Andrea Matlock has a different mindset than most college sophomores when it comes to how she spends her summer vacations.
Joining up with Denver-based Walking Tree Travel for the third time in six years, the Highlands Ranch native spent three weeks this summer in Guatemala, helping lead a group of 12 high school girls and one boy in building a school and women’s center.
For the Colorado State University art major, who may eventually attend veterinary school, it was her first time in a leadership role, having twice been one of the younger travelers, heading to both Costa Rica and Peru, while a student at Regis Jesuit.
“It snaps you back into reality,” Matlock said of why she does the trips. “In America, you get caught up stressing about day-to-day things, which most of the time are things you shouldn’t even really care about. There you value family, you value eating, you value staying out of the rain. It has really changed my perspective.
“I saw beauty in a pretty rough city in Guatemala. A lot of people think about problems existing in other countries, but they don’t realize it is happening as we speak. Awareness needs to be raised a bit, and I want to be a part of that.”
In her travels, Matlock has witnessed the kind of poverty she could previously only imagine, staying in a two-room house with eight people and one light bulb. She has also developed strong relationships with fellow travelers and her host families.
“The service projects are important, but interacting with my host family is more important to me,” she said. “They are all such wonderful people, and what they have done for me is help to teach me what truly matters in life.”
What Matlock hopes she taught people in Guatemala was a sense of empowerment for the women in the country, and a sense of equality to the men.
“Women’s main roles there are making tortillas and making babies,” she said. “I wanted to build something for them and help empower my fellow woman. It was the hardest trip I’ve ever been on, seeing the way their men treat the women.”
Being one of 13 young women doing steady manual labor — something women just don’t do there — Matlock hopes that she was able to lead by example. She also hopes to return to do a photographic project on how animals are treated.
“Animals in Third World countries aren’t pets, just things that walk around the earth, that people throw rocks at,” she said. “They are dirty, people don’t feed them. I want to get involved in animal rescue and help spread the message of what’s happening.”
The eye-opening adventures Matlock has had are exactly why Denver native Paul Laurie started Walking Tree with two friends in 2005. The company, which conducts about 40 annual service trips to small groups and individuals in 15 countries worldwide, works with roughly 500 high school students and recent graduates a year.
“We hope that our participants bring their experiences home and start a dialogue with other young people to better appreciate the world which we all share,” Laurie said. “We’re all about fostering global citizenship.”
For more information, visit www.walkingtree.org.