Learning the meaning of “Adelante”

11 07 2011

Thursday, June 30th:

An integral part of SolCom’s work is to work closely with community leaders. When about to do a campaign in a community previously unvisited by SolCom, it is customary to begin the process by talking to the local alcalde about who we are as Soluciones Comunitarias, what we do, what our mission is, what the products we offer are, and what we hope to do for the townspeople. Generally we must get the go ahead to do a campaign in the town, and oftentimes the local leadership is enthused enough to offer us a place to hold the campaign.

In the department of Sololá, indigenous alcaldes from around the region hold a monthly congressional meeting in the capital (also named Sololá). The meeting is an impressive gathering of more than 100 men and women who represent their communities, each of them dressed at least in part traditional garb, which in Sololá is characterized by extremely intricately hand-woven textiles of many colors. The result is a room full of more colors than a Jason Pollock painting. We, the better part of Team Impacto, plus Juana, SolCom’s regional coordinator for Sololá, and the lovely Adam and Michelle from the gringo team attended this monthly meeting this past Thursday with the purpose of talking to the conference about SolCom. Michelle introduced us and the students gave short and sweet rundowns of the products and services we offer, as a couple of us handed out fliers, and Juana translated our message from Spanish into Kaqchikel, one of the several indigenous languages within the department and spoken among the alcalde attendees. We also gave the announcement of our new office in the capital of Sololá, to much excitement.

The response was hugely positive. So excited were the alcades, in fact, that a number of them asked if they could buy glasses then and there. There was also great interest in our stoves, which are perhaps one of our most impactful products, but which we can only provide when certain circumstances are met, coordination with local leaders being one of the normal prerequisites. As a whole, the meeting was a great success. By speaking to all of the region’s alcaldes at the same time, we overcame one of Guatemala’s biggest obstacles to our work – geography – while spreading word of our mission. The positive response of the alcaldes was a sound reminder that SolCom’s work is doing good for the people we work with, and a great motivation to continue adelante.





The Centro Explorativo- a student perspective

11 07 2011


The Centro Explorativo (the “Centro”) was established in Nebaj, Guatemala in February of 2003 as a closet-sized library with 100 books as a response to the need for educational resources.  In 2007, the Centro moved to a nearby village of 500 families, La Pista, to better serve those who are unable to travel to Nebaj.  The Centro Explorativo now serves over 90 children, employs 3 full-time teachers, and is the only source of Internet or after-school educational programs in the whole village.   The mission of the Centro Explorativo is to provide the tools and resources necessary to develop a love for learning, reading, and research through exploration.  SECorps students spend a day at the Centro Explorativo focusing on projects related to the upkeep and enhancement of the association. The day is a mutual and meaningful exchange where students from seemingly opposite lifestyles can connect on the simplicity and joy of just being together.  SECorps student, Abby, shares her  “Day at the Centro”:

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Today (June 29, 2011) Team Oportunidad visited the Centro Explorative in La Pista.  The Centro is an after-school center that kids can visit to supplement their regular school day with more learning activities. The Centro was incredible; we spent the first half of the day working on different projects (computer literacy program, promotional signs, a map of La Pista for geography class, and a cultural interview project) and the second half playing with the kids. The most memorable moment for me was playing “robot” with the kids (its basically like Simon-says, but with a song).  This event was very important because the Centro is a big part of what we do as an organization. La Pista is the community where Miguel (President of Soluciones Comunitarias) is from so this program and the work we do with the kids is incredibly special. I learned that kids like to touch wet paint (they wouldn’t stop getting their fingers wet from the signs we were painting) and that many of the kids from La Pista really do need an outlet like the Centro for all their extra energy. I had a very memorable game of “tickle tag” with a group of girls, we ran around for twenty minutes until they tired me out and I had to call a truce. Overall we had an absolutely wonderful day and experience at the Centro.

 

One of the reasons the work as the Centro was so incredible is because
it gave me an opportunity to works hands-on at an education center.
Because the public education system in Guatemala is so broken, places like the Centro have become increasingly important “educational supplements”.

 

Children only go to school for 3 hours a day, and after school their time is unstructured and not conducive to growing and developing a young mind. For example, while I was working on painting a sign for the Centro, one little boy was fascinated by the paint brush and colors. I asked him if he had ever painted before and he said no. He kept touching the paint, tracing the pictures and letters with his fingers. I realized this boy probably had no opportunities to express himself creatively, especially not with paint. Places like the Centro are incredible for that reason: they open doors of exploration for children who grow up too fast and provide the resources and opportunity for them to explore passions and interests.





Students commit to increasing the capability of a new school for Special Education in Nebaj, Guatemala

8 07 2011

Every week, students have the opportunity to work with an organization in a small business consulting format, called “APF, Asesor Por Favor”.  Field Guides in each region establish relationships before student interns visit, and work with local constituents to discuss specific needs for their organization.  When the student interns visit, they are given a project in which they apply their skills and resources, and mutually work towards addressing the organization’s needs.  In Nebaj, Guatemala, students have been assigned to work with a brand new Association for children with Special Needs.  There are currently only two teachers for the 35 students (ages 2-48) that attend, ranging in various physical/mental disabilities.   The goal of the APF for SECorps students was to help design a creative source for sustainable capital (human and financial) in order to create more access to much needed resources.  Over each of the field weeks, students have made immediate financial impact making connections to organizations in the United States to fund materials for the school, while thinking about sustainable ways for creating capital (financial/human).  Students recount their experiences below:

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  • Matt Certner, Field Week 1:

 

The work that we have done so far in Guatemala has been incredible. For the past six weeks we have had the opportunity to travel the country and work with different organizations, schools, and community leaders.

This was especially true in Nebaj. This was my group’s first location; an extremely rural city six hours outside of Antigua. My group had the opportunity to visit a special needs school recently founded in the region. The school was incredible and the two women running the school even more amazing. The school opened last year and already has 42 students enrolled. As amazing as this school was, they had almost next to nothing to keep things running. With very little resources, these two women were making a huge impact within their community. I knew immediately that this was a project we wanted to focus a lot of time on and make a difference.

Using our resources as a group, we contacted an organization SNAP, Inc. that works with special needs education and awareness in New Jersey. The organization donated Q10,000 to the school to buy the materials necessary to keep things running. That night, our group met with the two teachers for dinner and designed a rough budget of what to purchase.

Sunday was a long day; searching different stores, negotiating prices, and gathering the materials back to the school. In all we purchased: three wooden dining tables, two wooden baby chairs, twelve desk chairs, four plastic tables, package of cooking pots, cooking and dining utensils, two storage units, 42 assorted colored cups and plates, a blender, first-aid (Band-Aids, gauze packets, alcohol, and medications), fourty-two shower towels, hygiene supplies (shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste for 42 kids, cleaning supplies, brushes, soap, detergent, toilet paper, and diapers), one large white board, school materials (notebooks, paper, colored construction paper, large poster boards, popsicle sticks, glue, glitter, crayons, markers, dry erase markers, erasers, paint, paint brushes, rulers, protractors, alphabets blocks, and number blocks), Games (basketballs, volleyballs, assorted colored balls, air-pump, Legos, blocks, alphabet blocks, toy trucks, dolls), Education games (counting, math, cooking – occupational therapy), One baby-walker, A purified water filter (and extra filter), and a CD player for music class.

These two women are incredible. The work that they do, with the resources they are given, is unbelievable. They were so eager to learn from us and provide more for their school. Spending an entire day with them was amazing and has certainly stood out as my most rewarding moment in Guatemala.

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  • Dan Courture, Field Week 3

It is amazing how spending a few hours with a group of students can captivate you beyond anything you would have expected. I had heard about the Special Needs School in Nebaj from groups that had already visited it, I had even done preliminary work on the project of designing an internship program for the school that is modeled off of the SE Corps. I had no idea what I was in for though when I assigned to work with the school as part of our Asesor Por Favor program. That morning we spent working more on the internship program that previous groups had started. After that work, we were fortunate enough to spend a few hours at the school itself. We saw firsthand what the effects of lack of funding, resources, and support can do to a school. With only two teachers and thirty students, a lot of time is spent keeping the students organized and thus educational time is lost. We also saw, however, an incredible potential to provide for these students.

As it is, this is the only school of its kind in the region and these students would otherwise have no opportunities at a chance for a normal life. Many of the students are simply brilliant, waiting for their opportunity to shine, waiting for their chance to learn and grow. This furthered my desire to serve these students.

Our goal for the APF was to create a way for bringing more capital to the school- both financial resources and human resources (specialists that can help the students).   Essentially, our program will mirror SE Corps, where we will work with Turismo Ixil, the local tourism business, to place students in home stays throughout Nebaj and provide a series of one-on-one Spanish tutoring lessons. The purpose of the program, however, will be to provide a way for the school to add much needed resources without relying on government/donor funds.  This will be done through the student volunteers who come to Guatemala, whose program fees will help finance the school, while their expertise in the special education field and dedication to service will directly benefit the students.

The prospect of implementing such a program, however, is a bit overwhelming. So many questions need to be answered, logistics handled, coordination and collaborations established. In addition, presenting this program to my school, the University of Connecticut, is even more daunting. How do we make someone so far removed from the situation feel what we feel to the point that they are willing to help these students. What if they don’t like our proposal? These will be topics that we continue to work on over the remainder of our time in Guatemala and beyond while back in the States.

Such a program, if we are able to successfully establish it, will do wonders for everyone involved. It allows student volunteers passionate about working with others a chance for hands on experience in a community that needs the help more than anything. It allows the students at the Special Needs School a chance at success through more direct attention, and most importantly, it allows the school itself to provide more of the basic resources of education that every human is entitled to. Myself and everyone else involved in this are very excited to continue to work on designing this internship study abroad program to serve the Nebaj Special Needs School.

 





“The pattern that connects is the pattern that corrects,”- Interviewing a woman weaver

7 07 2011

“The pattern that connects is the pattern that corrects,”- Gregory Bateson

Interviewing a woman weaver

Although I learned quite a lot about the Guatemalan armed conflict throughout the early 80s and 90s in class, the immensity of the conflict and  the effect it had on the general population seemed abstract for me.  In Nebaj, I finally started to comprehend the amount of damage done.  One of my tasks was to interview Jacinta, a woman weaver.  Jacinta is a woman in her mid fifties who has been weaving since the age of 14.  Within 3 questions, I learned that she had been weaving all her life other than during her mid teens, in which she had to move out of Nebaj due to the violence in the region.  Her parents and other family members were murdered, and she was scared for her life.  She moved to Guatemala city to make tortillas, and moved back after the violence subsided.  It was hard for me to conceptualize the fact that this cheerful soft spoken woman had witnessed the death of her parents.  Though the violence ended over a decade ago, the scars still remain.

 

 

As we continued with the interview, I learned that Jacinta typically only sold one item a week.  She typically only made 10-20Qs ($1.50-$2.50) on each beautifully woven piece, as the price mostly covers the materials.  Jacinta has 6 children in her family, and her sole income is weaving.  This reality really clarified the immense need in the community, and inspired me to help.  As I left the interview, she hugged me and gave me a bracelet in thanks for helping her.  Even though we had only just met, she was confident that I would help her and had good intentions.





Xing and Nicole: Language is more than the words we speak..A campaign success story!

30 06 2011
The language barrier is one of the biggest challenges in our day-to-day work here in Guatemala. In regions like Todo Santos and Salquil Grande where the people are more comfortable with indigenous Mayan languages than Spanish, it is extremely difficult for any sort of valuable conversations and communication to occur between potential clients and student interns who have only a basic understanding of Spanish. These factors, combined with a generally basic level of education in these regions, make alternative forms of communication necessary in order to properly explain the functions and benefits of our products. We found that the best way to express ideas across language barriers is through visual aides that can express a product’s potential to improve current living conditions, correctly display a product’s value, and to help people act on their perceived and felt needs.
We found the water purifier to be an ideal product with which to use visual aides. The product has an amazing social impact, but because you cannot directly see the transition between clean and dirty water and because the product is relatively expensive, sales have been low and the product has much untapped potential. The display that we came up with is still a work in progress, but it currently includes cross-sections of the purifier and of the candela and a price comparison between the purifier and another common but more expensive pure water system in the form of a bar graph.
The true test of the effectiveness of the visual aide was to see if more filters than usual were sold at two campaigns in aldeas outside of Nebaj. The poster served to facilitate more conversation about health benefits, future savings, and indeed helped people see how the filter could increase the well-being of their families. Even though our campaigns were in relatively poor and rural aldeas, our group was able to sell two filters through actively talking to potential clients through the visual aide . This difference in numbers of filters sold, increase in revenue for the asesoras, and improved health of the families who purchased filters speaks to the necessity for visual aides and their usefulness in overcoming communication barriers.




Claire recounts her experience at a Village Visit in Solola, Guatemala

22 06 2011

After an hour long bumpy drive in a tank-like hummer, four students, our field guide, and our sunglass wearing driver arrived in Nueva Victoria. Nueva Victoria houses a community displaced by Hurricane Agatha last may. When their old town, Panimache Tercero, was destroyed by a mudslide, flood, and hurricane, the community members collectively purchased land in Nueva Victoria and moved there together. It struck me that if my town in the US were destroyed, we would all scatter to live with other relatives and worry little about other community members.

Nueva Victoria consists of countless shacks created from lamina, or metal roofing material, and US Aid tents. The concodes, or community leaders, who greeted us, told us the “houses” had just been completed last week. Augusto, a quiet 50 year old who acts as the town’s main leader, ushered us out of the hummer, through the brightly painted but shoddily constructed school, past the communal tortilla cooking area, and into the clinic that doubles as a municipal building. This building, like all of the others, is constructed solely of metal and boasts a dirt floor and sparse medical supplies.

We’d come to talk about Quetsol, a new solar technology that has the capability to light an entire house and charge cellphones. John and Ted unpacked and set up the product for a demonstration while Sony and I began to chat with the community leaders. We gave a brief introduction to the product, turned on the lights to show how bright they were, and explained how to use and maintain the product. Sony informed the leaders that they can actually save money by using this kit, rather than using 2 candles every day. The men seemed skeptical, so Augosto ran out to grab a calculator. After many calculations and a rapid conversation in Quiche, an indigenous language as foreign to us as Arabic, the men concluded that they can save money with solar power. We now had their entire attention and faced many questions from the curious leaders.

After about 45 minutes of explanations and conversations, Augusto informed us that the men were very interested in lighting either the school or the clinic with solar power. He planned to present the idea and the information to the rest of the community during their weekly reunion on Sunday. The leaders refused to make any decisions without input from everyone.

Despite the fact that no products were sold and no material gains made, each student walked away with an incredible amount of pride. We had learned so much simply by talking to these men and seeing their living conditions in Nueva Victoria. Our project, our work here, and the decisions of the community leaders had been focused and sharpened thanks to a simple conversation.





Nellie and her experience at the Soluciones Comunitarias National Conference

9 06 2011

Considering most of us had only learned about Social Entrepreneurship and Micro-Consignment for a week, and for some with the past five days being the sole Spanish instruction they had ever received, the idea of attending a national conference for all of Sol-Com seemed a wee bit daunting. However our nerves were soothed as soon as we entered the majestic courtyard of El Merced by the smiling faces of the asesoras and the warm welcome from Miguel.

I was blown away by how open and genuinely friendly the asesoras were. They were kind and patient with us and our broken Spanish, willingly solving the puzzles of our strewn together sentences and when what we were saying grew to gibberish proportions they responded with a kind smile and encouraging nod. Those of us who persisted through those first few awkward minutes of language transition were deeply rewarded, as the asesoras were vibrant and compassionate, and after only a few minutes of speaking with them, they treated you like family.

The conference served as a great opportunity for asesoras to share what has worked for them on their campaigns and what hasn’t. During the small group breakout session Eliseo and Irma shared how they purchased a small megaphone to use for advertising their campaigns which impressed and inspired the rest of the group. It was fascinating to hear about the different obstacles asesoras faced in different regions and how they overcame them.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to a young asesora named Maria for both days of the conference. She was 16 and wore beautiful color-coordinated Huipil & Cortes. I was excited to practice my Spanish and get to know her, but despite my best efforts I mostly received one-word answers and her sweet smile in return. In one of my better attempts of small talk on the first day I told her that I thought the bracelet she was wearing was beautiful, it consisted of eight rows of sandy-brown wooden beads, she responded with a coy smile and a quiet “Gracias.” On the second day as Miguel was giving his closing remarks Maria looked me in the eyes, flashed her sweet smile, held up her wooden bracelet and said, “Para usted” (For you). I was flabbergasted by this gesture of pure kindness. I lacked the Spanish vocabulary to express how touched and appreciative I felt, so I gave her a big hug and said “Muchisimas Gracias.” After the closing remarks were given I asked if I could take a picture with her, she happily obliged and later sought me out for a photo with her on her camera. It’s new friendships like this that make the work we do so meaningful, I can’t wait to meet up with her in the field and assist her with her campaign any way I can!

A megaphone, a smile, and a bracelet, these are some of the things I will take away from this conference; it enabled all members of our organization to reunite, and remember why we are doing the work we are doing.








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