Guatemala: Struggle and Opportunity

Every once in a while, we get to pop off the treadmill of our daily lives and dive into an experience that shakes up routines.  I’m thinking of the type of experience that not only jerks you out of your regular schedule, but also stimulates you to think about yourself and the world around you with a fresh lens.  I just returned from that type of rare adventure.

In March I travelled with Leading Women ( http://www.leadingwomen.biz/) to the mountain village of Santa Cruz, to work with emerging leaders at their nascent vocational center and micro enterprise, CECAP, a project of Amigos de Santa Cruz (www.amigosdesantacruz.org).  Before launching into work, I visited Antigua, reigniting my Spanish language skills, rusty from years of hibernation.  The night I arrived I attended a talk by Sue Patterson, founder of Wings Guatemala (www.wingsguate.org), an important NGO that strives to curb exploding pregnancy rates. Sue’s informative talk armed me with data about the nation’s deep history of violence (still one of the highest murder rates in the world), severe poverty and malnutrition(fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition globally with 49.8% children under five malnourished)).   I was pleased to deliver some product samples to Wings provided by Maternova (http://maternova.net) a global organization addressing maternal and newborn care that is based in Rhode Island.  Meg Wirth, Maternova’s founder, offered me the kits at the Social Enterprise Ecosystem Development Conference (SEEED) at Brown University just days before my trip.    I also had several conversations at the Conference that connected me to social entrepreneurs who I met in Guatemala.

Our delegation from Leading Women gathered in Antigua before heading off for our assignments on Lake Atitlan.  As luck would have it, President Otto Perez Molina arrived in Antigua for drug talks with the Presidents of Costa Rica and Panama the same day.  Their talks focused on headline grabbing calls to decriminalize the production, transit and consumption of illegal drugs.  Security officials casually paroled.  Hundreds of school children in uniforms filled the town square, waving national flags in anticipation of a brief hello to the crowd from the officials.  While we waited for the Presidents to address the crowd, Lent processions paraded through the streets carrying statues of Christ on their shoulders accompanied by the dirge of amateur bands.

This scene epitomizes Guatemala’s cultural cross currents.  In one town square, Democratic leaders sought to garner attention and support from the masses to address seemingly intractable problems.  A stone’s throw away, Catholics, dressed head to toe in black, streamed through the streets to publicly honor the ritual of Christ’s crucifixion while indigenous Mayans dressed in colorful traditional woven attire sold wares to curious tourists.  Guatemala struggles to weave together many complexities and contradictions.

Enriched by this introduction to the country, we survived a stomach lurching 3 hour van ride to Lake Atitlan to begin our work.  My commute by foot was complicated by recent floods that submerged critical paths that link villages.  I navigated makeshift platforms along the lake and climbed the mountain to reach the village of Santa Cruz.  I was greeted by founder and Director Pat Torpie, an American who moved to the area in the late 1990s and was aghast to discover the deplorable condition of the local schools where children rarely attended past third grade and teachers were woefully unprepared.  Amigos has evolved from an initial focus on education to address nutrition, environmental issues and most recently sustainable economic development.  I spent the week working with the board and staff of Amigos and CECAP, the vocational training center they built 2 years ago.  The bright yellow building towers on the mountain side and symbolizes an important presence in the village.  Programs train students in culinary skills, weaving, sewing, computers, woodwork, metal work and more.  The culinary program graduated its first class last year.  Two students started their own enterprises, most were hired by nearby hotels and restaurants and Juan Carlos, the top of the class, was selected to launch CECAP’s new café.  I can attest to his impressive cooking skills, having enjoyed not only local dishes but also Italian and Asian cuisine.  Even more impressive, the Café is earning a small profit in its first year of operation!  This initial enterprise is promising for the students and organization alike.  It means that students who commit to ongoing training have hope to find work, earn better income and secure an improved quality of life. For CECAP, micro enterprises can earn funds to reinvest in critical programs.

I worked with the program managers, all indigenous young people from the area.  What struck me was their tenacity.  In one-on-one conversations, each person explained that in addition to working full time for CECAP they are all pursuing additional education each weekend and they work other jobs just to make ends meet.  It was not surprising that they described feeling exhausted!

The highlight of the week was a team meeting.  Like meetings I’ve facilitated for decades, we identified themes that support and hinder their work.  The challenges are universal issues: programs operating too independently; managers needing more feedback and support; and communication, communication, communication.  People working in enormously diverse contexts often share basic challenges.  What was unique at CECAP was the passion and commitment this young management team has to solve these issues.  Every day they see the fruits of their labors.  New students gain knowledge, skills and confidence.  A rooftop organic garden is installed and fresh vegetables are immediately incorporated into the café menu.  Students get new jobs and can afford to purchase a family stove, improving family and environmental health.  A donated laptop helps one more program gain access to global resources.

This Margaret Mead quote is overused: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Yet it is an accurate description of the impactful work of Amigos and CECAP of Santa Cruz.  They are truly changing lives and their community.  It was a privilege to spend some time with them in March.

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