NetApp’s Volunteer Time Off (VTO) program gives employees the opportunity take 40 hours of paid time off per year to participate in a variety of activities and give back to a host of different charitable organizations. From volunteering at local schools and building houses to packaging food for families in need or walking and running to fund cures for diseases, there is something for everyone when it comes to volunteering and giving back at NetApp.


Senior healthcare marketing manager Mary Hayes, who creates programming for communicating how NetApp’s products can benefit healthcare industry customers, says that NetApp’s VTO program was one of the things that drew her to the company in the first place. After learning about the VTO program, she says “I’d never been so excited. I thought realized I could finally do something that I’d wanted to do for so long.”


That something was to take a trip with Mission Guatemala, a non-profit organization that hosts teams doing mission work in health, education and nutrition aimed at improving the quality of life for underserved and impoverished people in Guatemala.


Hayes says she had wanted to do a volunteer trip for a number of years, but with limited vacation time and family obligations “it was always hard to commit the time.” That is until she came to NetApp and had five days of VTO that she could use to volunteer. So Hayes decided to take advantage of her VTO to travel from her home in Indianapolis to Panajachel, Guatemala to work in the highland communities near San Andres Semetabaj. Located near Guatemala’s famous Lake Atitlan, Hayes says Mission Guatemala runs a medical, dental and eye clinic in the region in addition to doing various building projects in many of the local communities.


According to Hayes, there were three separate teams doing work on behalf of Mission Guatemala during the week she was in the country. Her team was tasked with completing construction on a large kitchen at an elementary school in Chuti Estancia, a small mountain village. Each morning the team would leave the Mission Guatemala residence at 8 a.m. to commute to the work site, which was a 40-minute drive on some pretty rough dirt, mountain roads. “You couldn’t even navigate the road without going in a hole every five seconds,” Hayes says. Her team of 16 put in a solid work day from about 8:40 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day, she says.


Mary Hayes mixes cement for a school floor in Guatemala

Hayes says the kitchen took about a year to complete because all the building was done by hand, by volunteers. Hayes helped to lay cement tile for the kitchen floor, using incredibly rudimentary tools. Hayes says that concrete was being mixed on the ground with shovels and buckets of water. To lay the tiles, the volunteers flattened the dirt with their hands—and then used a level to see if they’d gotten it right.


According to Hayes, children in that area face chronic malnourishment. As such, schools often provide the one reliable meal most of the children receive each day. Prior to the kitchen project, women from the community were cooking meals for 300 children per day in what looked like a “garden shed,” Hayes says. With the completion of the kitchen, the women of the village now have a clean, open space and three wood burning stoves (electricity is not reliable in the area) for cooking, and a lunchroom where the kids can eat.


In addition to building out the kitchen, Hayes also had the opportunity to spend time at the Mission’s medical facilities, a local clinic and a rehab center for alcohol and drug addicts. As someone who has worked at the intersection of healthcare and marketing for her entire career, Hayes says that part of the trip—and Mission Guatemala’s healthcare orientation—were a good fit for her personally and professionally.


“There’s a tight connection between my personal calling and my professional focus. It was nice to be able to pair those things into a mission trip,” she says.


In addition to working at the school and visiting medical facilities, Hayes says her group also had the opportunity to taste a bit of the local culture by visiting a Sunday market, where villagers go to buy the food they need for the coming week, and taking a boat tour on Lake Atitlan. In addition, she says her team went ziplining in a mountain coffee grove for fun on their last day in the country.


Hayes says that the experience was “life changing in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated before I went.” She believes that not only do VTO experiences such as her trip allow people to unplug but they also offer a fresh perspective on what matters. For instance, she believes it’s very easy for many of us to get so caught up in the “check lists” of our lives, constantly racing from one activity to another, that we forget to slow down. In a place like Guatemala, there is no choice but to slow down.


“There’s a cause and need for patience,” she says. “Whether it’s patience because you have to wait for transportation or patience because you’re doing a process has nothing to do with efficiency, it has only to do with being able to use the resources that are available to you. It really gives you time to take a breath and experience what’s around you in a way that I feel we don’t have when we’re living the way we live on a day to day basis.”


The most valuable part of doing volunteer work with people in another country and another culture is that it also makes you realize just how small a world we live in. Hayes says that although it appeared at first that the group had little in common with the Guatemalan villagers they met, they found a way to connect. And even language barriers can be overcome with a simple smile or warm greeting.


“We are so divisive in American society today. We look for things that make somebody different from ourselves or our beliefs. This trip reminded me that, at the beginning and end of the day, we’re all human, and we all want the same things. We might have a different vision of what those things look like depending on where we come from, but we still want safety, we want security, we want to love and be loved, and we want to provide for our families. And even though we do that in different ways, we have that in common. If we could remember that in our day to day lives, I think our interactions would be so much more productive, not just on an individual basis but as a society,” she says.


Hayes says one of her teammates on the Guatemala trip summed up the experience best. “I thought I was coming down here to help poor people, and I haven’t met a poor person yet,” she quotes him as saying. Hayes adds that despite having very few material possessions, the people she encountered on her trip were very rich in spirit. “They’re so grateful and so joyous and appreciative of what they do have—their families, a spot of land where they can grow food, a community that shares resources and works together and collaborates. It was a wonderful opportunity to press the reset button on what matters most.”


Although this was Hayes’ first volunteer trip abroad, she claims to be a bit of a “volunteer-a-holic.” Not only does she volunteer frequently with her church—hosting families, working at soup kitchens or doing community outreach—she is also actively involved in a variety of other activities in the Indianapolis area such as a local film festival and the world’s only tissue bank for breast cancer research, located at the Indiana University Cancer Center.


“I just find things to get involved in and as soon as I’ve done it one time, they can’t get rid of me. I fall in love, and I want to sign up again and again,” she says.


For Hayes, volunteering is an essential part of who she is. Not only does it offset all the necessary “must-dos” in life like working and paying the bills, she says, but it’s personally satisfying. “I just have a strong personal commitment to this idea of doing all the good that you can,” she says.


That’s one of the reasons Hayes felt compelled to share her story with her teammates at NetApp when she returned from her trip. Not only did she have the opportunity to take some time away from work, but the VTO program allowed her to come back with a “refreshed sense of purpose professionally,” she says.


“This is such an amazing employee benefit,” she says. “If every person who works here isn’t exercising this benefit, they are absolutely missing out. I just think we’re so lucky to work for an organization that recognizes that value and says ‘We’re not giving somebody time away from their job. We’re giving them energy so they can fuel up and be more effective at their job.’”


Lisa Melsted

Lisa Melsted develops culture strategies and content for NetApp’s Employee Engagement team. A tech industry veteran with more than 15 years’ experience in various communications and marketing roles, she holds Master’s degrees in Creative Non-Fiction from Emerson College and English from the University of Iowa. She has also written articles about technology for publications such as Forbes BrandVoice and TechPageOne.