complete her own internship. “I feel incredible!” Ruth told us in June after arriving in Guatemala. And the business major and political science minor had a lot to take in. “When I was adopted [at age 11], I was uneducated and did not know much about my own culture and country,” she admitted. “Now I am embracing the beauty of Guatemala and its people.”
Ruth is thankful she got to see her home country through new eyes and reunite with her Semillas de Amor family. Having friend Nora with her made it an unforgettable experience. “Nora is amazing,” Ruth said. “We played with nine girls who are left, and there are three boys. I know four with whom I was friends when I was there.” Ruth didn’t realize elections would be taking place while the two were there.
It made their visit all the more special, she added — and educational. “It’s a little heartbreaking to read and hear the news of how corrupted the country has been and continues to be, but I hope that someday there will be change,” she wrote in an email. “I have been asked by many where I am from, and their responses are, ‘You will forever be Guatemala.’ Some are ashamed to say they are from Guatemala or of a certain culture because of the stories told or the standing of the country, but not me.”
Ruth spent about two years at the orphanage after briefly living with her grandmother, who died shortly after her father gave her up. “Guatemala can be a dangerous country to live in, so now I have more understanding for why the adoption happened,” Ruth says. “I am grateful for how far I have come with the help of many, especially my father, other family and friends.”
So, what exactly brought her back to Guatemala from her new life in Maryland — and the comfy campus of Sweet Briar — more than a decade later? Ruth says it was a dinner with Joan Parker and Susan Richiedei, who spoke in last year’s CORE 130 — Women and Gender in the World class, that inspired her to look into international opportunities.
The class is part of the College’s new leadership core curriculum. Each week during CORE 130, students heard from different women leaders. “Sweet Briar has taught me to be ambitious and seek opportunities, which is how I was able to find the internship with Maximo Nivel,” Ruth told us. “Some classes are rigorous, however the knowledge I have gained has made me more confident and fierce.”
Ruth met with career services director Barb Watts to confirm that it was a good organization to go through — and to start the application process. Thanks to Sweet Briar’s Grants for Engaged Learning, which provide up to $2,000 per student, she was also able to fund part of her flight.
With Ruth’s help, studio art major Nora landed a teaching internship through the same company, Maximo Nivel. In June, the two were off to Guatemala. They stayed together with a host family in Antigua and spent their free time exploring the area: from museums to lakes to volcanoes, the two friends explored — and photographed — every corner of Ruth’s childhood home. Both worked in the mornings and took Spanish lessons in the afternoon — a perfect balance, says Ruth, who loved her internship from day one.
What’s special about Asociación Transiciones is not just that many of the company’s employees are in wheelchairs themselves, Ruth said, but that the company campaigns for donations to give wheelchairs to those who can’t afford them. “They are all hardworking and have a family environment,” Ruth told us a few days in. “I have had to translate amazing stories [about why] someone gets a wheelchair. I have used Excel to record patients’ information. I am also in charge of their social media and answering questions by supporters or new costumers. There are a variety of things I get to do. I even learned how to weld the wheel of a chair!”
The internship was yet another big step in Ruth’s professional and personal development. “I have not always been confident, especially having to learn in a new environment and language,” she says. But the opportunities she’s been given by
her parents and complete strangers have changed her life, she adds. “This makes me grateful and it’s given me the courage to keep going — with my education and choosing to take on a role in the world [to effect] change, wherever or whatever I may end up being.”
And she’s not stopping anytime soon. This fall, Ruth is studying abroad in Spain.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of the Sweet Briar Magazine.