Build a school from recycled materials for Maya

by Long Way Home, Inc.
Aula de Latas
Aula de Latas

As the Director of Administration, my involvement with Long Way Home has been long but remote; I’m a founding member and I have spent the past 7 years handling LWH’s state-side operations…until recently.  After many years of short visits to our project site in Guatemala I finally had the opportunity to be in-country for a nice long stretch. October marks my sixth month as an in-country team member with Long Way Home and I couldn’t be more pleased with my new office!

As we slowly slip from the rainy season into the dry season, it is a beautiful sunny day here in the western highlands of Guatemala.  Everything is green and lush, the surrounding fields are teaming with crops awaiting harvest, and the rains have provided much needed nourishment as well as music to fall asleep to under the rhythmic drumming on a tin roof.  Of course, work marches on, even in the rains, and so much has happened over the past few months; the changes are evident while strolling around the constructions site.

Most recently as been our continued work on Aula 0, which as some of you may know, took a hit earlier this year as a result of some untimely, unseasonably heavy rainfall.  While our structure, which had not yet been fitted with the complete water deferment system, took a beating, our spirits did not! After a little regrouping we have made steady progress towards its completion.  Aula 0 marks the first of 9 buildings that are Phase II of our construction of the school campus.  This structure will become the art lab for our students and we are extremely excited about the way Aula 0 is shaping up.

Newly outfitted with a second floor, Aula 0 sports a variety of glass bottles, beautiful bamboo work, and enough aluminum cans to have earned the nickname “Aula de latas”  (classroom of aluminum cans)…which makes us smile!  While there is still plenty of work to be done before the art lab is complete, we are making progress daily and it is amazing to see how much can change from day to day.

Another big change that has been unfolding over the past month has been the beautification of the vocational buildings. We all love the fact that our school is being constructed out of trash and part of our goal is to make sure that people recognize that trash can be made into something beautiful.  We also want our kiddos to have a fun and pretty place to learn.  To that end we have been busy adding the little touches that make this one of the prettiest construction sites I have ever seen.

Our vocational buildings have received some “blush and lipstick” that has transformed the tire structures into works of art….literally.  The process has been accomplished with the help of many volunteers and the artistic skills of Magdaleno, one of LWH’s Guatemalan crew members.  The vocational buildings reflect elements of the rich Mayan culture of our community, educational aides in the form of maps of Guatemala and a portion of the globe, and stunning glimpses of birds, flowers, crops, and tools that are ever present in the day to day activities of our work.

Visit us on site and you will witness a hustle and bustle that seems to never end….even when the work day is done.  Our team invests countless hours cultivating new ways to utilize what others have tossed aside as worthless; we thrive on the challenge, we enjoy the thrill of pushing the envelope and we take pride in innovative results.  It is really fulfilling to finally be on-site to see, first hand, all of the elements in play, working together to move toward a common vision….and a very beautiful one at that!

PS - In August we hosted a film crew from Germany's Deutsche Welle.  Click on the link below to view the segment.

Map of Mud
Map of Mud


Charlie playing with tire
Charlie playing with tire


I’m almost completely out of breath after a brief trudge up a moderately steep hill that brings me closer to the town of San Juan Comalapa. I’m in decent shape and normally wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by such an unremarkable slope. I am, however, at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level, which I’m fairly certain is by far the highest elevation I’ve ever been to. My attention is completely consumed by the clouds above me, so lucid and detailed, and it’s hard to believe everyone in this area doesn’t stop dead in their tracks and begin to study or paint them. I’ve never seen clouds like this, just like I’ve never seen such towering volcanoes demanding awe on the horizon.

I’ve been in Comalapa for nearly a month, interning for Long Way Home, and already I’ve experienced many firsts. The people of this town are the friendliest I’ve encountered and never greet me as a stranger but as a welcomed guest, and always with a contagious smile.

After a short yet “rigorous” hike I reach my destination and begin to process another first for me. I can’t help but admire the creatively-sustainable structures that make up Técnico Maya’s vocational primary and secondary school. And after a few exchanges of cheerful “buenos dias” with some of the local workers and students I head towards the meat of the landscape. A vast hillside of soaring tire-walls and earth bag/trash bottle architecture unfolds before me and alerts me that I’m standing right in the middle of the future, or at least I what I hope is the future.

This future, led by Long Way Home’s imaginative building ingenuity, utilizes and works cohesively with two things that Guatemala has plenty of; 1) a life-sustaining climate 2) trash. LWH’s approach includes an impressive lower tire-retaining wall, which was completed in March of this year by the way, and uses over 3,000 recycled tires. So many tires were used in this project that the department capital ran out of recycled tires to contribute and LWH had to scavenge some from an illegal landfill. Trust me when I say these tires compliment this school better than they would a local waterway.

Let’s backtrack a bit- my first week in this country, I received a tour of Comalapa by LWH’s volunteer coordinator Kristin Guité and was indescribably moved when I got to see what motivates LWH so passionately. I was brought to the town’s only legal landfill, which can only be explained as a garbage-filled Valley of Eden. I stood at the edge, jaw-dropped, not knowing what to do with such a scene where a deep, jungle-occupied canyon, that must have been ideal territory for a jaguar or a tyrannosaurus rex, was about 1/8th trash and 1/16th trash-eating dogs and buzzards. Then Kristin broke my spell with “see, this is why we work with garbage.” I was sold, and I saw the future I wanted where this valley flourished and homes and schools were built out of the garbage that was once here, back in the day.

Let’s backtrack even more, just a tad- The first part of my tour took me to a mural that decorated the walls of every building for an entire street’s length. I was guided very thoroughly through each depiction of (for lack of a better word) struggles that the indigenous population endured in the past. I didn’t tear-up, because I didn’t want people who just met me to see me cry, but I wanted to, especially when I came to the last walls where the mural portrayed rebuilding and moving-on from such atrocities.

Now I’m walking through Técnico Maya, which will feature classes on the local indigenous language, as well environmental education courses that will inspire the youth of this town to follow LWH’s lead in conservation. These are all firsts for Comalapa. I’m learning about the upper cistern that has re-purposed over six tons of tire waste and the upper platform where the elementary classrooms will be built was blessed by a Mayan spiritual guide on March 25th of 2012. I’m learning about Long Way Home’s Just $21 Campaign where supporters pay 21 dollars for earth bags, or more for windows, floors, entire classrooms, or even the local labor, that all collectively make up this futuristic learning station.

Let’s move forward- Not much is different, the locals are still as delightful as ever and the clouds transcend what I ever thought possible in the sky. There are some not-so-subtle differences though; the valley below is beautiful and pristine and all the buildings around are built using thoughtful methods and garbage. The streams flow freely, and all cultures do the same. This is all a first for our planet and in order to get here we may have to travel far but thankfully we have a leader. Supporting LWH is the first step of this arduous journey and when we get there we’ll all look back at green, rolling hills and busy, smiling farmers and think “that was a long way home, but we made it.”

Mayan Spiritual Guide
Mayan Spiritual Guide
Boy Scouts and LWH on Tire Wall
Boy Scouts and LWH on Tire Wall
Girls Having Weaving Lessons at Their New School
Girls Having Weaving Lessons at Their New School

May is always a busy time for Long Way Home crew and volunteers.  The long rainy season is about to start and we do a lot of work to prepare the construction site for the deluge.  This year we have been fortunate to be able to hire nine additional local Guatemalan workers to help us get ready.  Recently I was shooting some footage for a campaign video and our students were telling the camera, "Nos encanta nuestra escuela" (We love our school).  Our workers were also part of the shot and after the kiddos ran off, I got to catch our workers making the line their own (see short clip below).  We hope to find funds to keep the extra workers on for another month...every day makes a difference when prepping for The Long Wet!

As Director of Operations for Long Way Home, I have a lot to be grateful for: friendly neighbors, highly capable staff, energized volunteers, generous donors, freedom, learning opprotunities, cultural exchange...the list goes on.  By far the biggest perk of my job are the smiling faces of our Técnico Maya students.  We now have 25 students from 2nd - 5th grade onsite Monday through Friday.  I used to have to walk to the old school when I needed a recharge from the hug brigade; now I simply walk outside.  From my office I can hear a wonderful addition to the sounds of power tools: children singing and reciting lessons.  When my internet breaks down or I feel overwhelmed, the sounds of children's laughter is the perfect antidote.  I want to give a heartfelt thanks to the donors and volunteers who have brought us this far.  When I started with Long Way Home in March of 2010, the thought of having children in the classrooms was just a dream.  With your help, it's become a reality!

As we near the mid-point of 2012, I'm excited to report that we are making great progress toward our goal of opening the entire school for the January 2014 school year.  We've had setbacks, yes, but we've never lost focus.  The current Técnico Maya students seem very happy in their new "digs" and we are so excited to build their capacity to serve even more children.  In recent months we've added new staff and new board members who have increased our capacity and our drive.  As I prepare mentally for the grey skies, I salute all those who brighten up my day and the future of this magical community. 


PS - Stay tuned for our 2011 Annual Report.  It will be available online shortly.

Regular LWH Staff
Regular LWH Staff


Three weeks that I have joined the Long Way Home team, what a wonderful experience!

I am an intern from Belgium, I am going to stay in San Juan Comalapa for three months, and day after day I can see how the staff and the volunteers are motivated. In three weeks I saw the landscape changed, the building goes very fast... When I read previous reports, I can just recognized the progress made by the NGO.

I had seen how was the site before and I think that Long Way Home does a great job. Before my arrival, in early January, the NGO was pleased to open its first classroom that welcomes children of 4th and 5th grade. The building just goes on: the earthbag building, the art room, the retaining wall, the guard shack: all the site has great step forward.

I was pleasantly surprised by the methods of construction, the NGO has combined ecology and building in a surprising way. Tires, trash bottles and bags are very useful for the building's structure. Of course, it is a work of recycling, but it is also a way to preserve the environment. On Earth, we have a lot of waste, Long Way Home is able to use them effectively.

I think joined the LWH team is an rewarding adventure. And I am pleased to take part of this adventure. I want to thank all donors who, in some way, act in favor of this project. Thanks to you, 2011 was a wonderful year, and 2012 is ready to be also a great year.




It has been a great year for Long Way Home here at the Técnico Maya school construction site.

Our organization was named Small Charity of the Year by StayClassy, host of the largest philanthropic awards event in the United States.

We have also made significant strides on the construction site. Most notably, we have built a dry composting latrine out of bamboo and trash bottles, installed a rainwater harvesting system on our patio, and completed our West bodega.

Currently, we are concluding the finish work on the vocational classrooms and assembling a lower retaining wall for the primary school classrooms. The hard work of our Guatemalan construction crew and dedicated volunteers is apparent when you watch the 200 foot long man made ditch on the east side of our property being filled with 15 layers of tightly pounded tires.

As we continue to progress with the building project, the need for sufficient funds persists. By the end of the year, we plan to finish the lower retaining wall, begin construction of the upper retaining wall, and prepare the foundation for the primary school classrooms.

In the ensuing months, we will complete the upper retaining wall and build the primary classrooms.

Thank you for your continued support. Your generosity is helping change the lives of rural Guatemalan children, one bottle of trash at a time.



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Organization Information

Long Way Home, Inc.

Location: Ashland, OR - USA
Website: https:/​/​
Project Leader:
Mateo Paneitz
Executive Director
Georgetown, MA United States

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