Before heading to Long Way Home’s project in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala this summer, I decided get a feel for the organization by reading their website. I ran into this mission statement:
“Long Way Home’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty among youth in developing communities by creating educational opportunities, cultivating civic interaction, and encouraging healthy lifestyles.”
At first glance, their strategy seemed to be a straightforward and common way of reducing poverty in any developing country. After volunteering with them for a month, however, this pitch has gradually transformed into a very coherent and pointed approach to achieving sustainability in a community unlike any other in the world. Like nudging a line of dominoes waiting to fall, Long Way Home has introduced the idea of a better future into a community so that it can use preexisting relationships to do so when Long Way Home leaves.
A 45 minute drive up into the highlands from the economic vein of the Inter-American Highway, this community, San Juan Comalapa, has felt the winds of globalization but has not yet found the sails needed to enjoy it. Without business connections to foreign companies like Castrol, Fed Ex, or even Gold’s Gym, store owners have painted their logos on their storefront walls instead. The DVD stand in the central market is surrounded by people who would love to purchase movies but do not have the extra dollar to do so. Especially with people in their thirties or older, it was very easy to see an almost giddy excitement that their children and grandchildren will never have to see what they saw during the recent civil war.
That optimism is coupled though with another haunting idea that, although they are climbing out of their past, they could still slip back into it. There are Coca-Cola trucks servicing Comalapa now, but there are also guards carrying loaded shotguns. Villagers can now enjoy the crackling of fireworks at festivals without having to worry about government approval, but sometimes the bangs I heard were actually those of a gun.
Matt entered this community in 2002 as a PeaceCorp volunteer, building relationships with community members before returning home. But unlike many others in PeaceCorp, he realized an opportunity for sustainable development and returned with colleagues and funds in 2004 to see it through. With a network of community leaders that were determined to pull their village out of its past, Matt realized that he could do more than just teach a child, build a road, or save a tree here. By “creating educational opportunities”, he has been providing parents a lasting way to protect their children. By “cultivating civic interaction”, he can pass appropriate technologies along to people looking for just that. And by “encouraging healthy lifestyles”, he is providing a roadmap to a longer, brighter future in an environment that used to seem inevitably tarnished. In each of these 3 approaches offered in Long Way Home’s mission statement, the community is receiving the tools needed to help themselves when he leaves.
During my month volunteering there, I noticed so many little moments when this change of attitude would come out. One day, I was enjoying a snack with a married couple in the back of a pickup truck on the way to the school construction site, and when the husband tried to throw away the wrapper, his wife said to him, “You shouldn’t do that” (The concept of littering is definitely new there!). Another day, I followed a group of students up to the soccer field listening to them complain about their little soccer balls that pop far too easily, and then like receiving Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, I saw the excitement in their faces when Matt held up ten gold medals that ten lucky kids would receive if they hustled. Coming from the U.S. where the idea of working at a soup kitchen sounds absurd on a beautiful NFL Sunday, it was amazing to see entire communities banding together to build latrines and retaining walls for the local elementary school because no one else would.
When I look back on a month there, all the wonderful conversations I had with Guatemalans, Long Way Home staff, and other volunteers pointed to one clear message about sustainable development. Community members are not the targets of development; they are its force driving.
And, this is why I really think it’s their slogan, not their mission statement, that does them the more justice:
“From the ground up”
Marc Maxson is GlobalGiving's Manager of Performance Analysis. This summer he traveled throughout Guatemala and visited a number of GlobalGiving projects. On May 29th he visited "Build a school from recycled materials for 50 Maya." When asked what he would tell his friends about this project, Marc said: "Incredible: You need to see this!"
Robert Dubois and I visited Long Way Home as part of our GlobalGiving staff listening tour in Guatemala. This is what we saw and heard:
Matt Paneitz led us through the community projects his organization had built outside Comalapa. A group of teens played soccer on the green field beside a healthy vegetable garden. We saw many buildings that used some sort of recycled materials and a few experimental structures, like a chicken coop, which appeared to be erected to test new mixtures of local stucco. As we walked, Matt explained his journey towards the point where they are today. This is a synopsis:
First they built a park. At night they would sit around the park and listen to the villagers.
Someone said, "I wish there was a garden."
So they built community gardens.
A girl said the soccer field was okay, but she wanted a basketball court.
So they built a basketball court.
Someone said, "I wish you would plant more trees, so we will have firewood."
So they planted a forest. They now sell the trees to pay a staff person who maintains the football field. The rest of the money goes to community projects.
Eventually it was time to build the school. But there was no money. So instead of starting by asking outsiders for money, Matt (the founder) got the idea of asking people to "pay" to enter the park by bringing them a plastic soda bottle stuffed with trash each time.
So people started bringing soda bottles stuffed with trash. The town started looking much cleaner.
Next they stacked the bottles to make walls and covered them in a mix of lime and dirt, like stucco. Now they have buildings, mostly made from free stuff.
But the bottles weren't coming in fast enough.
Someone said, "Everywhere I drive, there are discarded tires on the side of the road. Why don't we collect them all and use them?"
So they started cleaning up the highways and stacking hundreds of blown-out tires packed with dirt to make walls for the school. Next they will cover the tires with stucco to make walls. The only cost so far has been labor for 4 local workers, who live in the village and are so excited about the work no one even bothers to supervise them. But the work is on schedule nevertheless. GlobalGiving's donors pay their wages. Volunteers collect the tires.
Did you know cement factories produce 6 percent of global carbon emissions?
Long Way Home is building a school with a lot less cement and concrete.
Matt, the founder wants this school to create a new breed of environmental activist. I suggested he call these kids something new, like a recyclonista, or envirovisionary. May says the kids will learn how to think, problem solve, and find solutions for the future within the walls built of old tires, soda bottles, and other trash sources they have yet to tap. And even more, these walls may be quieter than the concrete walls that echo kid noise in a million classrooms around the world. Matt even thinks the tire-walls may be more earthquake-proof. Given the 7.1 earthquake nearby in Honduras last week, this may not only save money and resources, but also lives in the future.
As of June the progress continues on the Tecnico Maya School. Below you will see some pictures of the latrine, the retaining wall and the walls of three classrooms.
Exciting new opportunities have come to Long Way Home. As a direct result of the news coverage recieved from the national newspaper, La Prinsa, a government agency of engineers came to view our use of recycled tires in building retaining walls. They have now contracted with LWH to hire our construction crew to build two badly needed retaining walls in two other Guatemalan locations.
LWH is proud to offer the services of our crew who will be paid a little more than the wage we offer them for these jobs. This is very good for our local economy and is a sign of a mainstream acceptance of our building practices.