Student Helps Make Guatemala Village's Dream School for Girls Become a Reality


posted April 16, 2018

Savannah Sullivan has worked with a non-profit since 2015 to build a girls' school in Guatemala. (Kayla Carr photo)

Pitt-Johnstown student Savannah Sullivan envisions beyond her immediate surroundings.

Her motivation to make a difference led her to Central America, and brought her back there several times.

The result of this cross-section of vision and drive is her work that helped to create a girl's school in Guatemala.

“When I began in 2015, they (Harrisburg-based Tree 4 Hope) were dreaming of creating a girls’ school that would provide a brighter future for many of the girls that we were already working with in a children's home and nearby village in Mixco, Guatemala,” said Sullivan, a senior sociology major who is minoring in Spanish and political science.

“The school is being built now. Our hope is that we will be able to raise the remainder of the funds needed and that Hope Academy will be open for classes in January.”

She admitted that it seemed like a daunting task to raise the money to to get the school up and running. But, by November of 2017, enough money was raised for the foundation of the school. A groundbreaking ceremony took place around Thanksgiving.

"It was an important milestone that I was glad to be able to be a part of," she said.

Although she is from York, PA, Sullivan has spent a great deal of time in Guatemala.

“When Jennifer (Hope-Tringali, the founder and director of Tree 4 Hope) began to share her dream of building Hope Academy with me, I knew that it was something I needed to be a part of. In the few weeks that I spent there for my first trip to Guatemala, I fell in love with the country, the culture, and the people. By the end of my time there in the summer of 2015, I was already cancelling my plans for the following summer and planning to come back for the summer of 2016 to intern with Tree 4 Hope.”

Tree 4 Hope’s website expresses its mission as: “a non-profit organization committed to providing a bright future of long-term hope for children, elders, and their families in Guatemala and around the world, focusing on education, health, and mental wellness. We design our projects to meet basic needs, empower local communities, build relationships, promote cultural exchange, and inspire youth.”

“During my initial trip, I went for a week with Tree 4 Hope to the children's home in Mixco and the Elder Center in Santiago Atitlan, then I spent the remaining two weeks serving meals to elders through another organization called Harvesting Happiness in Santa María de Jesús,” said Sullivan.

“I went back and interned in the summer of 2016 with Tree 4 Hope, which meant leading several short-term mission groups, translating, accounting for the organization, updating the child sponsorship program, handing out sponsor gifts, and coordinating group transportation, meals, supplies, etc.”

All of the trips have been mission- or service-related.

“In the summer of 2017, I returned once again for a month-and-a-half to assist with some of the groups through Tree 4 Hope, as well as help from time to time with the project through Harvesting Happiness and establish connections to new organizations such as Medical Missions Ministries and ProChapina, which are both based out of Guatemala.

“From there, I returned for a short time in November and again in January for work with several of these organizations. I was also able to spend time with friends and finalize some details of when I will return after graduation and teach English as a Foreign Language.”

Sullivan said the enriching experience she enabled her to gain more than she’s given.

“The most important thing is that we work as a team and depend on one another to get things done,” she said. “I think my main accomplishment was really just getting to know the people we serve and allowing that to fuel my work there and my passion for it. So often people want to come in and do something for someone before they even understand them and their culture.

“I love that the organizations I work with have allowed me to learn about people and build sincere relationships with them so that I am able to serve them well and be a bridge builder between Guatemalans and Americans. I am most proud of the girls' school that we are finally building, but that is in no way an accomplishment that any of us have achieved on our own. We have been vigilant in fundraising, teaching people about the extreme poverty that so many Guatemalans are facing and coming up with sustainable ways of helping where we can.

“As we have been fundraising for Hope Academy, we have been raising awareness specifically about girls' limited educational opportunities. I am proud of the way that we have come together for such an important cause.

“I have learned countless lessons through my experience in Guatemala, but the main ones are:

  • “Education is truly a gift and something I am very fortunate to have access to, especially as a woman;
  • “It is important to know the people you are serving; and
  • “Greater things are accomplished when you work as a team.”

Throughout, Sullivan said she has received the support of Pitt-Johnstown.

“I have certainly appreciated how approachable my advisors are, how they know me by name and have been so helpful and encouraging as I have talked to them about social and political issues, study abroad, grad school, prospective jobs, and the work that I do in Guatemala,” she said.

“I have also had the privilege of getting to know some professors and faculty who are outside of my field but have played important roles in encouraging me, broadening my perspectives, and helping me to see all of the opportunities that are out there.”