I am in an internet cafe in Antigua, Guatemala after spending one of the most amazing weeks with some of the most impressive people in the Development Field I have had the good fortune to meet and work with in the field! I am a month behind in posts and I still want to give you all updates of the great times and celebrations I had with close friends and family in Austin, NY, Wisconsin and down in Sayulita, Mexico, before leaving on this adventure, but I am going to jump ahead to give fill you all in on the past week; my first week and full immersion into the world of clean water, sanitation and health and the culture of a growing and developing Country; Guatemala!
I had the opportunity this past week to team up with Lynn Roberts, the director of Agua Para La Salud, the in Country NGO who is partnering with Blue Planet Network on various projects bring safe drinking water to those in need in rural Guatemala. I teamed with Lynn to visit the sites of six new projects to provide clean water and sanitation by means of adding hand wash stations and flush toilets to schools in small communities in Highlands of rural Guatemala near Huehuetenango, five hours north of Guatemala City and Antigua . Five hours not including the hour plus drive on rocky mountainous roads up to the schools themselves!
The adventure began with a complete scare factor, first from my good friend Lindsay, who told me the how dangerous Guatemala City was with gangs and just plain lawlessness, and the rural area being dangerous with drug lords and really, just the poor trying to find means to survive. This fear was magnified after reading the 12 page document that PassportHealth gave me before I left Austin and I first got to read as I was flying into Guate City, which confirmed all Lindsay´s fears and added more about not taking taxis, thefts as you leave the airport and not wanting to be outside at night alone; – tough news, when my flight was scheduled to land at 6:30 PM, in the pitch dark!
I will admit, the fact the everyone had machine guns, including the guard at the gate to the area of town my hotel was in and at my hotel, heightened the fear even a little bit more! -But with many thanks to Jackie Powell, who works with Lynn and Agua Para La Salud, I arrived safely to a hotel, that she had arranged for me and onto a bus the next morning at 7:00 AM, for the five-hour bus ride up to Huehuetenango to meet Lynn on Monday at noon. What Jackie did in coordinating my first 24 hours, with about 24 hours noticed, really showed me what a quality group I was working with and how much value they give to the communities and everyone they work with on a daily basis.
This is where the amazing was magnified 10 fold! Lynn Roberts in the first four hours together taught me more about how in Country NGO’s work and how they work so closely with other organizations like Blue Planet Network, Safe our Children, Global Water, International World Water, Rotary International, Engineers without Boarders and others for funding, identification, implementation and monitoring of projects, .
I quickly learned what these people are doing in vitally important and although there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things, there is still more need and help to be given. I also learned that the in country grass roots organizations, working with the community, can get a lot done that really help the local population in a multitude of ways from boosting the economy, building skilled work forces and delivering clean water, sanitation and what every is in need (education, …).
I had a chance over the week to meet a number of these amazing people while working with Lynn. Construction at three of the schools projects at El Cherza, Plan Grande and Los Moresstart start next week,. All the projects are being done in conjunction with the Peace Corps Healthy School Programs, so we met with and traveled to all the sites together with these two incredibly bright and dedicated Peace Corps development volunteers, Megan May and Javie Carpenter.
Lynn´s 17 years of in country experience, shined through with his knowledge of the various groups and local communities and the overall process. Lynn brings the community in the project at the application phase. Working with the Peace Corps teams who are already working at the schools and knows the community, they complete the application process working with Lynn on what is needed for the project to make the school a Healthy School. The community is involved from that point forward in planning, coordinating, actual construction and future maintenance and management. It is giving the community ownership and empowering as being decision makers and contributors to the improvements for their children.
I need to mention where these schools are located and who lives in these rural locations. The first project site, El Cherza School near Xepon, we went to with Megan from the Peace Corps was an hour trip in a four-wheel drive truck, over a mountain through a valley and up a second peak to where the school is located. All on dirt/rock/crater roads that I don’t know are made for vehicles or not. Guatemala has a population of 13 Million People with a majority of the rural communities made up of one of 23 different indigenous Mayan People. El Cherza is one of those communities largely made up of Indigenious Mayan people, where most the children come to school knowing only the Mayan indigenous language spoken in the home before learning Spanish in the schools. The schools are typically built at the tops of hills, where the land is typically drier and not as fertal. It is worth noting that Megan hikes this trek by foot, leaving at 5 AM in the morning to be able to be at the school by 9:00 AM to meet with the students and teachers and most important parents to discuss good hygiene.
We spent the second half of the week visiting schools where the hand wash stations have already been installed to confirm they were working and a success. We started the day at a 200 student school, Xecax School , where all the teachers praised the benefits of both the new flush toilets and wash station that Agua La Salud had installed at their school last year. Francisco, one of the teachers proudly showed us his first grade class room and students, who we saw using and loving the hand wash stations first hand after their play time and before they ate.
We also visited Acul school, also in the Ixil, north of Nabej where there were more successful projects to inspect and positive success stories to hear. Lynn has been tracking the administer of Health reports here in Guatemala that indicate that they mortality rate has decreased in past 10 years, which in part may be attributed to healthy and safe water sources and the associated good healthy habits learned and able to do in schools. One concrete fact, a Peace Corps member Amber referenced that her school has seen a reduced absentee rate since her school had put in the hand wash stations and flush toilets. No mater how you measure it, from experience it first hand this past week, I can see that is working and the smiles of the children playing and leaning show it best!
Sorry, this is one of my longer posts, but I just was feeling pretty passionate about all I learned this week and I really wanted to share it with you all along with some pictures from the school projects and Guatemala overall. It has been amazing!!
Next week will be in Guate City working with Potter House and Beyond the Walls at the inner City landfill where we will be working on building a family a home and evaluating water needs.