Nothing Small About Micro-Credit

Even after a difficult cement pour, Raul's got his smile.

Even after a difficult cement pour, Raul’s got his smile.

Guatemala is filled with the indigenous Maya people like Raul, one of the NGO Long Way Home’s employees. Over the course of my weeks volunteering at the school construction site, I never saw Raul without a genuine smile on his face and a tool in his hand. Raul is one of countless survivors of Guatemala’s volatile history. He also happens to be one of the first recipients of Long Way Home’s new microcredit program.

Ever since learning that microcredit existed, I thought it would be a great way to help at-risk populations work their way out of poverty. I was so excited by this concept that I told everyone I knew about it. I was even able to convince my incredible wife, Stephanie, to give a portion of money that we received at our wedding to this idea.

All of my professors were in support of my interest too. As with most things, a particular professor stood out among the rest. Professsor Connie Daniel invited me to teach a class dedicated to this pilot microcredit program. She also set up a grant from Westfield State University to fund this program.

I was so energized by this grant that I told my friends at Long Way Home. They agreed that it would fit in with Long Way Home’s vision as a nonprofit. Genevieve Croker, the organization’s Director of Development, took it under her wing and used her expertise to create the program. Connie and I were able to provide $3,000 in seed funding to provide small loans when I arrived in March.

Raul and his relatives work weekends on the new kitchen, made from hand-crafted adobe bricks.

Raul and his relatives work weekends on the new kitchen, made from hand-crafted adobe bricks.

In the first process, we awarded three loans, one of which went to Raul. He is using the money to build his family a bathroom, and a kitchen with a fuel-efficient, ventilated stove. This stove will replace the cooking fire that currently billows smoke in his home.

The folks at Long Way Home are here to help Comalapa – a remarkable town with a rich Mayan heritage. It’s clear to me that Long Way Home exists to support the community while it heals itself from tragedy and moves above the poverty line with its identity intact.

by Alex Sinclair
LWH Volunteer, Donor and MicroLoan Committee Member

Fidelia’s Kitchen

One of my favorite things about getting settled in a new place is getting to know new people. I have found, in my travels, that the best way to really enjoy any new place is to get an insider’s perspective on the location. Do they have a favorite breakfast spot…who do they buy their produce from….where would they spend a sunny afternoon? As time moves on and I transition from getting settled to being settled, there is a shift in the kind of insights I am looking for. I no longer need tips on where to get produce or where to spend a sunny afternoon…my attention has turned to developing friendships with my neighbors….enter Fidelia.

~Fidelia~

Fidelia

For those of y’all that have spent some time with Long Way Home, the name Fidelia will instantly resonate, but for those who have not had a chance to visit our project, a little introduction is in order. Fidelia is our neighbor. She lives near the park that many of our staff & volunteers call home while they are here in Comalapa. She is the proprietress of a little tienda (store) that provides us with things like cookies, fresh eggs, bread & beverages. However, our relationship with her extends far beyond that of vendor & buyers…Fidelia is a part of our family here in Guatemala….& that is a wonderful blessing.

I met Fedelia many years ago, on my first visit here. She instantly struck me as a kind, delightful person with a spunky nature that brought me smiles. Even though I didn’t understand much of what she was saying….a result of my extremely poor Spanish & her thick Mayan accent…I knew instantly that I liked her. With each returning visit Fidelia & I invested a little more in our relationship. Once I moved south & started calling Comalapa home, our friendship started to blossom even further.

Here a chick, there a chick

Here a chick, there a chick

Here, many families have tiendas that occupy the front room of their houses…Fidelia is no different. Walking through the sea foam green doors of her modest shop, you get a glimpse of her home through the back doorway. Chickens, scratching the ground for gnats & such, strutting past the door….or sometimes, into the tienda. Her dogs, Clifford & Opín…lounging in the sun…or mingling with Juancho (my pup) & whichever other LWH dogs I have in tow at the time. But what started as an (almost) daily exchange of small talk, me standing on one side of the counter, her on the other, has evolved into a much more familiar exchange. These days, when I walk through the door of Fidelia’s tienda it has become more common that I will end up in her kitchen than that she will come out to attend the counter.

This is where things get really good….in Fidelia’s kitchen…or some other room of her house. Over the past couple of years I have spent a good portion of my time with Fidelia working alongside her while we chat. Not one to sit & watch, I have often jumped into whatever chore she happens to be doing when I stop by. As a result I have “mastered” (my words…certainly not hers) several tasks that are a part of everyday life in these Mayan hills.

It started with an invitation to dinner. Watching her effortlessly make tortillas, I asked to help. I was granted one attempt…that ended with my tortilla on the floor. After a few seconds of begging, Fidelia let me try again, which ended in being told that my tortillla was “casi bueno” (almost good), that I was not allowed to make anymore & I would have to eat the one I’d already made….yikes! From there…a few cooking lessons regarding local delights. I am now able to cook yerba…a leafy green with little yellow flowers that is quite delightful. Also, güisquil (wiskil) a strange little vegetable that is a common ingredient in soups…but sadly, doesn’t have much flavor…although with Fidelia’s preparation instructions that has changed…yummie! In case you are wondering…a decent Guatemalan tortilla has not been successfully produced by these hands.

~güisquil on the vine~

Güisquil on the vine

Not too long ago she taught me how to shuck dried corn without damaging the husks, which are used to make chuchitos (tamale-like food item). I have shucked corn by the bushels…so I know my way around a corn husk…but this task was new to me…& there was a learning curve…but by the third go I had it down… mostly…. according to Fidelia. The time before that, we were preparing food for her chickens…& before that…shelling beans. Always something new to learn….& she is a patient teacher offering lots of guidance….although she is not quick to compliment…if she does extend praise, you can be sure it is genuine.

While some of our time together is occupied with household tasks, there are times when we just hang out in the kitchen, listen to music on her little radio & chat. The talking is really the most fun. Granted, it can be a little complicated at times…my Spanish is improving but there is still much I need to learn….this inevitably frustrates both of us. Several times we have spent a moment or two expressing that frustration…her in Kaqchikel (the Mayan language of these parts that is the first language of most of our neighbors) & me in English. After a few minutes of ranting in our own native languages – that the other doesn’t understand – we both pause, smile & giggle with each other…perfection.
Victor (1)

By Lisa Massey
Office Manager, LWH

Live from Lobo: Finding My Skill Set

P1030982What kind of value can I offer as a team member when you strip me from my corporate resume list of skills and expertise? How does my lean six sigma training translate into what I am doing now? Within the group dynamic, what strengths will I be viewed as having?

These are questions I have asked myself throughout the first week. My mastery of Microsoft Excel or technical knowledge of using ERP systems would offer me little aid in helping physically build a school. I am no construction worker. I have little-to-no experience in masonry carpentry, welding, or electrical work.

The LWH staff has been nothing but supportive and open to allowing me to blaze my own path and figure things out for myself. If a task is given to me, it is given with minimal instruction, which allows for a prime learning opportunity. The one thing I can do is ask questions, learn quickly, and proactively seek where I can add the most value to the projects at hand.

P1030451“How’s Activity X coming along?” asks one of the staff during our morning break. (Replace Activity X with the project du juor; e.g. tire removing, mud digging, door making, cob mixing.)

“Making progress,” I respond.

This seems to be my default response. The activities I have worked on always initially appear to be simple and quick but once started I discover they are riddled with challenges and learning opportunities. “How the heck do I make a door for a curved wall out of reused wood and screws?”

I approach the current project with a fresh mind and body the next morning and collect feedback others, my plan for the day often changes. For these reasons I have grown accustomed to taking life and my work here one day at a time. It’s hard to predict what challenge or opportunity might spring up later that day. Despite this unpredictability, it’s extra gratifying to know that whatever happens, I can conquer it, and ultimately make progress on the task at hand.bamboo jake

Live from Lobo: Daily Commute

photo 1 Coming from a large metropolitan city, my daily commute was always a challenge to my time management and energy management skills. Fighting traffic for at least a half hour, I would arrive in the office already exhausted. Long Way Home has offered me a chance to hit the “reset button” with my morning commute.

The volunteer house is located at the Parque Ecologico Chimiyà. To get to the school on foot, the main path is up through the park, through corn and strawberry fields, up a dirt road and then smaller dirt path, then through a forest. The first time I walked this path all I could think about was how long and hard of a walk it was. After the first day, this morning commute proved to be much more. photo 3
I often try to make the trek on my own which allows me time to take in the beauty of the countryside without interruptions. It also helps me mentally prepare for the challenging and physically demanding day ahead.

The air is fresh. Fog lingers in the valleys. Rooster crows and lively bird chirps are heard from all directions. A local farmer shuffles off with a machete in hand. The soft bristle of corn stalks welcomes the sun. The pine needle-covered floor crunches as I take the final steps before I reach the school grounds. Upon arrival at the school I am calm, collected, and ready to take on the day.

photo 2
The afternoon commute takes on a different vibe. Normally my fellow volunteers and I walk down the same path together, triumphant from what we have accomplished that day. As exhausted as we may be, nobody complains about the distance we must walk. At this hour of the day the sun is close to setting, which showers the hillside landscape with a brassy-yellow tint.

There is no smog on this commute. There is no road rage. It’s only me, my fellow volunteers, and nature. This lovely routine is one of the many highlights of my time with LWH.

Live from Lobo: Volunteer House

photo 3I went to a university where our dorms were called residential colleges and very much like the Hogwarts sorting hat in Harry Potter, new students were randomly assigned to a residential college. It was often said that the residential college shapes the students and the college dynamic as much as the students shape the residential college. The same is true about the LWH volunteer house. The volunteer manual provides a decent description of the volunteer house. Structurally the house is very basic. There are very few luxuries. You know the cliché response of one being “grateful to have a roof over his head, running water, and electricity”? That’s basically the idea of what we have here.

The cinderblock walls are hand-painted with flowers, a map of the park, a portrait of Che, instructional trash disposal signs, as well as inspirational quotes. Many hands have left their impression on the house over the years. A considerable assortment of books and boardgames fill the bookshelf.

photo 4As for the volunteers that fill the house, it all depends on the overlap of volunteer schedules and from what walk of life comes the volunteer. I have had the pleasant fortune of volunteering with a lovely group of people. Some may call us a colorful cast of characters. There are six of us in the house at this moment: two Canadians, two Australians, one American, and one Texan.

The volunteer house offers the space and the resources in which we fill it with life. The space has become our place to restore our bodies and spirits. The classic morning routine can be described as a quiet preparation for the day. The early evenings take on a more lively dynamic as dinner is prepared for all. After dinner the soft ambiance lights are turned on and the chill tunes are cranked up as we swap world adventures and tell riddles.

photo 1There are many opportunities to play Mr. Fix-It around the house. It has been fun to strategize and brainstorm solutions as a group. Despite the lack of the modern day comforts we have grown accustomed to, the volunteer house has become a true home. Just like during my university years, the volunteer house has been shaped by the volunteers just as much as the volunteers have been shaped by the volunteer house.

By Jacob Lopez
LWH Volunteer
Houston, TX

Live From Lobo: First Impressions

photo 1“I’m going to the school that is made out of the earth and tires,” I told the tuk-tuk driver as I wedged my large suitcase, dufflebag, backpack and myself into his tiny three-wheeled taxi. He confirmed he knew the location and hastily sped up the dusty Comalapa streets. After a two hour “chicken bus” ride from Guatemala City to Comalapa (yes, there was a basket of chickens on my bus), this tuk-tuk ride was the final segment of my journey.

An inviting hand-painted sign and a small, lime-washed, rounded building marked the entrance to Centro Educativo Los Tecnicos Chixot. A few paces inside stood an impressive group of classrooms and offices. Each area of the exterior held the gentle mark of a human touch. Beautiful mosaic designs and animal sculptures decorated the walls of the buildings. Struck by this beauty, I didn’t immediately acknowledge the staff whom were waiting to welcome me just a few feet away.photo 2

I had arrived at the perfect time, 16:00 on a Friday, the official start to the weekend. After meeting the staff and volunteers, I followed a group from the school to the volunteer house. We walked down the dirt road I had just zipped up with the tuk-tuk. As I struggled to roll my city-made suitcase down the road peppered with rocks, pot holes and mud puddles, I received a flurry of information from a staff member about the town, the volunteer program and the current projects. Through the park entrance a cozy, hand-painted cinderblock house was tucked away on the corner of the property. I was greeted by more staff and volunteers relaxing on the patio, which serves as the dining room and common area. My bedroom proved to be pleasantly Spartan. After throwing my bags in my room I joined the group to relax and properly send off two volunteers ending their time with LWH in Guatemala.

photo 3That night provided an ideal opportunity to get to know most of my new “colleagues” and hear firsthand accounts of local adventures. This was a great way to start off my time with LWH in Guatemala!

By Jacob Lopez
LWH Volunteer
Houston, TX

Making Some Changes

Try to focus on the starfish rather than litter.

Try to focus on the starfish rather than litter.

It’s certainly been a thrilling couple of months since I last reported out on mi vida centroamericana. For one thing, I finally made it to Panama! What an amazing country…tiny red dart frogs, lazy sloths, giant starfish, the Panama Canal, delectable ceviche…the list goes on. On this trip I got to stuff myself with lobster and other treats, see gorgeous sights, visit with a wonderful family, and, drum roll please, SCUBA!

As it turns out, I don’t really scuba well; I can’t equalize the pressure in my head. Also, I’m terrified of being eaten by a shark. As I floated along several feet above the rest of the group, trying to ignore the lightning daggers of pain in my brain, I was distracted by a large floating mass to my left. Keeping my breathing calm, I slowly turned my head to get a better view. SHARK! HUGE SHARK! No wait, it’s a manatee. Do they have manatees here? No, it’s not a manatee.

Learning all the signals and how to share oxygen.

Learning all the signals and how to share oxygen.

I look to the guide. He is making the gesture for “come down to me” and “look at the scary thing on your left.” But I can’t go any deeper! My head hurts so much. I am going to be eaten by a shark while my boyfriend floats blithely below me, looking at the pretty parrot fish! So I do the only thing that makes sense. I close my eyes, turn slowly 180 degrees, and begin calmly dog paddling back to the boat, humming a cheerful tune, knowing it will be the last sound I hear before the crunching of my bones.

Turns out it was a barracuda. I’m just as glad I didn’t know because I’ve read me some Carl Hiaasen and I know what a barracuda can do. The fact that it was the size of a life raft means its teeth were that much larger than the one that ate the man’s hand along with his shiny watch in that story.

Eyli and Helen estan caminando!!

Eyli and Helen estan caminando!!

Just as we were returning from Panama, another Long Way Home staffer was coming back after an inspiring journey to the States. You may remember last year when I wrote about one of our students, Helen, who has brittle bone syndrome. On July 14th, she and her sister Eyli, accompanied by our very own Liz Howland, returned to Guatemala and a different life here. While neither girl can yet walk unaided, they both received extensive treatment at Shriners in Philadelphia and are able to get around with walkers in addition to their wheelchairs. They still have a difficult journey ahead but the hope is that with further physical therapy, and possibly another surgery for Eyli, they will be able to walk with braces or completely unaided. Watching them walk for the first time in front of their cheering classmates was a moment I’ll never forget.

The Lovely Couple

The Lovely Couple

In other news, a bunch of the Long Way Home crew went to Boston over Labor Day weekend. In addition to having a great joint staff and board meeting at the home of our board president, Elizabeth, we also had the pleasure of watching two of our teammates get hitched. Aaron, former staff now board member, and Ericka, former architect still huge LWH fan, got married in a lovely lakeside setting on August 31st. As they met through Long Way Home, we all felt extra proud to see them declare their love and reaffirm their commitment to the project. Okay, the commitment to the project wasn’t really a part of the ceremony, but LWH love was all around :)

In addition to Long Way Home business and pleasure, I got to spend time with my siblings, niece, in-laws and parents while I was in New England. Every time I see my family I am reminded again how truly big I hit the jackpot in the birth lottery. We may snap at each other from time to time, but overall we’re a generous, hilarious, intelligent, good-lookin’ bunch. Thanks for helping me re-boot, Fam!

At our LWH meeting we decided to do a little staff shuffling and I’m pleased as punch to announce that I am now the Director of Development. This means no more supervising or worrying about day-to-day operational decisions. From now on I get to focus on the fun stuff, i.e marketing and fundraising!!! I can spend even more time playing with photos, writing blogs and newsletters, learning how to edit videos and honing my grant writing skeelz. Note to self: do not use cutesy spellings for grant applications.

Glass bottle cupola on second primary school classroom.

Glass bottle cupola on second primary school classroom.

I’m back again in Guatemala and work continues much as it ever does. We now have a gorgeous cupola on the second primary school classroom. The exterior finish work is progressing on all three primary classrooms as are the stairs up the second stories of the buildings. I have some loose ends to tie up before I can be Ops-free but I have already been able to spend more time behind the camera taking stills and trying to improve my live action shots for our editors back in the US.

The rain continues to fall, the corn continues to rise, the children continue to shriek all morning and yet, change is ever in the air. I want to thank everyone for their continued support for this project that is so dear to my heart. I think of the people who have touched my life everytime a child smiles…

So they don't always smile when I put the camera in their face :P

So they don’t always smile when I put the camera in their face :P

by Genevieve Croker
Director of Development, LWH

Local Students Hit the Rubbish Runway

Our own students were stylin’ last month in their very own Rubbish to Runway reFashion Show. They created their own upcycled fashions from found materials and discarded rubbish. The teachers helped them with the technical know-how to construct their outfits. The technology needed for these creations will remain a closely guarded trade secret, but let’s just say that glue sticks and a hot candle were heavily implicated.

IMG_3240On the far left, is a radiant Roxanna in her shiny dress made of woven Frito Lay material. Wide strips were used for the bodice and narrow woven strips used for the skirt, giving it a fun fringe effect. Her hair is studded with hair clips made from wooden pencils also interwoven with her shredded dress material.

Karla is rockin’ out on the right in a pleated fit and flared dress that falls discreetly to her knees. It is constructed from a Dior-inspired fabric called “Yesterday’s News.”

In the far back is Delia sporting an A-line Bag Dress fittingly made from chip bags. Closer scrutiny would also reveal bangles and bobbles of Bag Jewelry on her bejeweled arms.

I can see that each girl is resplendent in their original designs and each has developed the deportment of a high fashion model. My only regret is that their dresses didn’t last long enough to be sent to Massachusetts for our big event. But if you like this show you will love our Rubbish to Runway reFashion Show on Saturday, October 19 at Nicholson Hall in Newburyport, MA. For more information and tickets write to Elizabeth Rose.

Elizabeth Rose
President, LWH Board

Camp for Kids in Comalapa

Founder of NDL, Arlaine Cervantez (at right), with conference attendee, Ana Maria Ackermans.

Founder of NDL, Arlaine Cervantez (at right), with workshop attendee, Ana Maria Ackermans.

Recently Genevieve and I traveled to Lake Atitlan to attend an event hosted by the organization Niños del Lago (NDL). This workshop brought together representatives from 12 education oriented institutions, both nonprofits and schools, operating in the western highlands of Guatemala to discuss a new summer camp program being made available to our older primary school students. Founded in 2000 by USA native Arlaine Cervantez, Niños del Lago is based in Panajachel, on the shore of the lake, and is developing a 6-acre property set up in the hills above the city.

One of the dorm rooms for campers.

One of the dorm rooms for campers.

Although only 65% of the construction has been completed to date, we were given the tour of the property and it looks like it will be a great space for campers once it’s finished. With its six colorful bunkhouses that, once completed, will house 75 total campers and a variety of others buildings designed to minimize their environmental impact, the site plan and envisioned camp experience strive to promote the same empowerment and stewardship mentality that Long Way Home is trying to cultivate here in Comalapa. We were really pleased to participate in the 2-day workshop with other school representatives, to whom we now feel connected, where we shared our different perspectives and experiences, and worked together to help NDL shape the camping experience they’re planning to offer to our students. I came away from the weekend with a happy feeling that our students are in for a real treat once they get their chance to spend a week at the camp!

Lars Battle
Community Development Liaison, LWH

Rubbish to Runway reFashion Show Spotlights Trash on Runway

RR Blog 2Colorful used scarves will be crimped, crinkled and curled to decorate this year’s Rubbish to Runway reFashion Show. Created three years ago to highlight the many uses of waste, a fundraising fashion show of trash-inspired designs springs from a Newburyport, Massachusetts runway each October. To create the right mix of elegance and trash a committee meets monthly throughout the year to plan. This year scarves, twisted flowers and tin cans have been selected to be primary design elements in the decorations.

Committee member and designer/model Jen Dryden suggested that scarves collected from various Salvation Army outlets and vintage clothing stores could be swirled and crimped and hung to create an element of haute couture to the show.

Annabell Dryden, committee member and a two-year veteran designer/model, suggested the use of newspaper flowers and tin cans for the table tops.

RR Blog 1Fifteen artists have registered to design an outfit from trashed materials. Used bicycle tubes, bottle caps, papier-måché and the ubiquitous plastic bag have all been spotted on runways past.

Committee members Jennifer Dryden, Annabell Dryden, Jill Regensburg and Pete Djpj Paraskevas agree Long Way Home’s 2013 Rubbish to Runway reFashion Show is stacking up to be another successful event.

The show will be held from 6:30 PM to 9:00 PM on Saturday, October 19 at Nicholson Hall, 7 Harris Street, Newburyport, MA 01950. The cost will be $35/person and special rates for parties of 10 or more. Please contact Elizabeth Rose elizabeth@lwhome.org for more information, 978-807-2492.