Volunteering at Hekab Be

by Betty Gilgoff


Betty, her husband, Robert, and their teenage daughter, Hannah, are from Vancouver, Canada. Between November 2009–March 2010 they spent many dedicated hours helping as volunteers at Hekab Be. Here Betty describes their experiences during that time:

U Paliail Hekab Be
—Mayan for 'Children of the Open Road'—to me will always be a very special group of Akumal children whom we have come to know through the Hekab Be Biblioteca. For four and a half months this past winter my husband, Robert, my now 16-year-old daughter, Hannah, and I chose to live in Akumal specifically for the purpose of volunteering and getting involved with the Hekab Be Biblioteca. We had been living in Spain as a part of a 10-month adventure away from our home, in Vancouver, Canada, when I stumbled on an invitation on the Hekab Be Web site from Akumal's small community-run biblioteca to come and get involved. So we booked our tickets and arrived, unsure of just what we could possibly offer or what that involvement would look like. We were enthusiastic, patient, and willing to do whatever was needed with whatever skills a retired psychologist, an elementary school teacher with a strong technology background, and an outgoing energetic and athletic 15-year-old could bring to the task.

Unfortunately even between the three of us, we lacked one important skill, a fluency with the Spanish language. Carlos, the very able, wise and welcoming assistant director at the biblioteca was undaunted. He patiently explained that the Hekab Be Biblioteca welcomed volunteers. "But what can we do?" we asked. He didn’t provide any easy answers although he did tell us that the biblioteca has a good number of visitors from away who offer drop-in, one-off classes for the children. He explained that the staff at the biblioteca—the director, Leo, the assistant, Belen, and he—often took on translating to make the classes work, but that such classes were hard to sustain on a long-term basis. If we could do something different that didn't rely so much on them, that would be great, he coached.

As a teacher I was determined that we weren't going to come in and create more work for the staff. Our goal was to volunteer to help, to actually be of assistance. But how? Well, first I felt that we ought to get a feel for the culture of the place. We had to learn who the kids were and what they needed. So without any other agenda, we just started showing up at the biblioteca three, sometimes four, times a week. We rarely offered "classes," although we did do the occasional art project, card game or new playground activity, mostly without translation and instead with a great deal of energetic and creative sign language, thanks to Hannah. More often we tried to get to know the children and help them with whatever we could.

Over the four and a half months that we were in Akumal, we each found our own way of engaging the children. Hannah and Robert each have a pretty nutty sense of humor. They enjoy clowning and laughing. Hannah is not afraid to make mistakes and so dove into Spanish, having the children teach her new phrases and silly expressions. Robert also easily found his niche initially by finding a guitar so that by Christmas time he was accompanying singers at the festivities. He too enjoyed games outside and so would take on being the monster, the tiburon or the vampiro, in the impromptu games of tag that the children called for again and again, happy to have an adult get silly and just play. My role was a little more difficult for me to sort out, probably because typically in my role as a teacher I clearly must talk too much. I found it hard to engage without having enough language to verbally express my interest, curiosity and willingness to help. I started bringing decks of playing cards and eventually had some of the children practicing times tables with me with the cards. I tended to follow the staff around a little more and ask for direction as to whom to help with what.

Once we'd earned a bit of a place, we were asked to try picking up both the children's and the adults' English classes for a couple of months. Also in the final months, Robert, Hannah and I worked together on a book of the pictures of the U Paliail Hekab Be, adding text all in Spanish about each of the children and adults who came to mean so much to us. Making the book really cemented for us how truly special these children are and what an amazing experience they helped to create for us.

Although we came to Akumal determined to get involved, we credit much of our being welcomed into the community to all of those who make up Hekab Be. Despite the adversity that this struggling library operates under, including but not limited to the ongoing struggle for stable financial support, or the revolving door of consistent community involvement, the children and community couldn't have been more open, welcoming and generous with us.

Betty and some of the library regulars look at the book she created about her family's experiences at Hekab Be.

The cover of the Gilgoff's book about their time at Hekab Be, which they had printed and gave a copy of to the library.

Hannah has her lap full!
Hannah was always surrounded by kids wanting her attentions at the library.

Robert and the kids rehearsing a song for the library's Christmas festivities.

Akumal Villas

Cabanas Tulum