Imagine: you quit your job, rent out your house, say goodbye to family, and unplug from your “real” life, all to follow your heart to rural, indigenous areas of Guatemala. It sounds crazy to some (and maybe it is!), but this became reality for two Lipscomb alumni with unwavering passion for people in the area of Guatemala known as the Ulpan Valley. Kris (’06) and DeeDee Hatchell (’08) saw a need and have risked everything to jump in and help rebuild this community in need.
In the fall of 2008, while Kris was a Missions Coordinator for Lipscomb Missions, the Hatchells took a weekend trip to the Guatemalan valley and were impacted by the locals in ways neither could have imagined. Upon seeing the horrific oppression in the twelve interconnected communities, Kris, an engineer by training, and DeeDee, an elementary school teacher, were immediately consumed by how they could potentially help provide assistance. In relating the condition of the people, Kris explains “The Q’eqchi’ people are currently in a similar position as the Native Americans were after Europeans started migrating westward in America.” The Q’eqchi’ are the native inhabitants of the valley and were being severely oppressed by Guatemalans, being moved off desirable land and relocated in difficult areas with little government representation or protection. Kris and DeeDee were inspired by the locals’ strength and endurance through these hardships and knew they had to join in the struggle to enhance the lives of these marginalized people.
The couple has extensive involvement in mission work, but this endeavor was going to be different than past experiences. While their faith compelled them to help, they would be joining that with their specific professional skill sets to make long-lasting changes in people’s health and education. DeeDee explains her intense attraction to the project, “I was frustrated with trips that required me to do acts of service that I wasn’t prepared for, like mixing concrete and building houses. I was drawn to a project where I could use my passion for teaching in a cross cultural context.” Leaving her job as a schoolteacher in Nashville, DeeDee took her teaching skills to Guatemala where she tackled several issues, including health education and establishing a public library system. Travelling by foot to schools in the area, the Nashville teacher went into classrooms to give instruction on things as simple as brushing teeth. “For a lot of the kids, that was the first time they had ever been given a toothbrush,” she explains. Promoting literacy was another goal as she trained locals in the skill set of running a successful and efficient public library. In the past year and a half, DeeDee has helped to initiate drastic changes in the quality of health and education in the Ulpan Valley.
The work of Project Ulpan is multi-faceted, focusing on a holistic transformation of the quality of life in the region. A major component of their two-year plan was to establish a clean water system and safer transportation. To highlight the difference that these projects have made, Kris recounted a recent incident where a local child and father fell from a makeshift bridge and drowned in the river below. A mere two months earlier Lipscomb engineering students had just completed a bridge project 20 minutes down the river from the incident. A 2013 Lipscomb team now has their sights set on replacing the makeshift bridge where the tragedy occurred. Kris’s missions and engineering background gave him the ability to provide training for local residents, so they can sustain the work after he is gone. Kris participated in engineering mission trips during his time at Lipscomb and now hosts our own engineering teams that travel to the valley. Engineering student Luke Burris has been to Ulpan Valley six times, offering his skills in the building of infrastructure, water systems, and a bridge; each guided by and constructed with the help of the local community. “Through these engineering projects, students are exposed to the idea that their talents and their skills can be used in ways that directly help the lives of the people in the valley,” Burris explains. Kris shares that same belief as he credits his understanding of skills-based service to his positive experiences with application missions during college.
Throughout the last year and a half, the Hatchells have helped lead this effort, which has seen tremendous strides in the direction of self-reliance for the Q’eqchi’ people. When asked what the next six months will look like, Kris says that he will be “stepping back to allow the locals to lead.” Sustainability has been the foundation of every service effort the couple has made. By training the people in the communities to do the jobs necessary to maintain their improvements, the couple has witnessed a once oppressed and helpless group emerge as confident and capable. Kris describes one of his first experiences as he watched one of his trainees show off his new skills, “I was able to just watch him train other people. I didn’t help. It was an extraordinary moment.” DeeDee shares a similar story, describing the transformation of a man who she had trained to be a librarian, “As I watched him, I could see that he’d taken ownership. There was this sense of pride.” Training the locals to take their places, Kris and DeeDee hope that the community will thrive, independently, once they complete their two-year mission.
Project Ulpan has been the experience of a lifetime for the Hatchells. DeeDee explains the ways in which such a shocking lifestyle change has greatly impacted their lives, saying, “Everything has changed and we could not have prepared ourselves for it.” As they reflect on the last eighteen months, the Hatchells cite a quote from Henri Nouwen as the perfect summary of their venture, “You don’t think your way into a new way of living, you live your way into a new way of thinking.” To be sure, Kris and DeeDee have lived their way into a deep love for the people of the Ulpan Valley, and no matter where they go or what they do from here, a large part of their hearts will forever be Q’eqchi’.