“How would I feel when, as an adult, I walked through that door?” This is the question that wouldn’t leave Kelsey Amara’s mind as she prepared to travel back to Guatemala, the country where she was born, on Cooperative for Education’s 2017 Heritage Tour.
“As an adoptee, going back to what might have been home to see the “what ifs” up close and personal filled me with nervous anticipation.”
Kelsey made her first return trip to Guatemala with her parents when she was 16 years old, travelling with Cooperative for Education (CoEd) on that occasion too. Both experiences were life-changing in their own way.
“I’m happy that my parents took me back at 16,” Kelsey says. “All teens go through the ‘who am I’ stage, and the trip really took the weight off of: ‘This is where I am from; this is not who I am.’”
At the same time, Kelsey would have encouraged her teenage self to have a more open mind about the experience. “At that moment, it was more about just going because that’s what you do in the summers. I look back at my teenage self thinking, ‘Yeah, this is interesting, whatever.’ I would encourage any teen to just have an open mind about it. You’re going to need different things from these experiences at different moments of your life. Get what you need out of it.”
When Kelsey returned to Guatemala for the second time as an adult, she came prepared with that open-minded attitude:
“I decided that I was going to get what I needed and not care what anyone else thought of me. What I walked away with was a sense of solidness in my life story and my life’s journey. There’s always been some turmoil around what could have been, and I’ve felt that turmoil subside. What I expected from other people, how I viewed myself—that has subsided. As an adoptee, you’re always kind of looking for something. On this last trip, I got to the point that I’m not searching anymore.
What I got out of this tour…words don’t do it justice, truly. The sense of inner peace, of accepting myself and owning my story—for the first time in my life, that has come easy.”
During the seven-day trip, Kelsey practiced her open-mindedness. She hand-made tortillas, hammered on the marimba with other adoptees, sought out the people she felt drawn to talk to, and occasionally allowed herself to just sit back and watch.
“There was no pressure,” Kelsey says. “There was no, ‘let’s talk about all of your feelings and emotions.’ But it was great that Tisha was there for anyone who did want to talk.” (Mental health therapist Tisha Way Gaynor of the International Adoption Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital served as a resource for adoptees and parents who wanted to process their experiences on the trip.)
So, Kelsey’s advice to anyone considering a trip to their birth country?
“GO. Absolutely go. Go and just see it and let the trip unfold however it’s going to unfold. Don’t try to control any of it. Let the control go. That was probably the hardest part for me because I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to feel all of the time, and I’m as type A as you can get. I had to let that go and just be in the moment and allow the tour and the experiences and the people to just hit where they were going to hit. If you can be open to that, you will get everything out of the trip that you ever wanted, and then some.”
And if that country is Guatemala, Kelsey highly recommend’s CoEd’s Heritage Tour. In an email to staff after the tour, she wrote:
“The staff of CoEd executed a flawless inaugural Heritage Tour. I would not have changed anything about the experience. As a Guatemalan adoptee, I felt that the compassion and care with which the tour was conducted was unparalleled. I was able to connect to the country, gain a solid understanding of what could have been, and honor within myself while feeling safe and secure. I was allowed the ability to get what I needed for my own journey with adoption and self-discovery in a way I had only hoped to do previously. I would strongly recommend this tour for any adoptees or families connected to this beautiful country through adoption.”