Thursday, the 16th of January 2014, school began for 65 Comalapan children in Guatemala. An unusually cold morning gave way to direct sunlight on the patio of the Técnico Chixot Education Center, in which grades K-6 are now officially being hosted in the tire workshops that will eventually serve the vocational students. The kids sat in desks outside in the sunlight as the teachers, parents and Long Way Home staff members convened and began the introductory process. A giving of thanks by a teacher led into the Guatemalan national anthem (which was composed by a Comalapa native, Rafael Álvarez Ovalle, in 1896), and with heads bowed, the anthem was sung by parents, teachers and students alike. Polite rumbles and plumes of smoke by the not-so-distant Volcano Fuego heralded the start of the school year. My name is Jesse Eells-Adams and I have only been living and working with Long Way Home for a week and a half. My contribution to the opening of the K-6 school is small in proportion to the men and women who have been living and aiding Long Way Home since its inception in 2004. This is a process of visionary people collaborating with equally talented locals committed to a brighter future in their hometown. A belief shared by the members of Long Way Home is that development is had by hard work at a grassroots level. The resources invested in this single location to provide education to a handful of locals indicates the magnitude of help required to realize the system needed to change current education and waste management systems. Daunting as it is to create access to natural rights and resources in impoverished nations such as Guatemala, every little victory breeds more hope. It is admittedly easy to become cynical about a country that is endlessly imperiled with organized crime and corruption. However, one of the most striking realizations I’ve had since my stay in rural Guatemala is how beautiful and friendly these locals are, the direct descendants from the ancient Mayan civilization, who still practice Mayan traditions and speak Spanish as a second language after their native Kaqchikel.It is the contrast of what you read and hear versus what you experience when you work next to one of the Guatemalan staff, or help deliver drinking water to the local Mayan shop owner in a vase meant to be balanced on your head, that made the inaugural school day today so impactful for me. Seeing the kids ready to learn, playful, easily distracted and just being absolutely normal and good made every single cold bucket bath and antibiotic pill pay off tenfold.
Long Way Home is pleased to announce that we have been granted permission to open a new school by the Guatemalan Ministry of Education! After several months of hard work to get the appropriate stamps from the health center, the Department of the Environment and other official seals of approval, we submitted a 400+ page application and, as of this week, Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot is official! Lars Battle, LWH Community Development Liaison, led the charge and performed the majority of the work to make this possible. We'd also like to extend our gratitude to our neighbor Feliciano Peren, our local education authority Edgar Simon Icú and our regional education authority Rómulo Xicay Ajuchan for their guidance and hard work during this process. We will retain all of our local teachers in the 2014 academic year and hope to add at least one more local teacher, hire a new local director and add the sixth grade. We are thrilled to have achieved this milestone and are now one step closer to having a self-sufficient school in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala!
The 2013 school year ended this month and boy, did our students go out with a bang! October 1st was Children's Day in Guatemala. Our students celebrated by participating in a trash art competition. Students from all grade levels crafted boats, picture frames, aluminum cars and other awesome objects from "waste" materials they found in their homes. The winner, 5th grader Yovani, made a chair out of 75 plastic bottles. Although a bit small, it can hold an adult's weight and is super durable. On the last day of school, the 4th and 5th graders hosted an exhibition of all the things they'd made from trash in their art class. Toothbrush holders, chip bag wallets and egg baskets were just some of the awesome crafts the kiddos displayed.
In construction news, we are spending the next few months putting the finishing touches on our three earthbag primary school classrooms. As the rainy season winds down, earthen finish work speeds up. Our finishes are drying more swiftly and we don't have to spend nearly so much time tarping the buildings to protect them from late afternoon deluges. As usual, we are crafting earthen art to adorn the walls of the classrooms. For our first dome, we are featuring forest animals and vegetations. So far we have a jaguar, a deer, a family of owls and several trees. We are thinking of doing an ocean theme for the second dome. As our finishing materials can be easily molded into most any form, we love to take advantage of the opportunity to add art where ever we can.
We sincerely appreciate your continued support of our school project. Without generous donations of time and money, we would not be celebrating the end of a successful second school year and the beginning of a whole new school experience for the youth in our rural, indigenous town. A million times thank you!
My name is John Richards, and I am a professor of geography at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, which is where I first heard of Long Way Home – from my students. It took nearly five years of reports from my students and visits to the old Long Way Home website to overcome my inertia, put the distractions aside, and come here to see for myself what can be done with tenacious commitment to a vision, patient construction of community ties, plenty of goodwill, and lots and lots of sweat, dirt and trash.
I arrived in the third week of July, with the rainy season in full swing. Planting is well past and I can see the crops growing daily in the fields surrounding San Juan Comalapa – corn, lots of corn, and beans, squash, tomatoes, strawberries – crops to eat and crops to sell. The days are cool and the rains come in the afternoons and at night. They are often heavy, and I see the local farmers working long days with the heavy hoes called azadones to contour their field and cut back the weeds. The amazing growth I see is not just a gift of the rains, but a product of long, hard, back-breaking work.
I have never before lived in an indigenous settlement, but in San Juan Comalapa, although most people also speak Spanish, I hear much more Kaqchikel, the local Mayan dialect. I have read enough of the local history to understand that this is not a Mayan settlement, but the product of Mayan culture, Spanish conquest, and hundreds of years of retreat, regrouping and accommodation to an outside world that has been mostly hostile to the native culture and for that matter, the native people. San Juan Comalapa is in a picturesque setting of high, steep hills, surrounded by active and dormant volcanoes. It has the layout of a Spanish colonial town with the central market surrounded by Church and government buildings. In the market, hundreds of women in their colorful local costumes, or traje, squat on mats all day long, selling fresh fruits and vegetables for 25 or 30 cents a pound, and other goods that take hours to make for the price of a North American latte. It is picturesque, but dusty, even in the rainy season, and very poor. Generally speaking, the world takes more from this place than it gives in return.
I am especially touched to see very young women in the market, with a baby in the reboso on their backs and two or three more in tow. What alternatives are available to these young people?
Well, that’s a leading question. You should see the kids at Escuela Técnico Maya, especially the girls, and you should listen as they respond to their lessons and create happy chaos at recess.
It is nearly the end of my stay here. For the last two weeks I have been sifting, shoveling, mixing and lifting dirt to make the super-adobe used in the construction of aulas (classrooms) 1, 2, and 3. Work is slowed as we must carefully dry the soil under tarps, stop periodically to scrape the adobe silts from the soles of our boots, and stop early to stretch great black tarps across the whole structure to ensure that the super adobe dries evenly and slowly, achieving maximum strength. Yet I am impressed every day by the dedication of the staff and the persistent hard work of the handful of volunteers, as their examples challenge me to keep working, to try to keep up, to not be the bottleneck in the construction process. I am particularly impressed by the amount of work the locals can do in a day. As I climb the path towards Paxan, the neighborhood where Long Way Home is building the infrastructure for La Escuela Técnico Maya, I look up the long, slick path and across the cornfields, and I see a large, but subtle, set of buildings emerging from the landscape. I think of the grades to be added as the classrooms are completed, and I think that each grade, each classroom, represents a few more choices and broader opportunities for the students of Técnico Maya, and the people of San Juan Comalapa.
As the dry season winds down, Long Way Home is gearing up for a productive summer. We are currently more than halfway through with construction of the first three of eight primary classrooms. Using a method called "superadobe," LWH crew and volunteers are sifting, mixing, hauling and tamping modified dirt into polypropylene tubing to form dome-shaped rooms for our students. In an earthquake region, stability is key. Barbed wire is laid between each course to further reinforce these buildings. Once the shells of the building are complete, we will be able to spend the rainy season working on finishes and preparing the buildings for the 2014 academic year.
We would be unable to move forward with our project without generous donations of time and money. In addition to several stellar individual volunteers, we recently hosted two awesome groups: FIU's Hillel Student Group and Living Waters. Choosing to spend their spring break engaged in service rather than vacationing, these young men and women put many sweaty hours into supporting our team in laying the foundation for the three classrooms. This group was amazing and full of spunk!
Living Waters for the World is a program of the Shenandoah Presbytery of Virginia and has partnered with over 500 organizations worldwide to provide clean water and training in communities with contaminated water sources. Their aim is to remove bacteria, parasites and similar disease-causing organisms and therefore improve health. In April the groups spent eight days installing the filtration system at our school complex and training the staff, teachers and students in operation and maintenance of the equipment. The clean water will serve as an income source for the school in addition to ensuring our children are drinking and brushing their teeth with free, clean water.
In addition to our online fundraising campaigns, Long Way Home is occasionally able to visit our supporters and partners in the United States. In April our Executive Director and I drove nearly 4,000 miles meeting with universities and groups in Oregon, California, Arizona and Colorado and attending events hosted by volunteers and board members. It is such a treat to re-connect with folks who are engaged with the project from afar. The opportunity to share our mission with new friends is energizing as well! Hearing the gasps and exclamations that accompany our slideshow really reminds us that we are turning trash into treasure.
A warm thank you for the donations of time, money, raffle items, lodging and event space. Without the generosity of people, both old friends and new, we would not be as successful as we are!! It is a pleasure to work on your behalf for the community of San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala.
My name is Lars Battle and I’m currently living and working with Long Way Home in Guatemala after serving on its board of directors for four years from 2007 – 2011. I served in the Peace Corps in 2002 and 2003 alongside LWH’s founder, Matt Paneitz, and our construction manager extraordinaire, Adam Howland, where I was personally tasked with organizing community development councils in villages in the northwestern highlands. I have spent time on the ground here in San Juan Comalapa on four separate occasions since then, and with each experience, my departure has left me wanting more of this innovative project. So I am here to stay this time, presently serving as an honorary LWH staff member.
We find ourselves in the midst of the dry season, a particularly productive time of year for a variety of reasons. Working with on-site dirt is a large part of what we do here and the dry soil is essential for packing rammed-earth tires, and certainly helpful for clearing and leveling land for new structures to be erected. Additionally, this time of year brings us groups of college and graduate students using their winter break to support projects like ours. We recently welcomed a group of 14 graduate-level architecture students from the University of Colorado in Denver followed by a group of 20 George Washington University undergraduates, each group spending a week or more working tirelessly on the project.
The CU-Denver group dedicated their time to the design and construction of an octagonal bamboo frame for a trash bottle structure that will serve as part of the volunteer/intern facility on the property. The GW crew packed tires around the same structure, filled cracks in the mud roof of Aula 0 and helped to dig out the bottom of the massive tire cistern at the top of the property.
After years of experience, our Guatemalan work crew is well accustomed to working with international volunteers. It’s a pleasure to observe and to be a part of the camaraderie and cultural exchange between the workers and the revolving door of volunteers. The crew is now putting the finishing touches on Aula 0, building the bottle walls at the bamboo structure and finishing the preparation work for the upcoming Earthship building workshop that begins next week. This will be a highlight of my stay thus far and the anticipation in the air is palpable right now. We are hosting over 60 international volunteers and the Earthship crew from Taos, NM for a 3 week, start-to-finish build of a simple survival Earthship home for a local family. It will be a special learning experience for everyone involved.
Central to LWH’s mission is the educational aspect of our project. We are pleased to announce that school began this week, on January 14th, and we now have four teachers in four finished classrooms, teaching students ranging from preschool to the 5th grade. Whether singing in unison in their classrooms or giggling during recess, the students are a delight to have around. I am working closely with the Técnico Maya school Director and administrators to make sure that the school year is a successful one.
Please visit our website to receive the latest news from San Juan Comalapa, and please support our efforts so that our progress in the latter portion of this school construction project maintains its strong pace.
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