Long Way Home’s vision involves breaking this cycle of poverty that is hard to miss. In order to have a better sense of Long Way Home’s economic impact, I partnered with one of the local Peace Corps volunteers, Cyrus Sethna, to try to uncover some Comalapan employment data. Our goal was to determine where Long Way Home ranks as private employers in Comalapa as measured by number of Comalapans employed full-time.
We started our search at the Town Hall where Cyrus works. If the data we were looking for existed in Comalapa, the large yellow government building in the center of town was the place to find it. We covered practically every corner, conversing with employees and explaining our quest. One of the first things I noticed was how engaging my partner-in-crime was, and how much his colleagues clearly enjoyed his company. The other thing I noticed was that they were not terribly optimistic about our chances of finding this data. But, we talked to one energetic, cheerful man in an upstairs office who had an idea for us, which he wrote on a small piece of scratch paper and handed to Cyrus. It read, “INE: Instituto Nacional de Estadística” (National Institute of Statistics). A lead! And a promising lead, at that. How naïve I was in those days.We went downstairs and eagerly looked up this organization online in Cyrus’s office. We had no luck finding the exact data we were interested in, but, while navigating our way through INE’s reports, several unrelated statistics caught my eye. Here are a few, provided without commentary:
· The leading cause of death in Guatemala in 2012 was pneumonia (Caracterización Estadística República de Guatemala 2012, INE Estadísticas de Salud, November 2013, Guatemala. p. 17);
· In 2011, the government reported 53.7% poverty rate (Caracterización Estadística República de Guatemala 2012, INE. Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida -ENCOVI-, November 2013, Guatemala. p. 24);
· In 2012, 2,065,413 tons of solid waste were generated in Guatemala, a number that steadily increased during the previous 5 years (Caracterización Estadística República de Guatemala 2012, INE Estadísticas Ambientales, November 2013, Guatemala. p. 58).
Anywho, now back to the quest. Two emails and one voicemail to the INE later, all without response at the time of this posting, we decided to take matters into our own hands. Whereas my instinct was to say, “ehh, let’s wait to hear back from the INE,” Genevieve suggested we simply collect the data ourselves. And so began our encuesta (survey)!Typically, I am a wait-and-scope-out-the-situation type of guy, and try to take the most conservative path. This is something that I learned to question during my time with Long Way Home. As Crash Davis says in the movie Bull Durham, “Don’t think, it can only hurt the ball club.” Now obviously this takes things a little far. You can’t just move forward blindly – it is essential to plan and constantly examine your actions. However, so often action is better than non-action.
We planned to go to every big business we could think of in town and ask how many Comalapans they employed full-time. We enlisted the help of Cyrus’s wonderful host mom, Doña Juana. She is a welcoming, quick-to-laugh woman who works with a group called Reciclados Amistad (the local recycling center) in Comalapa. She also generally just knows what’s up around town, and was able to put us in touch with several of her friends who are local businessmen.In fact, the night before Cyrus and I planned to begin our encuesta, Doña Juana and I met with José Terreso – a former mayor of Comalapa who is currently involved in the agriculture business. He welcomed us into his living room and I explained the purpose of the visit. At first I felt outmatched and out-of-place, casually convening on sofas with the former mayor using my just-beginning-to-blossom Spanish. But this feeling quickly disappeared. He was very patient, and blithely chatted about the history and details of his business endeavors. We went on to discuss my role with Long Way Home and recycling. After thirty minutes of captivating conversation, he sent us out the door each carrying a beautiful flower – samples of what he was currently growing. What an informative and pleasant evening!
The next morning Cyrus and I decided to meet in front of one of the large banks in town, Banrural, to start the encuesta. We opened the reflective doors, greeted the shotgun-wielding security guard, and then passed through the second set of doors into the heart of the bank. After tentatively sitting in front of a vacant office for a while (at least, I was tentative – Cyrus was surely gung-ho), a bank representative courteously called us over to his booth. Cyrus handed him his Peace Corps business card, and we explained why us two yahoos strolled into the bank that morning. Lucky for us, he paid more attention to Cyrus’s business card than my lime-splattered work attire. After a brief cordial conversation, we had the information, shook hands, said thanks, and were out the door to continue the encuesta. We had equally pleasant and productive meetings at the rest of the businesses we approached that morning. In fact, I was amazed at how generous the representatives were with their time and attention, their willingness to share information.Eventually it was time to meet Doña Juana. Under the now-blazing sun, Cyrus and I followed his host mom a little ways out of the urban area of town, across a bridge and up a dirt hill. As we crossed the bridge, we saw another reminder of the importance of Long Way Home’s presence in the community: heaps of trash covering the banks of the creek under the bridge. But I digress, this is a story about gainful employment, not garbage, and my fearless editor will say this word count is too high as is, so let’s return to the tale at hand…Juana led us to a large blue gate in front of a building in the middle of cornfields right outside of town. We ended up sitting with the owner of this company (it has a super long name, abbreviated APAC-PNT) and chatting about their operations and what our survey was meant to accomplish. Here I learned how important regular employment is as part of our measure. The plant employs plenty of people, but for many of the workers, particularly the women who sort the berries, work is not available year-round. We were given a tour of their berry processing facility, and before we knew it, were walking out that large blue gate, each with a flat of blackberries in our arms – a delicious gift from the affable owner. To say that I wasn’t expecting to tour a processing plant at the start of Cyrus’s and my encuesta is quite the understatement. I had no inkling that such a facility even existed in the municipality of Comalapa!
This reinforced another lesson for me: adopting this proactive attitude doesn’t only just get things done, it can lead to surprises that may not have been possible with an overly cautious mindset. If we had waited to hear back from the INE, not only would we likely have no data, we would certainly have no blackberries. This is a small example for sure, and yet served as surprisingly powerful personal proof of how fruitful adopting this attitude can be.So, after conversing with representatives from all the major financial institutions, the biggest lumberyard, construction supply stores, La Despensa Familiar (the walmart-owned grocery store), the Supervisor Educativa (the Superintendent of Education), and more, Cyrus and I learned a whole bunch. By our estimates Long Way Home is the 6th largest private employer of Comalapans in the municipality. As a relatively informal survey taken only over the course of several days, our result must be taken with a grain of salt. Though there are several reasons to be optimistic that this number is in the ballpark. For starters, we had some smart, Comalapa-savvy minds involved: Cyrus with more than a year of Peace Corps service here under his belt, Cyrus’s host mom, my host parents, as well as one knowledgeable small-businesses owner. In any case, that is the number that we have until the INE gets back to us. Which, I hope happens – it seems this data has to exist, and I would love to check our results with the big dogs.
While our encuesta revealed a pretty high “score” relative to other local employers, I believe the more important takeaway is the fact that Long Way Home provides consistent employment in a town where only 14% of residents reported formal and permanent employment in 2009, the most recent census data available from the INE. In this and other ways, Long Way Home’s impact is truly felt in Comalapa. I am so happy to have been part of this impact, and I encourage others to take come and volunteer if they can! It’s been a pleasure blogging, folks. And for realz, ginormous thanks to Genevieve Croker for being the genius editor of Rockey’s Road.
by Nathan Rockey
Editor’s Note: Writer was advised to remove final sentence but is grateful for the sentiment.