Travel Service Leads to Open Heart and Open Door

Gracelyn Eaves and Sara Yuman

Southern hospitality dictates that when visiting, one always assures the host they would be “welcome, anytime” back home. Seldom do such invitations on the international level translate into actual acceptances. But sometimes …

When Gracelyn Eaves met her translator Sara Yuman on a spring travel program to Guatemala with Dresden-based Global Citizen Adventure Corps, she knew they had bonded. Sleeping in bunk beds near enough to whisper through the night, the two 20-year-olds taught each other phrases in their native language, shared secrets, and contact information. Little did Gracelyn know when she promised her new friend, “I got you, girl!’ that she would next be doing just that back in McKenzie, Tennessee.

A few months after the team of 12 students and community members traveled to help local children with oral hygiene and learn from the exchange of cultures, their translator dropped by to see Gracelyn and other friends she had met on their seven-day travel service learning experience.

Gracelyn delighted in returning to the exchange roles they had assumed in South America as she showed her friend her home campus of Bethel University, the education partner of GCAC that provides transferable college credit for all those who participate in the international programs. After a tour of McKenzie, the girls stopped by Dresden to support the local economy with the purchase of Sara’s first “Strawberry Limeade” and a reconnect with Sonic employee/BU student/and fellow GCAC traveler Jacey McClure.

But quite possibly the highlight of Sara’s four days in West Tennessee was participating in the Sweet Tea Festival where she heard her first country rock band, enjoyed the alpaca, llamas, and goats in the petting zoo and got more lemonade.

Gracelyn shared that since their group enjoyed the 480th birthday of Antigua, Guatemala, during their visit, she was delighted to squeeze as much of Southern culture as she could in the few days of the girls’ reunion. Sara praised each taste, sight, and connection.

“Squeezing” was essential as Gracelyn, an Erin, Tennessee, native supports herself with a job at Bethel and offering lessons in both volleyball and pageant strategies. With eight siblings, she is accustomed to stretching a dollar and prior to college worked as a waitress, babysitter, barista, and personal coach. Earning the status of salutatorian at her high school and demonstrating skills on the volleyball court led to scholarships which she has appreciated as she maintains a 4.0 grade average and continues to excel in athletics and pageants – having placed in the Top 12 three times in Miss Tennessee Teen USA and, with a recent crown as Miss Paris Volunteer, will return to Miss Tennessee Volunteer for the third time.

Though Gracelyn had gone on cruises with her family as a child, she readily admits those trips were more focused on excursions on the beach rather than learning about culture. Her one other service adventure had been to Arizona with a church outreach to inner city children and youth. So, GCAC offered her first international travel service learning where she combined fluoride treatments and teaching how to use new toothbrushes with discovering Mayan ruins and weaving traditions.

As a biology major with the hope of graduating and attending medical school, searching for cavities with the effusively grateful children in Guatemala led her to reevaluate her values and seek to “find joy in little things.” But the biggest highlight was forming the friendship with Sara – and now having the relationship’s depth confirmed with the visit to Tennessee.

“If you had asked me as a student in Erin about international travel in my future, I would have thought you were insane,” she laughingly acknowledges. “But that’s what GCAC provides us small town kids – the ability to travel and travel with a purpose.”

The transformative power of travel is further revealed as Gracelyn shares that she now serves as a GCAC Ambassador, helping new program participants with the application process for scholarships, a key component of GCAC’s mission to ensure students with economic need can still participate in international experiences. Gracelyn also plans on a post-graduation trip to Italy with GCAC in 2024 and has already begun fundraising because as she says, “Who doesn’t want to go to Italy?”

She feels GCAC has opened her eyes to people and places she had not noticed before, a trait that will help her in her chosen career. 

“I love how the differences in people make us unique AND unify us,” she underscores. “I want to treat my patients in the same manner no matter where they come from.”

Diagnosed with a heart murmur at 12, Gracelyn has always been fascinated with the sound of a heartbeat. She says she even hugs a little tighter to make sure she gets in a couple of beats. Sara got a good, long hug when they parted, but Gracelyn is convinced that embrace will not be their last.  She’s had her heart set on being a heart surgeon since those early tests and still clings to her childhood dream of one day opening a hospital in a country in need. These days, however, it’s no longer just any old country.

Guatemala, Dr. Gracelyn Eaves may come knocking! 


Gracelyn Eaves (left) had plenty of heart-to-heart conversations with Sara Yuman (right), the GCAC translator assigned to the Guatemala trip in 2023. They were so connected that Sara Yuman determined she had to stop in McKenzie when a road trip post-a Wisconsin summer camp assignment had her heading through Tennessee. Four days of cultural exchange including an introduction to Sonic drink flavors, the Bethel campus, and the Sweet Tea Festival, ensured that Gracelyn’s commitment of “I got you, girl” when each was teaching the other their language was more than words.

<Sara Yuman at Sweet Tea Festival>

Sara Yuman got a taste of the Sweet Tea Festival when she recently visited West Tennessee to reconnect with Global Citizen Adventure Corps participants for whom she translated when they traveled to her home in Guatemala. The petting zoo ranked high on her list of delights as GCAC traveler and Bethel University student Gracelyn Eaves showed her the sights.



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