José Oswaldo López Toj’s incredible journey to becoming a teacher

By Jenifer Valey Gomez, Voces y Manos program coordinator; translated by Josh Hoerger and Michael Bakal

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José Oswaldo López Toj, age 21, is a recent graduate of Voces y Manos’ high school scholarship program, and one of two students in our college scholarship and internship program. Over the past 3 years, José has worked tirelessly to manage his work and his studies, while supporting his grandparents. José’s parents died at a young age, and his grandparents who raised him can no longer tend to their farm as they once did. As a teenager, José has thus had to take on the triple responsibilities of student, teacher, and family breadwinner. All along, he has found motivation in his dream of becoming a bilingual elementary school teacher. This year, and with the help of Voces y Manos, he took a huge step closer to achieving that dream.

This year — his third and final year of high school — was especially challenging as his high school, Rabinal’s teacher training academy known locally as “La Normal,” placed him in an apprentice teaching position where he was given responsibility for teaching an elementary school class. On mornings, José would teach his class of 20 children at the local school in his village, then rush home to prepare lunch for his grandparents. After lunch, he would change out of his teacher uniform and into his student uniform to attend classes at La Normal. Exhausted after a full day of teaching and studying, Jose would once again return home to prepare dinner for himself and his grandparents. After dark, José would work on his lesson plans for the following day, and finally, his own homework.

Weekends brought some rest from the grind of the week but also their own set of responsibilities: helping his grandparents tend to their chickens and the crops they grow on their small plot of land. To earn spending money for the week, José sells eggs to his neighbors. He also helps his grandparents sell peanuts, and, when they are in season, jocotes (a local citrus fruit), which he seasons with salt, lemon and chili and sells to his classmates before and after school.

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At times these multiple demands were so great that José considered dropping out of school to devote himself entirely to supporting his grandparents. It was in those moments that the Voces y Manos staff provided him with emotional support, encouraging him to continue with his studies, and also provided him a bit of extra cash to offset some of his expenses. Thanks to his constant efforts, the help of Voces y Manos, and ongoing encouragement of his grandparents, José was able to maintain excellent grades.

Not only was José able to graduate this past year, but he remarkably did so as the abanderado (literally the “flag carrier”), the top student in his class. To celebrate his achievements and thank Voces y Manos, José’s grandparents hosted an end-of-year lunch, to which they invited Voces y Manos staff and all its students. When we asked José about how Voces y Manos has helped him, José answered:

“Voces y Manos has given me the support to be all I can be and has been by my side throughout. You can’t give someone the world, but they have done that for me.”

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 José’s achievements would not have been possible without the support of Voces y Manos’ supporters. A monthly stipend of 200 Quetzales (about $30 per month) helped cover transportation expenses, teaching supplies, part of José’s own food, access to a computer, internet and printing. The recent completion of his education degree serves not only as a testament to the incredible dedication that José brings to his daily work but also highlights how even the most modest support opens new doors for those who dream of supporting their families and bettering their communities.

Now, José is completing a work-study internship through a partnership between Voces y Manos and another local NGO called Cáritas. The money José earns through his internship is allowing him to pursue his next dream: becoming a licensiado en pedagogía, or a credentialed, college-educated teacher.

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Life Lessons from Genocide Survivors: The Story of the Tum Pérez Family

When I first travelled to Rabinal, Guatemala 10 years ago, I was so deeply inspired by the history of the community — and in particular its young people — that I’ve returned each of the past 10 summers since. This year, I once again had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of young leaders. Although all of Voces y Manos’ students live in the municipality of Rabinal and most speak the local Maya-Achí language, they live in different villages, and each of these villages has its own unique history. To explore these rich histories, we do an activity called Photovoice in which our students use digital cameras to identify and document the strengths they are most proud of in their communities.

I love this activity because it helps our students further develop a positive image of themselves and their Maya-Achí culture. On a more personal note, I’m always impressed by the depth of our students’ knowledge about their culture and inspired by the wisdom we learn from the families we meet.

This year, Voces y Manos’ summer intern Lindsey Moore and I had the remarkable opportunity to join Lizbeth Tum Pérez, an outgoing 15-year old in this year’s program, on a tour of her community of Pacux (prounounced Pah-Coosh). The highlight of the tour was when Lizbeth introduced us to her mother, Doña Anselma, an expert weaver whose life reflects her community’s resiliency in the face of an unimaginably violent past. As Doña Anselma showed us her artwork, she began to share her life story as well. Partway through our conversation, we were joined by her husband, Romualdo Tum Iboy, and through their intersecting stories, we learned how their humble town became the backdrop for a disturbing chapter in Guatemalan history.

Doña Anselma Perez

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Doña Anselma sits barefooted, with her legs extended on the floor. A small backstrap loom is wrapped around her waist as she speaks with us. She shows us a beautiful variety of weavings: brightly colored coin purposes, traditional fajas (belts worn by women) and bracelets. Doña Anselma explains that she learned to weave from her mother, and that her artwork was both a means of subsistence and of keeping alive a tradition passed down over generations.

Doña Anselma was born in a remote hamlet high in the mountains above Rabinal called Canchún, in the year 1981. This was an infamous period in Guatemalan history, and her village was near the epicenter of a human rights conflict of seismic proportions. Cachún is one of 30+ indigenous communities near the banks of the Chixoy River whose residents’ culture and way of life was deeply tied to the river. In the late 1970s, their lives were completely upended when the Guatemalan government announced plans to build a massive hypdroelectric dam that would flood and displace the communities along the river. Despite the fact that the dam project had been years in the making and involved hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign (largely U.S.) investment, the affected communities were never consulted nor given a chance to voice their concerns. When some residents refused to obey orders to relocate from their ancestral lands, the entire community was labeled subversive, terrorist, and an enemy of the state. To make way for the dam and to supress those who opposed it, the government and paramiltary forces mercilessly slaughtered hundreds of innocent people in Canchún and its neighboring villages.

Doña Anselma’s father was one of the victims of this campaign of mass terror and violence. Early one morning while her mother and siblings were out of the house, the military assassinated her father in front of their home. Doña Anselma explains that the reason she is alive today is that her mother, then nine months pregnant, was able to escape from the military by hiding in a dried river bed. It was there in hiding that she gave birth to Doña Anselma. I ask if anyone accompanied her mother at the time of her birth. “¡Nadie!” Doña Anselma replies, “Ninguna comadrona; solo mi hermano de nueve años estuvo allí.” (“Nobody! No midwife, only my brother, who was 9 years old was there.”)

“¡Nadie! Ninguna comadrona; solo mi hermano de nueve años estuvo allí.” (“Nobody! No midwife, only my brother, who was 9 years old was there.”)

Doña Anselma sheds tears as she recounts the difficulties of growing up without a father and in the wake of such mass trauma. She attended school for just one year before her mother took her and her four siblings to work on a sugarcane plantation on Guatemala’s southern coast. Conditions on the plantation were brutal. She and her mother were assigned to work as cooks, which meant waking each morning hours before dawn to make tortillas for the farmworkers’ 5:00 a.m. breakfast. Doña Anselma worked on the plantation from the time she was nine until she was thirteen years-old, when her family could no longer endure the harsh conditions and returned to Rabinal.

Upon her return, Doña Anselma did not reenter school — she had already missed too many years of schooling and her family depended on her for income. At age 15, she married Romualdo Tum Iboy, and at 16 she gave birth to her oldest daugther, Jandy Eunice, who is now 20 and studying to become an accountant.

Romualdo Tum Iboy

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Rain is pounding down on the aluminum roof overhead by the time Don Romueldo, Lizbeth’s father, begins to tell his story. His wife, Doña Anselma, and his mother look on, filling in pieces of the story as he tells it.

Don Romualdo was born in the village of Rio Negro in 1974. Rio Negro, just a few miles away from Canchún where Doña Anselma was born, sits immediately adjacent to the Chixoy river and is the community that was most gravely affected by the government’s repression of the Maya-Achí people in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like his wife, he lost his father at a young age. On the morning of June 19, 1981, Don Romualdo’s father was assassinated when he was alone in his home. His father’s body was found later in the brush, “con guzanos comiendo sus piernas,” (with worms eating his legs,”) Don Romualdo recounts.

Years later, after the Guatemalan Truth Commission garnered funds for exhumations of the individuals killed in the massacres, Don Romualdo’s family attempted to identify his father’s remains. “We did a blood test,” Don Romualdo explains, “but we could not identify him.” This meant that his family was not able to provide their loved one a proper burial, and with it, gain a semblance of closure. Don Romualdo’s father was one of at least 440 individuals who lost their lives in the Rio Negro Massacres between 1979 and 1982. The survivors, including Don Romualdo, were forcibly relocated to Pacux, where most remain to this day.

Unlike his wife, who was too young to remember the violence of the massacres from first hand experience, Don Romualdo was old enough — seven or eight at the time — to vividly recollect three impossibly difficult years of his early childhood that he spent in hiding. He and his siblings survived eating whatever food they could find. “Tuvimos que comer cuero,” (“we had to eat the dried cow hides,”) Don Romualdo recalls. Don Romualdo explains that they ate this sustenance raw, because building a fire risked being spotted by the military.

Tuvimos que comer cuero,” (“we had to eat the dried cow hides,”)

Life after the war, once his family could finally come out out of hiding, brought new struggles. Unlike the abundant fish, wildlife, and fertile soil in Rio Negro, the so-called “model village” of Pacux consisted of densely packed houses and scant agricultural land. Families went from living in terror to living in extreme poverty. Don Romualdo recalls the sadness he felt as a child watching his mother struggle to provide for her family, and his embarrassment at lacking even basic clothing. With a forced chuckle that thinly masks his childhood shame, Don Romualdo tells a “funny story” about needing to wear women’s pants because that was all his mother could afford. “Ni siquiera tuve zapatos—” (“I didn’t even have shoes — ”) he says, and the attempted moment of levity turns to grief as his voice breaks off and he buries his head in his hands. I look over at Doña Anselma, whose eyes too are red with tears.

Lizbeth Tum Pérez

In light of her parents’ histories and their fierce commitment to their children’s education, it is no surprise that Lizbeth is not your average teenager. At 15, she is equally comfortable talking with adults or her peers. In class she is outgoing and thoughtful; her hand shoots quickly into the air in response to teachers’ question. She is quick to smile, and completely bilingual. I hear her speak both Spanish and Maya-Achí with her classmates, sometimes switching seamlessly between both languages. One also cannot help but notice she is quite thin.

When she was two years old, her parents became concerned about her poor health and low weight, so they brought Lisbeth to a large public hospital in Guatemala City. The doctors there diagnosed Lisbeth with a heart problem and promptly performed a successful surgery. They instructed Lizbeth’s parents that she was to refrain from heavy exercise, and to return for check-ups every year. But because they could not afford even annual trips to the capital, Lizbeth has not been able to go to a check-up at all in the past three years.

Lizbeth completed her first six years of school at the local primary school in Pacux, but by middle school, she and her family felt they needed to make a change. Her parents explained that school supplies were expensive; and, perhaps because of her physical limitations, her classmates made fun of her. At age 12, she started school at Fundación Nueva Esperanza, where costs were lower, and where Mayan students were allowed to wear their traditional guipil (traditional hand-woven blouse) and corte (traditional Mayan skirt). Lizbeth likes Nueva Esperanza because “nos enseñan de nuestra cultura,” (“they teach us about our culture,”) she says.

Earlier in week, Lizbeth and her classmates wrote “I am poems” in which they describe themselves, their family, and their culture. I ask Lizbeth if she would share a portion of her poem to include in this story. Characteristically, she launches right in:

 “Yo soy una jovencita orgullosa de su cultura; nombrada por sus padres. Tengo un sueño de ser una maestra; de seguir mis estudios; hasta donde pueda…

(“I am a young woman who is proud of her culture; who was named by her parents. I have a dream of being a teacher one day; of continuing my studies, as far as they will take me…)

Con el apoyo de nuestros padres, todos tenemos la capacidad de seguir adelante en nuestras vidas. Aunque nuestros padres no tengas los medios, hacen lo que pueden, y debemos de ser agradecidos.

(“With the help of our parents, we all have the ability to get ahead in our lives. Even though our parents may not have the means, they do what they are able, and we should be grateful to them.)

“Burlan de nuestra traje, pero debemos de ser orgullosas de quienes somos. Podemos aprender de nuestros padres lo que ellos han aprendido de sus padres. Debemos de ser orgullosas de nuestra cultura Rabinalense.”  

(“They laugh at our indigenous clothing, but we should be proud of who we are. We can learn from our parents the things they have learned from their parents. We must be proud of our Rabinal culture.”)

Lizbeth smiles off-handedly, without the slightest trace of embarrassment at having just revealed so much about her life and her identity. Though they say nothing, the twinkle in her parents’ eyes belies how proud they are of their daughter.

By now, the pounding rain has subsided, and we begin to wrap up our conversation. Before Lindsey and I leave, both Doña Anselma and Don Romualdo conclude their heart-wrenching stories by saying that they find hope in her children. Although she was unable to experience a joyful childhood or attend school herself, Doña Anselma says she is gratified that each day her children have food to eat and the opportunity to go to school. Don Romualdo, too, is very proud to be able to send each of his children to school. They may not have been able to do it themselves, he says, but they can at least make sure that their children have a more promising future than they did.

Bringing it home

Having worked with young leaders like Lizbeth over the years, I agree with her parents that young people like Lizbeth are indeed an enormous source of hope. Lizbeth will likely go on to become a teacher, inspiring and educating hundreds of children in her community, who will in turn touch the lives of countless more. Yet without access to basic health and education, Lizbeth’s life would have been radically different. Without a scholarship, Lizbeth easily could have been forced to subsist on meager earnings from work in seasonal labor or the informal sector. Had she not had access to medical care when she was a baby, she may not be alive today. The line separating a life of purpose and meaning from one of abject poverty — even death — is precariously narrow. Sometimes, the difference is a matter of luck; but more often it is a matter of political will, conscious decision, and how far we are willing to extend what john powell calls the circle of human concern.

Voces y Manos is so committed to providing scholarships to young people in Rabinal because we know that the small amounts of assistance can make an enormous difference in shaping a young person’s life. Every person has immeasurable value, and education fuels a series of virtuous cycles that can lift entire families out of poverty. Yet the harsh reality is that for every young person like Lizbeth who is is able to reap the benefits of education, there are many more young people in Guatemala and throughout the world who are denied the opportunity to realize their full potential. This means it’s not enough to help young people beat the odds; we need to change the odds. That’s the reason why Voces y Manos trains young people in advocacy and leadership so that they can participate in the democratic process. By doing so, they will be better equipped to create policies and practices that improve conditions in their communities that for too long have been oppressed and abandoned.

Those of us living in the United States have an important role to play as well. For years, the U.S. has allocated less than 1% of its federal budget to international aid, among the lowest of high-income countries. Yet now, the Trump Administration has proposed a 31% cut to to an international aid budget that was already woefully inadequate. This makes it urgent for our elected officials to hear from us. Partner’s in Health, a renowned international health NGO, has started a petition to urge elected officials to reject any budget that would include cuts to international assistance. In light of the U.S. role in enabling the violence that killed both of Lizbeth’s grandfathers, international assistance is not a matter of generosity, but rather of obligation. By signing the petition, sharing it, and calling our elected representatives to encourage them to safeguard international assistance in our federal budget, we can join with thousands of others in encouraging our government not to turn their backs on the world’s poor.

In recent times, as social change has felt increasingly daunting, I’ve tried to remind myself that for people like Doña Anselma and Don Romueldo, hard times are nothing new. As Lizbeth’s poem so poignantly conveys, we have much to learn from their strength, wisdom, and lived example. Despite surviving some of the most challenging and dehumanizing conditions a person can experience, Lizbeth’s parents never stopped struggling for a better future. Their story is an invitation to us all to remember that the human capacity for resiliency is vast, and that the future is not predetermined, but unfolding with each action we take.

 

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A softening of edges

With my last day (tomorrow) looming large in front of me, I am left with a whole lot to contemplate (well, more than usual – I’m a thinker and my mind is constantly moving). For those of you wondering, despite my witty and lighthearted blog posts (you’re welcome), I’m not going to lie and say this experience as a volunteer was easy. Because it wasn’t; it was difficult. Really, really difficult.

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But, this experience was also really, really beautiful. Volunteering with Voces y Manos pushed me far past the thick, black line marking the edge of my comfort zone. Here in Rabinal, I had access to a wider range of emotions than normally available to me in my familiar home of New Jersey.

I felt joy collecting mangos from the trees with my host sisters, and embarrassed when I ate a mango and threw up (three times) on the side of the road. 

I felt stupid when I couldn’t follow a stream of conversation or clearly express my ideas in Spanish, and accomplished when I relaxed enough to communicate meaningfully (grammar be damned).

I felt tranquil listening to the wind rustle through trees at the Fundación School while surrounded by mountains, and hopeless seeing the Fundación’s milpa plants wilted and dead due to lack of water.

I felt accepted by the community when the Chiticoy bus drivers knew to point the “Canchita” (white girl) in the direction of the correct bus, and ashamed when “Canchita” was used as a cat call instead.

I felt giddy every time I bought and finished a pound (or two) of fresh strawberries. There’s no negative side to this, I freakin’ love strawberries.

I felt loved every time my host mom bought me apples from the market because she knew I liked them, and guilty when she heated water for my baths in the mornings and not for my host sisters.

I felt frustrated by the call of the rooster at 3:00, 4:00, and 5:00 am that I never quite grew accustomed to, and tenderness when the family cat crawled under the covers with me in the morning.

I felt loved when my host sisters laughed at my inability to eat oranges without spraying juice on myself, and irresponsible for eating all of the oranges on the property.

I felt incapable of intuiting social cues in larger groups due to language and cultural differences, and pride every time a stranger asked me if I worked at the Fundación and they beamed in gratefulness when I told them I did.

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In sum: I’ve felt a whole lot over my short six weeks here.

I think what happened, really, is that what I’ve accomplished here has been a lot more subtle than crossed-off projects on long lists. More than anything, what I’ve accomplished is a softening at the edges, a personal shift I’m not sure that I completely understand yet.

I arrived in Rabinal thinking I was prepared for this volunteer experience. I wasn’t. But really, how could I have prepared myself? And (fellow thinkers, here’s a contemplation-worthy question), would I have wanted to be prepared for the breadth of beautiful and difficult experiences that Rabinal offered me? The greatest gift is that the intensity of these emotions, these experiences, surprised me in their depth of meaning and power to alter; they surprised me into shifting and growing.   

Thank you, Rabinal and Voces y Manos, for all that you’ve offered me this summer. These experiences will stick with me long after I leave, continuing to soften edges that I didn’t know were there. 

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How I learned the definition of tejido

I am completely captivated by the rich Mayan culture in Rabinal. Look, my own family has been in the United States for at least three generations, if not more: our traditions consist of turkey on Thanksgiving and presents on Christmas. So when we discussed the importance of interculturality in Voces y Manos’ leadership classes, I couldn’t wrap my head around what culture meant to these students. What was it like to feel so deeply connected to your community that you identify yourself as someone from the “Chiticoy” neighborhood, rather than the larger city of Rabinal? What traditions did parents teach these students that they eventually wanted to teach their own children? And how, exactly, do these students keep the Mayan culture alive?

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Well, given the freedom here at the Voces y Manos office to develop our own projects (thanks, Michael!), I decided I wanted to learn more. Armed with my iPhone camera and a desire to immerse myself in the Mayan culture, if only for fifteen minute interviews, I embarked on a journey to several students’ houses to ask them about their Mayan crafts.  

Ok, so my first visit wasn’t as much of a journey as it was a 30 second stroll down the street, but I haven’t left Rabinal in a month and I’ll take what I can get.

My first visit was with Sheyli, a Voces y Manos scholarship student with the brightest smile I know. After arriving at her house, the first thing she did was smile (and laugh at me a bit) while teaching me the Spanish word for a weaving: tejido. As Spanish words tend to do, it immediately left my brain. But, I must say, the loom Sheyli and her mother pulled from a nearby closet put the word right back in there: how could I forget what tejido meant after seeing something so beautiful and grand? The process of setting up the loom, attaching strings to a tree and wrapping Sheyli in strings at the opposite end, seemed both an intricate and natural process for mother and daughter.

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Sheyli began explaining the weaving process, of which I understood little (see above for an illustration of my weak weaving vocabulary). But it didn’t matter how much I understood: I was captivated by how deftly Sheyli slid the chocol (had to look at my video to remember that word – some words really don’t stick) between the white, tautly stretched strings. Row by row, Sheyli added to her creation. As she weaved, her mother proudly displayed Sheyli’s first weaving, placing it on top of her current one for comparison. As beautiful as the first one was, her current one was even more detailed and precise.

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Struck by the beauty of the process, the only word that I could say was increible, incredible, over and over again. But what was most beautiful about the visit was the obvious pride of these women for their craft, for their culture. Sheyli explained that although she frequently had a lot of homework, she tried to remain committed to weaving twice a week, row by row by row.

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Well, I have to say that I left Sheyli’s house with a full heart, and camera. This afternoon I interview a second student; to say I’m excited is an understatement. Check back in a few days for a post on my next Mayan cultural adventure!

What do candles, sesame seeds, and soda have in common?

Answer: They were all a part of the Mayan Kaj’yup ceremony that took place among ancient ruins on a hill overlooking the city of Rabinal.

Curious how they’re used? 

I certainly was when I saw the Voces y Manos youth, both new groups students and old, carrying bags of these mundane items to the site of the Mayan ceremony.

Our trip began in Rabinal’s central park, where Voces y Manos students, interns, and volunteers congregated before beginning what I like to call subiendo-ing (with subiendo translating to “going up”). This means we climbed up a very, very steep hill for an hour before reaching the ancient Mayan ruins where the ceremony was to be held. Although we began the trip early (7 am!), I had to remove my glasses halfway through the climb because I was sweaty enough that they wouldn’t stay on my face – and I can’t say the students and my fellow volunteers were in any better shape. The immense amount of sweat pouring down my body had me questioning the worthwhileness of this uphill climb until I put my glasses back on and saw this view of Rabinal:

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All I could think was: wow.

After pausing to gulp down half my bottle of water, myself and the rest of the group continued subiendo-ing up a few more stairs to the Mayan ruins. And with that, we were ready to begin the ceremony.

The leader began with a brief history: we learned that Kaj’yup is one of the most sacred and historical sites of the Achí people, who live in Rabinal and its surrounding areas. According to tradition, Kaj’yup was the site of the Achí prince Rabinal-Achí, who continues to act as a guardian spirit over the people of Rabinal. 

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The ceremony itself centered around a homemade fire pit made of wood, bread, and what looked to me like balls of chocolate mousse covered in coconut (can you tell I hadn’t eaten much breakfast?). That still didn’t explain, however, the soda and candles that were arranged to form four corners of a diamond shape.

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The leader explained that these represented the four cardinal directions, which are immensely important in Mayan tradition. Ok, so what about the soda? Well, they represented blood, earth, bones, and water (though, as the latter was easier to obtain than blood and bones, the leader used a bottle of real water).

And with those explanations, the ceremony began! Although I can’t claim to have understood most of it because my Achí is a little rusty (aka, non-existent), the ceremony involved burning candles, sprinkling sesame seeds counterclockwise around the fire, and facing the four cardinal directions during certain key moments during the ceremony (though again, can’t claim to have understood those key moments exactly).

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Upon conclusion of the ceremony, the older students chatted with Voces y Manos leader Miguel (Michael, for those non-Spanish speakers out there) while the younger group began cutting fruits I could only describe as massively humongous. After snacking, we began bajando-ing (going down), which turned out to be significantly easier than our uphill climb that morning. All in all, the ceremony was an early yet beautiful and interesting start to my second Sunday in Rabinal, and provided the students new and old with valuable bonding time. 

Meet our newest volunteer, Sarah!

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Sarah Lewis is from New Jersey and a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in Psychology and minor in Public Health. She intends to pursue an advanced degree in Public Health (eventually), but meanwhile she’s volunteering with Voces y Manos! Get to know her below.  

What inspired you to work in Guatemala, and specifically with Voces y Manos? I am very passionate about global social justice and public health issues and intend to study these issues in the future. I also have previous volunteer experience in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. I worked with an amazing organization in Nicaragua called Outreach360, so I searched for another organization with similar values. I loved that Voces y Manos supports youth in creating their own projects, rather than sending in volunteers to create projects. No one knows the community better than a member of the community themselves.

How did you get involved with Voces y Manos? I searched “public health internships Guatemala” on Google and went immediately to the sixth or seventh page – I wanted to work with a smaller, yet well-established organization. I found Voces y Manos’ website and loved their values and type of work. I applied, and now here I am!

What do you do when you’re not volunteering? I am obsessed with yoga! I’ve been practicing for the past five years and teaching for three. If you can’t find me, I’m probably in a handstand somewhere. I also enjoy reading and writing.

What’s next after Voces y Manos? After spending a week home in New Jersey, I will be traveling to Chile to teach English with the government-run program English Opens Doors until the end of November. I also applied to the Peace Corps and, if all goes well, would be leaving next February for the Dominican Republic as a literacy volunteer. If not, I’ll see where life takes me.  

What would you tell someone who’s thinking about volunteering abroad? Do your research! There are a lot of organizations out there, and they vary in quality. First, identify your own values. If you don’t know much about international non-profit organizations, read about them! Here’s a great place to start. I also recommend the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Carol WuDunn. Then – this is the research part – find an organization that matches those values and holds themselves accountable for their work. Great organizations can be tough to find, but it’s important if you really want to make an impact with your work. Once you’ve chosen an organization, go for it!! Traveling abroad can seem scary, but it’s rewarding and transformative. And once you travel abroad, go with the flow. Life as a volunteer abroad is anything but predictable.

 

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Manuel Osorio: A leader in Rabinal

In January, 2016 a new group of Voces y Manos students eagerly began internships with local host agencies. The internship placements give students an opportunity to gain professional experience, while earning money to pay for university tuition.

The reflection below is written by Manuel Osorio Ixpatá, a graduate of Voces y Manos high school scholarship program who is currently completing a Voces y Manos-sponsored internship placement with a local NGO, Cáritas (Charity, in Latin)Through his internship placement, Manuel is giving back to his community by introducing sustainable agriculture techniques that allow rural farmers to better to provide for their families. As his reflection below shows, Manuel is quickly becoming a true leader in his community.

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Manuel’s reflection

I am Manuel Osorio Ixpata, and I am a Rural Wellbeing and Community Development Professional. I recently started in Voces y Manos’ internship program, and I feel fortunate (and a bit nervous) to take on this new responsibility.

I am working with an institutional named “Cáritas” on their food sovereignty program.

On this project, they assigned me to the role of “field technician”, which includes administrative responsibilities and field work.

At the start of the year, I wrote an annual operational report, and I then began implementing activities related to food production. I deliver five training modules on agricultural techniques during the first half of the year, followed by technical assistance to more than 120 families in six communities in the community of Cubulco (neighbor of Rabinal). Some of the highlights of my experience so far include:

  • In my workplace, my co-workers treat me as a fundamental part of the institution, and not like an intern.
  • I am given large responsibilities.
  • I can count on support from other members of my institution.
  • I speak the Maya-Achí language, which allows me to communicate directly with the population in the communities where we work.

These are some pictures of my work!

 

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For the past five months, the 27 students involved in Voces y Manos have been participating in an empowerment project aimed at getting youth voices heard by local politicians. 2015 is an election year in Guatemala, and 8 local candidates are vying to become the next mayor of Rabinal. The candidates’ presence around town is ubiquitous—their photos adorn posters and their theme songs form a virtual soundtrack to daily life—but their plans for improving the quality of life for young people are largely a mystery.

Meanwhile, as Rabinal heads into election season (elections are September 7th), many of the necessary building blocks for young people to live healthy lives are crumbling. Funding for public education is going dry, shifting ever-increasing costs onto children and their families. For example, because schools do not provide students with textbooks, teachers often require students to print out readings from the internet. Another particularly egregious form of cost-shifting is requiring students to carry out “community-service projects” to repair dilapidated school infrastructure. Initially such projects were reasonable– painting murals and the like–but as funding dissipated, these “service projects” spiraled out of control. One student reported being required to dig a well to provide her school with water. At a cost of several hundred dollars, this was, needless to say, an enormous financial hardship for her entire family.

In the realm of healthcare, youth in Rabinal do not enjoy access to youth-friendly services of any kind. Despite an alarming number of youth suicides in recent years, psychological services are nonexistent. While teenage pregnancy is common, access to contraception is extremely limited. Making matters worse, a local religious organization has waged a propaganda campaign attempting to convince youth that condoms are ineffective, and that birth control pills and injections cause cancer. Despite these significant affronts to vital services, the wellbeing of young people does not appear to be a high priority for most political candidates.

Because of this, VyM staff and students decided it was time to get youth issues onto the political agenda. Students in Voces y Manos have been using the tools of action-research to amplify youth voices, and to develop meaningful solutions to the issues they face. In the investigation stage of the project, students designed and administered a survey to 140 youth at local high schools. The survey asked students to report on the quality of their relationships with teachers and peers, the amount of money they spend each month on school-related costs, and their overall satisfaction with the their education.

The action stage of the project involved students presenting research findings and policy recommendations to mayoral candidates. Working with an extraordinary coalition of local organizations and youth organizers, the VyM students drafted a policy proposal and invited local mayoral candidates to a public forum to discuss relevant issues.

The achievements of this project exceeded everyone’s highest expectations. These are a few highlights:

  • All seven mayoral candidates attended the youth-led forum.
  • Over 250 members of the general public attended the forum, and another 600 tuned-in online.
  • The forum was broadcast on local television and radio.
  • All seven local candidates signed an agreement to provide funding to strengthen Rabinal’s Office of Childhood and Adolescence (described below).

During the weeks leading up to the forum, I had the sense that something powerful was taking place, so I began keeping a journal and taking photos at all our planning meetings. Now that the forum is over (it took place Thursday August 13th), I’ve finally had a chance to get these thoughts and photos organized and onto this blog. Read on to learn about the exciting process, or jump to the end to see photos from forum!

July 19: Meeting with Comité Civico “Chilate”

 The movers and shakers on this project were Nery, Griselda and Selvin, all first-year college students who assumed a leadership role in preparing for the forum. Griselda and Selvin are graduates of Voces y Manos, and Nery is a friend that Griselda and Selvin recruited to work with them on the project. They were truly a power trio.

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Here are Gris and Selvin, deep in analysis mode, reviewing the 140 surveys they collected.

 On July 19th, thanks to outstanding networking by Selvin, Voces y Manos’ biweekly association meeting had a special guest: Octaviano Alvarado Garcia, one of the local mayoral candidates. He and several members of his Chilate party (named after a traditional, corn-based drink in Rabinal), attended our meeting to learn about Voces y Manos, to hear preliminary findings from students’ surveys, and to discuss how he formed the Chilate political party. Because students had only begun tabulating their data the previous week, they worked hard that morning to prepare their data before Octaviano’s arrival. In the picture below, Nery, one of the leaders on the project, works with Lidia and Belqui to generate graphs from their data.

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Here, Lidia, Ingry, Hamilton and Hortencia work on their own data analysis

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At 11:00 AM, Octaviano and the other members of the Chilate Party showed up at the Fundación Nueva Esperanza office. We sat in a circle, and, after brief introductions, Octaviano shared his own life story. A child of corn farmers with no stable source of income, Octaviano described the many sacrifices he underwent in order to graduate from college, become a lawyer, and finally a political candidate. He described stories of hardship that many of the Voces y Manos students could relate to, such as traveling over his summer breaks to Guatemala’s sweltering southern coast to cut sugar cane and cotton to finance his studies. He finally described how he and a group of neighbors and friends had formed the Chilate party—which they described as a civic committee rather than a political party in the traditional sense—as a local alternative to the major national parties that dominate the Guatemalan political system.

Mayoral Candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia meeting with Voces y Manos Students

Mayoral Candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia meeting with Voces y Manos Students

Following the discussion, youth shared with Octaviano and his co-workers the preliminary results of their investigation. Students complemented the presentation of their data with passionate testimonies about the challenges they face as students.

Lilian presenting data to fellow students and mayoral candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia

Lilian presenting data to fellow students and mayoral candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia

Nery Presenting his section of the presentation

Nery Presenting his section of the presentation

Students shared stories about outright disrespect from teachers and principals, as well as stories about the serious economic hardships their families must endure to allow them to stay in school. Octaviano related students’ struggles to his own life experience. He also talked about how he would work to reduce barriers to education if he were elected mayor. In all, the meeting was an excellent opportunity for students to practice their public speaking skills, and a low-stakes preview of their final presentation in front of other mayoral candidates.

Aug. 6: Planning Meeting with the Ministry of Culture and Sports

One of the keys to the success of the forum was partnering with outstanding partner organizations, such as the Ministry of Sports and Culture and a group of youth called “Jóvenes por el Desarrollo del Pueblo” (Youth for Community Development). The week prior to the forum, we met at the beautiful offices of the Ministry of Sports and Culture, where we were joined by Don Celestino, a leader at the ministry and strong proponent of bilingual education, and Mauricio, a second-year college student and youth organizer with Jovenes por el Desarrollo del Pueblo. Mauricio is an old friend of Voces y Manos. He had participated as a volunteer in our first health fair in 2007, and, although he never received a scholarship from Voces y Manos (we didn’t have a scholarship program at the time) he’s always stayed connected to the program. Meanwhile, while pursuing his teaching degree, he co-founded Jovenes por el Desarrollo to hold local politicians accountable to the needs of youth in Rabinal.

Independently, it turned out, Jovenes por el Desarrollo had also been working toward the goal of holding a forum for mayoral candidates. For the past several weeks, the group had been meeting nightly to coordinate their forum, and already had achieved impressive results, including securing agreements from local media outlets to cover the forum on local TV and radio stations. Within a few minutes of discussion, the groups came to the decision to pool resources and work together to put on a single, mega-forum.

For the next several hours, we turned our attention to developing an agenda for the event, and drafting preliminary text for a proposal to be presented to mayoral candidates. The students’ survey had clearly pointed out several key issues faced by youth: lack of trust, economic difficulties, and inadequate sanitary facilities in schools, but these issues were disparate and did not point to a clear, over-arching solution. Our central question was: How could we develop a proposal that would reflect all (or the most important) of these issues?

After extensive brainstorming, we came to this idea: rather than selecting a specific issue (e.g. lack of soap in the bathrooms), we should focus on creating institutional change that would allow these issues to be addressed in a long-term manner. It had come to our attention that although there is an “office of childhood and adolescents ” in Rabinal, this office is habitually under-funded. (The lone staff member who works at this office recently provided us with several documents she had apologetically printed on the back of previously used paper; the office was entirely out of funds). So we figured that getting the future mayor to commit to providing adequate funding and support for this office would be a big step in the right direction. But the question remained as to what specific areas this office should prioritize.

We decided three components would be critical:

  • First, we felt that the office must have strong youth leadership. Under our proposal, the office would include a youth board of directors that would guide all decision-making processes. This board would prioritize issues, be involved in hiring staff, and have control over the office’s budget.
  • Second, the office would need to fill a key gap in health services for young adults. Although Guatemala recently approved a law guaranteeing access to reproductive health services (including for adolescents), access to contraception is severely limited, and rarely confidential. Our proposal thus included a line item for the office to have a physician or professional nurse on staff to provide sexual and reproductive health services in a youth-friendly environment.
  • Third, the office would need to have a psychologist on staff. Mental health among adolescents is an issue that is widely and grossly overlooked, and, as mentioned above, Rabinal has seen an alarming spike in youth suicide rates. These tragic events are likely only the tip of the mental health iceberg, as young people live with enormous stresses and strains in their lives, and the vast majority with mental health issues are simply left to cope as best as they can.

We were aware that providing direct services would only treats symptoms, not the root of the problems facing adolescents. But we figured that with a strong youth board focused on community-level intervention and a professional staff able to provide clinical services, the office would be well-positioned to address immediate needs while also pursuing the goals of prevention at the community level.

Having developed preliminary text for the proposal, we left the meeting all the more motivated to hold a successful forum in which candidates would sign on to the proposal.

The Voces y Manos Team meeting with the Ministry of Sports and Culture

The Voces y Manos Team meeting with the Ministry of Sports and Culture

 August 9th: Final Meeting with the Association 

The proposal we developed in the previous meeting still had two missing pieces. Most importantly, we needed the approval of the other youth in Voces y Manos’ Leadership Association before moving forward with the proposal. We realized our preliminary proposal had drifted considerably from the three needs identified in students’ surveys, so we wanted to make sure students in the association were on board with the new proposal. Selvin and Griselda led the August 9th Association meeting by distributing copies of the proposal for students to review in small groups. Selvin explained the rationale for focusing on the youth and adolescent office:

Selvin explaining the proposal to students at the Association meeting

Selvin explaining the proposal to students at the Association meeting

“Currently, the office of childhood and adolescence is very under-funded,” he explained. “There are many different needs you identified through your survey. But if we don’t have an office, or an organization that is dedicated to addressing these issues, they will be much more difficult to solve.”

After discussing the proposal, students were quick to provide their approval.

The remaining issue was a technicality, but an important one: In order for our proposal to have “teeth” we needed to make sure it was backed by a strong legal framework. Selvin, Griselda and Nery came to the meeting prepared with copies of the Guatemalan Constitution, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and several other international and national conventions. Students then were split into small groups, and each of these groups was given one of the legal documents to review and identity relevant sections that provided support for our proposal.

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By the end of the day, students had identified over a dozen laws that affirmed the rights of adolescents to live healthy lives, to attend school, and to participate in the civil life of their communities. Below, Voces y Manos students, holding the constitution of Guatemala, and the international conventions on the rights of the child.

DSCF3520Weds August 12th: Day Before the Forum

The day before the forum, the students who had been selected to present their research met to rehearse. We wrapped up the rehearsal shortly after sunset, and hailed mini-taxis to give the students rides homes so they could get some rest. Although the students were extremely well-prepared, for many it would be a restless night.

Team Prep

Thursday August 13: Day of the Forum

The day of the forum itself was a reflection of the preparation that went into it.

By the time I arrived at 7:45 A.M. some 300 chairs had been set up in the church auditorium where the forum was to take place. The stage had been beautifully set up with a white table cloth, and name tags indicated where each candidate was to sit. A special “filter” table was set up to review questions that came in from the public. And, a large media center was established in the center of the auditorium that would broadcast the event on two local television channels, livestream the event online, and broadcast on the radio.

Candidates taking their respective places on stage

Candidates taking their respective places on stage

Two of the young adults from “Jóvenes por el Desarrollo took their places at the “filter table”. They would have responsibility for filtering and prioritizing questions from the public.

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I’m not sure where we found the moderator. And I’m not sure where the moderator found his suit. But both were on point!

I’m not sure where we found the moderator. And I’m not sure where the moderator found his suit. But both were on point!

After a brief but avuncular welcome from the moderator, we launched into the first agenda item: the presentation by Voces y Manos students on their survey results. Griselda, the first to speak, looked out into the audience of 250-plus people, video cameras, and bright lights, and spoke with enormous confidence, apparently impervious to the fanfare that surrounded her (I remembering feeling relieved that my job was simply to operate the powerpoint projector).

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Griselda introduced the objective of their investigation, and went on to elaborate on the high proportion of students (roughly 25%) who have considered dropping out due to family problems, or problems with classmates.

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Selvin spoke immediately after Griselda. His part of the presentation addressed the importance of trust and effective communication among teachers, principals, and students. He noted that only 50% of students reported feeling comfortable speaking to their school principal. Selvin explained that students see their school principals primarily as authority figures, concerned above all with disciplining students rather that working to improve the quality of their education.

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The final topic of the presentation was economic barriers to schooling, delivered brilliantly by Lidia Morente. Lidia explained that the high costs of schooling are simply forcing many students at the high school level to consider dropping out. She emphasized that nearly 40% of students at the post-secondary level considered dropping out of school for lack of funds. Most of these costs, such as printing and internet costs, could easily be avoidable with concerted policies to reduce the economic strain on students.

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Leaving little pause, Lilian segued right into the reading of the proposal that she and other students in Voces y Manos had developed. She read in a loud, clear voice as the proposal was projected to the audience.

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In a veteran maneuver, as soon as they finished reading through the proposal, the youth delivered copies to each candidate, and politely requested that the candidates sign the proposal if they would like to indicate their support for strengthening the office of childhood and adolescence.

Griselda and Lilian distributing proposals for candidates to sign

Griselda and Lilian distributing proposals for candidates to sign

Whether it was due to persuasiveness of the presentation or the large, public nature of the gathering, no candidate hesitated to sign the document. Promptly, youth collected the signed proposals, exited the stage as the moderator transitioned into the next item on the agenda: presentations by each political candidate.

The event began with each candidate having 10 minutes to explain their “plan de trabajo” for their time in office. Candidates spoke about the usual issues list of issues in Guatemala: roads, water, and electricity. But, perhaps because of the youth-focus of the event, the panelists took pains to mention their investment in improving education as well.

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Lidia, Griselda, Nery, and Selvin, by this point, were now sitting back, enjoying watching the presentations and drinking atole from the first row of the auditorium.

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Following initial presentations, an hour-long question and answer session took place, in which the candidates responded to questions that came in from the public.

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I was impressed by the tech squad at the event. Broadcasting on 2 TV channels and the radio!

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The event truly ended on a positive note, as all candidates congratulated students on their initiative, and thanked the moderator for his professionalism. Even the incumbent candidate, who we worried might not take well to the students’ proposal, took the time to publicly congratulate students on their initiative, and encouraged more youth to get involved in making their municipality a better place.

The forum was a major achievement for the students in Voces y Manos, and evidence of the power of working in coalitions. Yet the students know that their proposal still exists only on paper, and much work lies ahead to encourage the candidate who wins the election to make good on their promise and provide the funding necessary to ensure the office of childhood and adolescence provides its vital services to Rabinal’s youth.

VyM Students Teach Soil Conservation Techniques

With a roll of manila paper in each of their hands, Elson, Dina, Mirna and Ingrid walked through the front door of the office at FNE with a cheerful “buenas tardes”, then quickly ran through a rehearsal of the charla that they would be leading later that day in the community of Chiac. One by one, the four students practiced their respective parts of the talk on soil conservation. Then in the early afternoon, we piled into the back of the FNE pickup truck and headed out to the Chiac Community.

Once in Chiac Juan Dolores Grave, the community leader, placed an announcement on the loudspeaker (yes, it surprised me too), and within minutes the 45 project participants came together at the meeting location. Juan Dolores got the attention of the community, and then introduced Elson, Dina, Mirna and Ingrid. Elson gave a preview of the day’s activities: He explained that, first, he and his peers would give an explanation of four basic soil conservation techniques, and then, the participants would break into three groups to participate in a hands-on demonstration.

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Using hand-drawn posters, the students introduced community members to four soil conservation techniques. After pausing for questions, Armando summarized the basic idea: to create physical barriers to slow water as it carries topsoil down a hillside. Whether barriers are made of stones, dried logs, reeds, or other materials, they all serve the same function. The more runaway soil is given a chance to settle, the less is lost.

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With the help of Juan Dolores–the community leader—the 45 participants were split into three, 15-person groups. One of these groups was led by Armando, and the other two groups were led by local agronomy students, one of whom was our very own Manuel, a member of our 2011 cohort of scholarship recipients. The three groups fanned out to different sites that had been pre-selected by the community leader for the demonstration workshops. I went with Manuel’s group, eager to see him in action.

We arrived at the demonstration site after a fifteen walk through a cornfield and across a tiny footbridge. Once at the site, Manuel promptly began by introducing himself: “I’m from a rural community myself,” Manuel said, “and I speak Achí. So if you have questions, go ahead and ask me in whatever language you’re more comfortable.”

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Manuel explained that he would be teaching participants how to build and use an “A-frame model”, a tool for measuring the incline of a hillside. He explained that this was important for the construction of barriers. Just eye-balling it, he said, can lead to barriers that are uneven and ineffective at preventing erosion.

Getting right to work, Manuel said, “I’ll need two poles two meters long, and one pole one meter long.” Manuel spoke at a brisk pace and with poise that seemed to invite the active participation of the community. Two men from the community rushed to the job, taking out their machetes and cutting down two sticks to the appropriate length.

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Manuel pulled out a tape measure, to ensure the poles were of the correct length. He fastened the two long poles together using a rope, with their points converging in the form of an “A”.

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He then requested a 1-meter pole, which bisected the two-foot poles. Again he tied the pieces together with string, and the type A model frame was complete. Manuel stood up the massive letter A and displayed it to the community.

AFrame

Manuel then took out a piece of string and tied one end to the top of the A-frame, and the other end to a stone he had found. “This is what we do, we use the materials around us,” he said with a sort of off-handed wisdom. With the rock dangling down the mid-line, Manuel marked where the rock hit the midline. He then spun the model A around, and again marked where the string hit the mid-line. He explained that the point in between his two marks was the actual center.

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José, a member of the new group of VyM students, furiously took notes. He was responsible for recording the day’s events, and will be responsible for keeping track of these procedures so that students can guide community members in building these A- frames on their own.

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Finally, Manuel demonstrated how the A-frame could be used to mark out contour lines. Manuel and Macario adjusted the feet of the model A so that the string lined up perfectly with the midpoint. This ensured they were on a level plane. They then dug two stakes into the ground where each of the legs of the A-frame were placed. They repeated this process 10 times, leaving a trail of 10 stakes marking an even line to guide the construction of their barrier.

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As the sun was beginning to set, Manuel stopped and asked the group if they had any last questions. Several people asked very specific questions, which showed, to Manuel’s delight, that they thoroughly understood the technique and were now concerned with mastering its finer points.

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The group then headed back down the hill, across the river and then through the cornfields, and into the back of the pickup truck where we headed back to Rabinal. The next week, we will return to the community to deliver basic materials that will allow community members replicate these techniques on their own.

Community Project Begins!

This Thursday was the long-awaited start to Voces y Manos’ students-led community project. For the past month, students have led dialogue groups in the community of Chiac to build trust with community members and identify issues of importance. On Thursday, students unveiled their plans for putting into action the key issue they identified: soil loss.

Readers of this blog may find themselves wondering, as I first did, why soil conservation would be a top priority in a country known more for the poverty for its people than its soil (after all, doesn’t much of Peet’s coffee come from Guatemala?). Indeed, the juxtaposition of poverty and malnutrition amidst agricultural abundance is so striking that a recent newshour story referred to the situation in Guatemala as a paradox. This apparent paradox, however, has a clear explanation: Today in Guatemala, 2% of landholders control more than 70% of agricultural lands. This highly inequitable land distribution has relegated most poor and indigenous farmers to small plots on the steep, rocky slopes where survival is precarious.

Complicating matters, Guatemala is one of the ten most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change. Recent years have seen prolonged periods of drought, and particularly intense storms. This year, for example, a 6-week drought in the middle of what was supposed to be the rainy season caused subsistence farmers to lose half to two-thirds of their crops. One of the farmers in Chiac told me his family was surviving, but “raspado”, just scraping by. Within such a context, it’s easy to understand why helping farmers get the most out of their limited lands is so important. And maintaining high quality soil is critical to that endeavor.

To help community members in Chiac conserve their soil, the youth in Voces y Manos developed a three-stage project plan. The students then split into three teams, with each team taking responsibility for one stage of the project. On Thursday, with a bit of well-masked nervousness, the teams of students presented their respective plans to the community, one at a time:

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Team 1/Phase 1, Soil Conservation Practices: Students on this team explained that they would begin by leading a workshop in the community on the construction of so-called “live barriers”: plants that reduce soil runoff. Then, students explained that they would provide participating families with basic materials to create these live barriers on their own.

Team 2/Phase 2, Organic Composting Techniques: The youth on this team gave an introduction to the two composting techniques they would be introducing to community members: “Bokashi Composting”, and “vermicomposting”. Students explained that, as in the previous phase, they would first lead a workshop, and then travel to participants’ homes to assist with implementation.

Team 3/Phase 3, Planting of Fruit Trees: This group explained that using the compost generated by their composters, participants would be given fruit trees to plant in their community. Students explained that each family would be given a total of ten fruit trees, which would not only help reduce soil erosion, but also improve nutrition.

The energy in this the outdoor meeting space in Chiac was one of enthusiasm and excitement. Seeing that the issues they identified were reflected in students’ proposals, community members seemed particularly engaged in hearing the students presentations. Next week, students will lead a demonstration activity on soil conservation practices, and will then visit participants’ homes to help them replicate the project on their own.

All Projects

Groups lined up in order to explain the sequence on the three project stages

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