Rockey’s Road: Family Matters

All work and no play...

All work and no play…

As a volunteer with Long Way Home, I am at Técnico Chixot, the school they’re building, from 7 to 4 every weekday. A chunk of my time is spent doing construction work (highlighted in my previous blog), a chunk obeying Genevieve’s every command as her intern (she’s the Director of Development), and the final chunk doing miscellaneous things like managing the water filtration system or helping out with English classes (see my inaugural blog for more on this theme). Work is awesome and fulfilling, but does not tell the whole story of my summer experience.

Unlike most volunteers with Long Way Home, I do not live at the volunteer house at Parque Chimiyá, but reside in town with a host family. It is about a fifteen-minute stroll from the school to my house. Long Way Home is close with this family, and my host dad, Donal, often picks up new volunteers from the airport. Donal and his wife, Ana, have two sons, Estuardo, who is eleven, and Alan, who is five. In addition to the taxi service that Donal operates, my family owns a small tienda (store) that is connected to their kitchen. Of the hundreds of tiendas in Comalapa that sell choco-bananos, I’m convinced that you won’t find a better version of this tasty treat than at Ana and Donal’s place.

Eating a choco-banano with Alan

Eating a choco-banano with Alan

My host family is even sweeter than those delicious choco-bananos that they serve. Estuardo taught me how to make birdcalls with my hands. Donal offers me advice, checks up on me if I’m sick, and is quick to provide comic relief. Besides always making delicious food, Ana gently corrects me when I make a mistake in Spanish and occasionally will have a treat waiting for me when I get home: some watermelon, Jell-O or a choco-banano. Alan is consistently so excited when I arrive home after work, and the first words out of his mouth are always, “¿Puedes jugar esta noche?” (Can you play tonight?)

Living with my host family has presented me with cool opportunities to explore the town and meet people. One Saturday in late July we all went to Ana’s mom’s house for lunch. Standing on the roof of her tall house in the center of town, you can look over most of urban Comalapa. Construction had just been completed and so about 25 family members were gathering for lunch to bless the home. I arrived with Donal and the two kids, and when we made it up to the roof, Ana was already cooking meat on an open fire with her sisters. I was last up the steps, and once I made it to the roof, Ana proclaimed, “Y aquí es mi hijo mayor” (And here is my oldest son). Roaring laughter ensued.

Once lunch was ready, we gathered on a lower level of the house and sat in plastic chairs in an elongated U shape around an altar. On my left sat Donal, and on my right a very friendly man whom I had just met. The mood was jovial as contented conversations filled the room. People ate the delicious lunch of tortillas and meat, and drank cold Cokes from a straw – a relaxing Saturday afternoon.

View from Ana's mom's roof. Photo credit: my fellow chair-wrecker

View from Ana’s mom’s roof. Photo credit: my fellow chair-wrecker

All of a sudden, the abrupt sound of a plastic chair snapping and its former occupant falling to the floor broke the tranquility. Yup, there I was, sitting on the floor, my broken chair behind me and every eye in the room looking at the mess. If they had somehow missed the tall blonde dude that was in their midst beforehand, they were for sure aware of me now.

Donal made sure that I was alright as I got up, and I was graciously provided with two chairs, stacked one on top of the other, as my new seat. While my face remained a deep strawberry color, my lunch mates resumed their conversations, an undercurrent of laughter permeating the room. It’s not every day a gringo destroys a chair during their family lunch.

Ten minutes after my fall, another plastic chair snapped. I checked beneath me to make sure I was still properly plopped atop my upright chair. Indeed, it wasn’t me this time, but rather a man on the other side of the U. Ana quickly turned to me and cheerfully said, “¡No eres el único!” (You’re not the only one!)

When people get up to leave a meal here, they say “muchas gracias” and everyone else responds with “Buen provecho.” When I said my thanks after this lunch, I substituted, “Muchas gracias por caerse” (thanks for falling) to my fellow chair-breaker. After lunch, the two of us had a long conversation on the roof about his police work and about what I was doing in Comalapa. He even offered to take my picture with the big white church in the background. It’s funny the kind of events that can open the door for more in-depth interactions. Surprises happen, man, and the only thing to do is to embrace the challenge, embarrassment, fatigue, or what-have-you and keep trucking forward. Good things will happen. The sudden snapping of my silla (chair) is far from the only thing in the last two months that has reinforced this idea.

I don’t go to their relatives’ houses and break chairs every weekend, but living with a host family, I am constantly able to use Spanish and learn about Comalapan life. Here is a jumbled assortment of some of the lessons I’ve learned during my homestay and while wandering around town:

First laundry attempt

First laundry attempt

· Laundry is not easy. The first time I did laundry, the results were far from superb. I had a bag of “Blanca Nieves” laundry detergent, the large pila at my host family’s house, and a medium-sized bucket at my disposal. Interestingly, my first instinct was to try to mimic the wash cycle of the machines from back home. I dumped my clothes in the bucket with a heaping scoop of detergent and water from the pila, and began mixing around the clothes under the water with my hands. The final result: incredibly starchy, detergent-smelling, still-brown clothes. I have since improved my laundry technique, mostly by realizing that there is a technique, and it is quite different from the Whirlpool machines back home.
· To get somewhere quickly, just hail a tuk tuk – the three-wheeled taxis that are constantly whizzing by in town, barely dodging people, dogs and cars. They will take you anywhere in town for Q3 (less than 50 cents), though sometimes you have to bump it up to Q4 or Q5 for a ride from my house to Parque Chimiyá (about a 25 minute walk).
· It’s astonishing how much noise pollution there is in town, especially for a relatively small place. Tuk tuks, dogs, roosters, motorcycles, blaring music, the propane gas salesman with his megaphone: “Zeta Gaaaaaaas”…
· If you go to a tienda and ask for an “agua” (water), they might hand you a Coke. To ensure you get water, you need to ask for “agua pura” (pure water).
· All tortillas here have two distinct sides – as in, there is a correct way to fold a tortilla. When Donal told me this, it blew my mind.
· Angry Birds has been so successful at infiltrating everything everywhere. Angry Birds clothing, Angry Birds toys, Angry Birds stickers, Angry Birds puzzles…It’s absurd.
· Sitting on a tiny plastic chair sipping from a steaming hot cup of atol from a street vendor is amazingly comforting and a great way to hang out in town.
Family photo in the courtyard

Family photo in the courtyard

· Playing Super Smash Bros doesn’t have to be the most competitive thing in the world. If Estuardo’s character knocks Alan’s off of the screen, they will both laugh hysterically.
· Tradition and customs here are very important – from religious practices to eating the same local dish every Saturday night. But this deserves a whole separate blog post…

My time with Donal, Ana, Estuardo and Alan in Comalapa has been a delightful and educational experience. When I walk through the wide wooden door after work today, Alan will come bolting through the red curtain over the entryway to the kitchen asking me if I can play tonight, I will chat with Donal, Ana and Estuardo, and then make my way to my room to take off my boots before dinnertime. I will be home.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Rockey’s Road: Keeping up with the Comalapans

Joel, Jugete, Axel and Marcos chillin' on the future art classroom.

Joel, Jugete, Axel and Marcos chillin’ on the future art classroom.

A little before 7 each weekday morning, I arrive at Técnico Chixot. I stroll past the future art classroom where the Comalapan greenbuilders are chillin’, waiting to start work. I say, “Buenos días, amigos”, and they respond likewise, enthusiastically adding several of the many nicknames that they’ve given me: colocho (curly-haired); dobladas (a delicious fried potato snack common in Comalapa); oso (bear); and Santa Claus (a large man who brings presents on Christmas). It’s rare that I am able to formulate a joke in Spanish on the spot, but yesterday morning when they exclaimed, “Dobladas,” I didn’t giggle, as I normally do, or flex my biceps. Instead I stopped suddenly, looked around frantically, and yelled, “¿DONDE?”, as if I was already thinking about snack time and ready to eat dobladas before work had started. Not the most complex joke, but they burst into laughter. Good start to the day. Woot.

Axel mixing cactus juice into the lime plaster.

Axel mixing cactus juice into the lime plaster.

Whether we’re pounding dirt into tires, cleaning styrofoam to make napalm, or preparing lime finishes by blending nopal (prickly pear) cactus and picking apart human hair, the awesomeness of this construction crew is regularly on display here at Técnico Chixot. And as a quick aside, I’d like to note how crazy each of those three activities would have sounded to me before coming to Guatemala, and how perfectly normal they seem now. In any case, it’s tough to describe just how meaningful it has been to work alongside this group of Comalapan guys this summer but here comes a try.

My high school varsity baseball coach, an incredibly insightful man brimming with life wisdom, constantly relayed a particular message to me and my group of baseball buddies: nothing is better than being part of a team, and we should cherish the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. At the time, my teenage ears just heard, “baseball team.” But that’s not what my coach said and certainly isn’t what he meant. Since hanging up the spikes, I have begun to grasp what he was really getting at. There are many teams to join beyond those that don caps and jerseys and run out onto a diamond.

Our nearby hills, minus torrential downpour, plus erupting volcano.

Our nearby hills, minus torrential downpour, plus erupting volcano.

One afternoon in late June (woah, time flies…where did July go?), I was hauling buckets from a big pile of dirt to Romeo and Josue, who were perched on top of the newest tire aula (classroom), pounding away with their sledgehammers. I was cruising – head damp with sweat under my Carleton College hat, rockin’ my new heavy-duty Carhartt pants, and feeling immune to any post-lunch fatigue. Suddenly Axel, who was working alongside me, drew my attention to the thick grey clouds that were moving swiftly over the edges of the nearby hills. The kind of clouds that mean certain torrential downpour. The crew surrounding me quickly discussed whether the rainstorm would reach us or pass by harmlessly. It was decided: The clouds were heading straight for us. As if a flip was switched, we all went from construction mode to tarp-covering mode. As Lars Battle eloquently told me on my first day in Guatemala, “water poses a problem when you’re building with dirt.” Axel and I rapidly worked to cover the big dirt pile with tarps, and then throw tires on the tarps to prevent them from blowing away.

In the middle of the chaos a thought occurred to me, “This seems strangely familiar…” But how could it? Seemingly everything about the situation was foreign to me: I was in Guatemela for the first time, I was speaking Spanish, and I was building a school…out of dirt-filled tires. Heck, I had never even owned a pair of Carhartt pants before! Why then, the déjà vu?

As fate would have it, after five minutes of scrambling with the tarps, the ominous clouds skirted around us and we hardly felt a drop of rain. It happens. Axel and I began to pull off the tarp, laughing about our miscalculation, and the source of the sense of familiarity dawned on me. How many times throughout my high school career did we rush out of the dugout at Taylor Field to cover the infield with that big grey tarp, trying to outrace the dark gloomy clouds lurking nearby in the Oregon sky? That brief period of commotion recalled in my mind these experiences with the baseball tarp. Looking around on this muddy hillside in Guatemala, it was clear that I was surrounded by new teammates.

Buckets, buckets, buckets.

Buckets, buckets, buckets.

Perhaps a more obvious example of teamwork are the cement pours. The two that I have been involved in have begun anti-climactically, with a group of workers scratching their heads around our aging, reluctant-to-start cement mixer. But once the mixer is churning it’s two hours of fast-paced, challenging, “all-hands-on-deck” work. Every person involved has a specific role, from shoveling gravel into buckets at one end of the line to smoothing the cement at the other. In between, people are dumping materials into the mixer, shoveling mixed cement into buckets, and hauling those buckets to the final destination.

We most recently poured cement at the base of the tire retaining wall surrounding the cistern. Throughout the pour I stood on top of the cistern as part of the bucket brigade. Full buckets of cement were carried from the mixer to Romeo and Hugo who were doing the finish work, and empty buckets were tossed around until they made their way back to the base of the mixer, ready to be refilled. It is important to move quickly, and if any one person slacks off, the whole operation suffers. In the midst of a cement pour, you get this feeling that if the team needed it, you could haul buckets of cement all day. Love it.

My mid-air bucket toss to Raul during the recent cistern cement pour.

My mid-air bucket toss to Raul during the recent cistern cement pour.

Coming to Guatemala, I was excited to be part of the construction team. I spent last summer recuperating from a major hip surgery, and was eager to use my muscles again. The work has not disappointed. I thoroughly love carrying tires, hauling dirt to pour into tires, or pounding that dirt into those tires. (Turns out, I’m a tire guy). I don’t know many things that are more satisfying than seeing a tire wall go up, knowing that you poured sweat and energy into it. But what I’m going to remember in the long run is not the sweat, blisters on my fingers, or the ratio of materials in the cement mix. Rather I will remember the pummus-rock-throwing contest I had with Josue and Giovanni. The way Jugete yelled, “Dobladas,” when he saw me in town, instantly making me feel at home on the streets of Comalapa. That time I tripped on a tire on the retaining wall above the cistern, causing the half of the crew that witnessed it to laugh mercilessly. The fervent look on Raul’s face as he whistled for me to chuck him empty buckets during the cement pour. When the whole crew cooked a delicious lunch of meat and tortillas for the volunteers and staff. And the list goes on.

Goofing around with Josue.

Goofing around with Josue.

To be sure, the tire-pounding and dirt-hauling are essential: they are what produce this sustainable school, and ultimately bring the team together every day. But, as extraordinary as these buildings made of trash are, it’s the Comalapan crew here that impresses me the most. They inspire me daily to work as hard as possible by constantly displaying their astounding work ethic, are patient with me as I try to use Spanish on site, and embrace me as part of their team – something that could easily become a drag for them with all of the gringo volunteers that come through. I may be a long way from baseball practice, but the lesson from my coach still resonates and I feel so lucky to be a part of this team.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Rockey’s Road: Build-a-Bear Workshop

My "Rockey Road" to work each day.

My “Rockey Road” to work each day.

One of my first memories of working as an intern with Long Way Home, which I’m doing for a little over two months this summer, was Sarah Mykkänen describing NGO management work as being able to learn on the fly and “just get it done.” She said that here you will often be assigned a task outside of your expertise or comfort zone. As an example, she said she was currently learning to properly calculate payroll taxes, a first for her. This isn’t a story about taxes, thank goodness, but it certainly connects to Sarah’s advice.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lounging in my favorite chair in the kitchen at the school site, (the same one in which I am currently seated, in fact) when Sarah came in with that classic goofy smirk on her face. She told Ben Smith, sitting in the chair adjacent to me, “The fifth grade teacher wants to build a bear out of tires.” Once Ben’s initial confusion waned, they began to discuss logistics, such as whether they could spare a member of the crew to help the class in the construction process. Then Ben turned to me and said, “Nate Dogg, wanna build a bear?”

So, I showed up to work on the morning of Friday, July 25th eager to begin work on the bear. Equipped with a picture of the bear that we were trying to emulate and a zealous overconfidence about my construction capabilities, I embarked on the build-a-bear workshop, Guate-hilltop-style.

Tires organized into "weaves."

Tires organized into “weaves.”

The first order of business was to scan the neatly organized tires (shout out to Matthew “Joben” Haynes for his mastery of the tire weave technique) for the perfect five that would constitute the bear: two for the feet, one for the head, a larger camión (truck) tire for the body, and one wide tire that could be used to cut out the arms and ears.

After consulting the construction assistant, Dori Lavy, about the structure of the bear, my plan was to support the bear structure with a big metal pole that we would slide through each tire and then sledgehammer into the ground. So, the next step was to drill holes in the head tire and body tire. Due to the sheer thickness of the metal wire layer inside the tires and to several untimely battery malfunctions, it was surprisingly difficult to drill big enough holes for the one-inch metal pole. The camión tire proved to be especially frustrating and time-consuming, as it was the largest and had the most metal inside.

Our bear's inauspicious beginnings.

Our bear’s inauspicious beginnings.

Eventually, after I had made decent progress with the holes, I chatted quickly with the fifth grade teacher, Delmy Edith, so we could get on the same page. She showed me two beautiful, circular pieces of wood that she had brought for the body and the head of our bear. This was a game changer, for I was very unsure about my ability to make the face and body look good. But, then I had a devastating realization: the camión tire that I had chosen was much too big for the circle of wood. So, I went back up to the weaves of tires, and chose an appropriately sized camión tire for the body and started the drilling process again. Inside, I was irate at myself for my lack of foresight and for wasting time.

So, there I was, drilling furiously into camión tire numero dos, when a fellow volunteer, Bailey Robbins, came bouncing down the tire stairs. “Nate Dogg, I’m here to help with the bear!”, she said with a big smile on her face. This was Bailey’s first day of her second stint as a Long Way Home volunteer, in addition to being her 24th birthday. Bailey could tell I was frustrated with myself, especially about wasting time drilling a hole in the unusable tire. She wasted no time cheering me up, saying, “Someday, someone is going to pick up this tire and notice that there is no water in it and think, ‘thank goodness for that hole!’”. This not only made me laugh, but after picking up many tires full of water during my time with Long Way Home, it didn’t even seem like an absurd thought. What an amazing ability that laughter and camaraderie have to clear your head and reignite your gumption!

At the end of the first day, we had made much less progress than I initially anticipated, but morale was high. “Heck,” I thought to myself, “I’m in Guatemala building a bear out of tires…How cool is that?!”

Our bear learns to stand.

Our bear learns to stand.

Over the course of the next week, Bailey and I merrily continued work on the bear for several hours a day. It turned out to be much more complex than I had imagined; we had to think about leveling the ground, making drainage holes for the tires, applying water sealant to the wood, making shims (a new word for me), and working with finishing screws.

On Friday, one week after we had started, we were ready to put finishing touches on the bear and paint it with Delmy Edith’s class. Kids in other grades would run up to us and ask about the bear, curious about our endeavor. When I asked one of these inquisitive schoolchildren what he thought about the bear, he looked at it from head to foot (I typed “toe” at first…but our bear is, indeed, toeless) and responded, “Muy bien” (very good).

Painting with the class. Delmy Edith is in the orange sweater.

Painting with the class. Delmy Edith is in the orange sweater.

I would not be surprised if I never “build-a-bear” out of tires again in my whole life. Perhaps slightly disappointed, but unsurprised nonetheless. So, my newly acquired ability to drill holes into tires or make shims to screw circles of wood into tires may remain forever dormant. But, of course, that’s not what is important. Building the bear is not a story about shims and finish screws. It is a story about meeting challenges with ingenuity, working as a team, turning trash into art, and being part of a bigger process. I am very blessed that Delmy Edith decided to build a bear, and trusted Bailey and me to be her helpers.

Standing next to the Garita at the entrance to the school, the bear is a small facet of Técnico Chixot’s exceptional landscape, greeting anyone who walks up to the school with a big smile.

by Nathan Rockey
LWH Intern

Bailey and Nathan with current and future students.

Bailey and Nathan with current and future students.

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.



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 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