Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dreams come true for Christmas

Last weeks were all about scholarship programme.
There was a meeting for all the families who subscribed or wanted to subscribe their young kids to high school. The criteria were: willingness to study, involvement in Li Ch’utam activities, poor family resources making studying impossible. The applicants had to fill in the questionnaire with questions such as: why do you want to continue studying, what do you plan to do in 5 years, why do you apply for Li Ch’utam scholarship, how do you want to be involved in Li Ch’utam, how can Li Ch’utam support you apart from the scholarship. They also had to do the year budget for the scholarship. 
(on the pictures you can see the applicants working on their applications)

During the application process it turned out that 2 out of 7 applicants don’t really speak Spanish on the communicative level, other 2 understand but speak rather basic. That makes me think how is it possible that teachers let them graduate 6th grade of primary school (all the classes are in Spanish) if they cannot communicate in Spanish.. I suppose they let them pass because they know that they didn’t make any effort during the year to really teach them.

The next step was an interview with the families to get to know their financial situation, so they were asked about fixed job and other family incomes, number of kids, why parents want the applicant to study and how do they see studying with home tasks.

Thanks to BALEU S.A. we could finally give 3 scholarships and not 2. After reviewing the situation of each family it turned out that there is only one family that has no resources to support the secondary education (no fixed job, many kids) and others live with limited but rather stable income. 

So the final decision was to give one full scholarship and the rest was divided between the other 6 young people. In this way we can support them all according to the needs they have. Apart from financial support Li Ch’utam wants to support them with activities like computer classes, typing, English etc. Celia, Devora, Fidencio, Israel, Julio, Rony and Otto will be studying starting from January with Li Ch’utam support. You should have seen the faces of the kids and their families when I was informing them about the decision. They were so grateful that someone is supporting them in their kids education. I think that’s the best present I have ever given to anyone for Christmas J. Do you remember when I wrote few months ago about the young girl who wants to study but her family has no money for it? She will receive the scholarship - dreams come true for Christmas :)

Marry Christmas!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Understanding the community

Communication with the community is progressing. Visits of each house were taking too long and were not possible because of lack of time and translation resources (because of activities with kids we could have run them only on Monday and Friday morning and not always on these days we had people to translate). So the strategy changed. We had meetings with  COCODE's from both communities (Nueva Mercedes and La Ceiba) and after that we had meetings with people (women mainly) from both communities. At each meeting we had around 10-15 people (instead of 50) but the meetings were very effective. We asked about what people think about Li Ch'utam's work in the community, we were discussing the activities we run with primary school kids and it turned out that some of the families didn't know much about Li Ch'utam or about our activities. Since then we have few new kids coming for our classes. We also discussed the high school education possibilities, costs and possible transportation options. The most interesting part for the women were of course the activities with adults. All the participants (20 women) were very enthusiastic about all our ideas and subscribed for all of them. They had also some new ideas like bread and soap making. It seems like 2014 will be a busy year :).

Secondary education
In the past year there were 5 kids attending high school in Telemán out of which only one girl (for around 20 at the age of high school). I was talking to another girl who did one year of high school but did not get promotion and was not studying last year. She said that she was not studying because her younger brother started to study and the family didn’t have money for her education. She really wants to study and because of a big promotion and Li Ch’utam’s involvement in secondary education her parents decided to subscribe her to start school from January again. She said however that one day her father says that she can continue education and another day he says that there is no reason for it as he has no secondary education and has nice job and above all she’s a woman so what for does she need to study. Her brother says that it’s a waist of money to put her studying. I’m not surprised she didn’t pass the year with such support from her family..
So the subscription to high school was the hottest topic during the last weeks.
First the transportation to Telemán was organized for a reduced price. The previous volunteers discovered that people don’t send their kids to high school because the cost of transportation is too high and the road not secure. It was agreed with one driver that he takes each day high school kids at a specific hour and brings them back after classes. It was to be an exclusive transportation (and the secure one) for high school kids and for certain amount of money to be paid each way no matter how many kids are going. The price reduced from 5Q to 3,75Q each way with at least 20 kids. However after that we received the information that there will be high school in La Constancia which is a closer village, much better and cheaper option for people in the village. The cost of transportation is 2Q each. The cost of school is much lover as well, so the total cost would be around 150Q per month comparing to more than 400Q per month in Telemán. Li Ch'utam helped people to get more information about conditions to encourage them to subscribe. We wanted also to organize the secure transportation on a reduced price to La Constancia instead of Telemán. Counting with 20 out of 27 at the age of high school only 10 were really interested and were attending the meetings. Finally only 7 subscribed to La Constancia and maybe 2-3 will go to Telemán. Only one family asked for financial support. The transportation to La Constancia will not be organized as there are not enough kids. I was very surprised that less than a half of families attended the meetings about high school. So I started talking to these young people if they are going to subscribe and why didn’t their families attend the meetings. Some of them said that they don’t want to study. So it seems that the problem is not security, lack of money or distance but people's (both kids and parents) willingness. Now I feel like it’s worth to focus on those who really want to study, support them financially or in any other way to make them examples for the community and encourage more kids to study next years. Li Ch’utam decided to give 2 scholarships this year to those who could not study without our support. I hope all this will make the families think about their kids education.

One of the previous volunteers suggested that it would be nice to run a study to understand the life of the community better. There are moments when I see the need of such a study as some situations are so much NOT logical for me that it’s difficult to accept them.
Few months ago the school received many (around 200) books from the Ministry of Education. They were supposed to be used during the first half an hour (7:30-8:00) every day during school year so that kids can progress in reading. As the teachers never came at 7:300 the books were not used. During summer activities we do literacy classes and the kids read almost all of the books we have (around 40) so I asked the director if Li Ch’utam could use the school books. He said that during holidays he is not a director but as he was responsible for the books before he put them all in boxes and there is a list and nothing can be lost so Li Ch’utam cannot use them during holidays. So the books were not used during school term (as they arrived late and teachers didn’t want to come for this half an hour reading) and cannot be used during holidays because have to be in the boxes. That’s how the resources (limited indeed) are used effectively..

Before the holiday started I was informed that the invoice of the school electricity was not paid and it’s possible that during holidays there will be no electricity in school. That would disturb our classes a lot as we run 2 hours computer classes twice a week and use computers also during other activities. I even offered help in electricity bill payment. The director assured me that it will be done by the Parents Committee and I don’t have to worry about it. Luckily there was electricity from the beginning of holidays so I though it’s done. Two weeks ago we were connecting computer and speakers for the movie we always put on Wednesday and the discovered that there is no electricity at school. Next day I talked to the director and he said that the bill was to be paid that day and from the next day we can use electricity. Of course next day there was no electricity so Friday computer classes were cancelled. However I was very positively surprised because on Monday morning the electricity was there and in the afternoon I had computer classes with kids. That proves that IT IS possible here to manage the situation “quite” quickly! J Why to wait until the electricity is cut off..?

Loneliness means being closer to people

I forgot to mention hat since 10 days I’m alone in the house. Quite an interesting experience how to overcome fear at night and another prove that getting used to new situation is just a matter of time. I also feel a bit closer to the community, watching local football championship with them, talking to people I meet in the village more than before, getting a lot of information from Celia, Devora and Waldemar and learning Q’eqchi. J It’s somehow different to be alone here than with other volunteers but I’m really looking forward to mid January to have more people onboard.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bantiox Astrid!

Astrid left Mercedes on Friday and it’s rather sad here now.

Few words from Astrid before leaving Mercedes:
“The beginning was a bit difficult for me as I wasn’t speaking Spanish fluently, it was my first experience in volunteering and spending so much time outside France. There were so many people, hot weather and I felt lost. The first week I had to get used to hot weather, food and I was really afraid of animals/insects, especially spiders. But now I know that you can get used to everything (even if you have arachnophobia you can live with spiders under one roof). The children did a very nice welcome and accepted me from the first day. The people in general were very nice for me. Little by little we started working together with Ewa and we got used to living here and every day life was just continuing naturally.
It was nice to work with Ewa, share ideas, feeling as a part of the team and doing things together but also being responsible for some activities.
The best moments were when seeing the kids laughing. Even though they are lacking many things they seem soooo happy. The most incredible is that they spread the happiness easily to everyone around like an “air diseases” and even if you were angry for them a minute ago now they make you happy and you love them with all your heart.
There are some issues/things to improve in Li Ch’utam as it is still a developing organization. The good thing is that it’s a small, grassroots organization and works with people directly and we can see effects of our work quickly (sometimes we see the kids progress even week to week).
I liked to see that there are people especially young people here who want to be involved in the life of their community and I liked a lot to talk and spend time with them.
For me in general it was a very nice experience to meet people, other culture even though it was sometimes difficult to get used to some things like always waiting for people. J But finally I will have a very nice and only positive memories out of this experience. “

Thank you Astrid for your presence in Nueva Mercedes, your excellent work with kids, patience, ideas and commitment to the organization. 

I really loved to work with you as I could always count on you and share my thoughts. Living together and spending free time with you was a great pleasure. I hope that you’ll be in touch with Li Ch’utam and can come back one day to see the changes in the community. I remember when at one of the meetings one mother said: “Dile a Astrid que no se vaya!”. Debora, one of our young volunteers said today that she couldn’t sleep Friday night and was crying because she got used to Astrid so much and she treated her like an older sister. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dodo's first impressions

 Dodo is on board since one week.
“When I took my last flight from Houston to Guatemala City, I was really stressed, because I knew, things would be different, but when I finally left the airport, I thought it was Napoli instead of Guate. But still this isn't Europe, which I learned very fast, because if something works in Napoli, then it's the road building but in Guate the roads and the drivers aswell are very shitty. And if you are used to European roads and travel on those potholed dirt roads for many hours, you get a feeling of being at the and of the world and to be honest, this feeling didn't change by now, because I think this really is the end of the world. But I like the end of the world pretty much, because it's very pretty. Like the streets, very dirty but somehow awesome. Even though my Spanish is not the best, I am able to communicate with the kids already and playing soccer is also an international language, that everyone gets. I'm looking forward to come back here, after I improved my Spanish in Antigua for a month, so I can exchange more than “donde esta la pelota” or “no tocar mi cabello sin preguntar” and grin silly, when I don't get a word again. But by now I'm really glad to be here, sweating my soul out of my body when I make a step, instead of being in the shitty weather, that Hamburg provides at the moment :)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Holiday activities

It’s been already more than 3 weeks of holiday activities in Nueva Mercedes. For morning activities sometimes we had no kids so we have decided to reschedule he activities a bit, so on Monday and Friday there are no activities in the morning and the grades from that days join the other days (pre-primary comes with first grade on Tuesday and fifth and sixth grade comes with third and fourths on Thursday). Anyway for morning activities we have maximum 10 kids, which is quite good because we can attend each kid and not so good in the same time because we reach only around 15-30 kids every week with the morning activities. So far we had two weeks of travelling around the world visiting Guatemala, Poland, France, China, Tanzania, showing photos and describing different customs, preparing flags of different countries, dancing polonez, merengue, doing Chinese hat and African mask. 

The two following weeks are about nature, so we talk about water: seas, lakes, rivers etc, about water animals and the usage of water, it’s importance and disasters. The same scheme is about wind and earth, including ecology issues, always with manual activities. Kids like a lot manual activities we do with the topics, there are 2 kids who come 2 or 3 times a week for the same activity and each time they are happy to do the same manual activity!

The schedule of afternoon activities did not change. Monday and Friday we have computer classes. The good thing is that we have new participants (from families we have visited recently) and these are young girls (not attending the school any more (age 14 and 15). So they were working on computer for the first time last week. We showed them a bit of basics of computer usage and Word/Libre office so that they can learn a bit how to write. We are also discovering the games available in Edubuntu and trying to put different game each time, adjusting to kid’s level of literacy. We plan to put each time a “topic”, for example writing or math or memory etc. so that each kid does something connected with the “topic” but on her/his level.

At literature classes (Tuesday and Thursday) we are progressing with Lester, the kid coming every time who cannot read and write, he already knows almost all the alphabet letters and is practicing it on computer classes as well.

There are more kids from fifth and sixth grade and at the age of high school but not attending school coming for both literacy and computer classes. All together there are almost 50 kids/young people coming for our classes. That means we are reaching almost one third of the kids in the community with our activities. Many kids cannot come because they are working, the older once in the plantation and the youngers at home, some kids live a bit far from school and cannot come alone but still for sure that we could have at least 20-30 more coming.
The nicest view is of course Wednesday when we see 20 faces so naturally laughing watching a movie. J

Last Thursday the school ended officially. 

The sixth grade students had a more formal event (for the first time in this school). 

The teachers came two hours later than they should have as it was raining a lot those days and it was not possible to cross the river in Teleman (for the same reason we couldn’t go for shopping on Wednesday). The decoration and programme was prepared half an hour before the event and the event was 1,5 hour late (Guatemalan style :) ). We had our parts in this event: Astrid was IT person, responsible for the music, and I was a master of ceremony. It was not an easy task as we got this information, programme, music etc. 10 minutes before the start of it. But we were happy to help. The last words of the event belonged to Rony, teacher of the sixth grade who congratulated the students and wished them to continue studying.

Monday, October 21, 2013


Last Monday children here started holidays that will last until mid January. We have decided to run activities for them. Every day from Monday to Friday in the morning we have activities with different grade on the specific topic. For the first two weeks it’s “travelling around the world” where we talk about countries from different continents, showing photos, talking about differences comparing to Guatemala, food, dancing and doing crafts. The next two topics will be: “nature” with animals, plants and a bit of ecology, and “cultural activities” with art, theatre, sports etc. In the afternoon we have classes for everyone, Monday and Friday computer classes, with educational games, Tuesday and Thursday literature – reading books together with different exercises helping in understanding what is read, Wednesday movie watching. We have started on Monday, for the morning activities sometimes we have 10 kids sometimes no one is coming. 

When they come they are eager to learn and do the activities even though they are rather shy. In the afternoon there are much more kids coming (15-20). They like doing math or writing exercises on computers and the games we do apart. During literature classes we only do activities connected with reading and writing. Every child coming starts reading a book and we try to help if any problems. There are also some exercises like reading small texts and guessing what is described. All of the kids try to read and with those who don’t know reading and writing we seat apart showing them letters writing with them and trying to read simple words/books. There is one child already doing progress in our classes in reading.

To help us in the activities with small children but also to create young leaders in the community, we have asked few young people to help us in activities for kids. We have 3 people (one boy and two girls). They help a lot especially with 5-6 years old kids and first grade translating from Spanish to Q’eqchi everything we say. So the team of volunteers here actually has 5 people now: Astrid, Celia, Deborah, Ewa and Waldemar. All the volunteers are doing great job. :) We will have regular meetings where we plan to discuss past week and plan activities for the coming week. One of them is studying in high school in Telemán but the rest cannot continue studying because of lack of money. Wishing for REAL right to education for all kids…

Apart from work with kids and young people we have started talking with parents. We visit families to ask about what they know and think about Lichutam, what kind of activities they want us to do. We ask them about their kids, if they know Spanish on communicative level, can read, write and count. We also ask about their needs (of adults) and activities they propose for themselves. Families we have visited so far are quite positive about an idea of activities with adults. Some of them just want to join the ideas we have and others propose new once. We already have people interested in: writing, reading, Spanish, computer classes, gardening (vegetables mainly), weave, English, workshops on topics like health, children growing, home budgeting, addictions prevention, family planning. There are people in the village who could run some of these activities. It would be great to start the first of them this year.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

New volunteers

Lichutam has 2 new volunteers onsite – Astrid, half French half Finnish, and Ewa, hundred per cent Polish.

After two weeks of travelling through Guatemala and Spanish course in Antigua, we finally arrived with Astrid to Nueva Mercedes two weeks ago. The views during the trip were stunning even though the trip was long and tiring. We both fell in love with pick-up half an hour trip from Telemán to Nueva Mercedes. We arrived in the evening and went straight to our house. It positively surprised us that it’s quite big and comfortable.

On Tuesday morning we went to school for the first time. It was a celebration of Children’s Day. We met teachers and children. Kids were playing instead of having classes. 

There was “piñata”, a big doll made of paper with lots of candies inside. Kids had to destroy it to eat candies. Parents together with teachers prepared lunch for the kids. Of course we were stars there as everyone wanted to know our names, talk to us, play with us etc., especially with Astrid’s blond fair hair. 

In the afternoon we had classes with kids. Only few of them came but were involved in classes, doing math exercises on computers and reading with us.

Andrew was presenting us to everyone we met, trying to explain who is who and whom should we contact in different situations.  People here are very nice and friendly, they are willing to help us in any situation.

A lot happened during the last two weeks:
- we had visits of many pets in the house - few scorpions, many spiders, even one tarantula, small snake – now we are not even surprised when we see them J
- we got used to the hot weather a bit but first days were rather difficult
- things/events here are never on time and for us at the beginning it was difficult to handle it; now we just try to do our stuff while waiting J
- we had professional tortilla lesson by Celia (14 years old) and her sister (8 years old)
- on Sunday we went with kids to swim in the nearby river; cold water and hot weather together with beautiful view made it a great time spent with kids

- we were invited to the Birthday Party of one of the teacher’s son (3) and we had a possibility to try home made food - chicken soup, tamal, tortilla, rise, and a dish made of chicken blood (very interesting taste)
- we’ve met owners of the plantation in Nueva Mercedes, a very nice engineer working here,
people from the nearby village, also international volunteers who stay there working with kids, garden and construction
- last Friday, we went to Telemán for the event prepared by High school students about Maya culture; traditional dances, music (including playing marimba, Guatemalan traditional instrument), clothes, imitations of houses with decorations typical for Maya people, food prepared by the students – perfect end of the first two weeks and the best start to know Maya culture; of course we were taking pictures of the houses and students in their traditional clothes and people were taking pictures of us J
- Q’eqchi – it is very different from Spanish and quite difficult to pronounce; however we try hard to learn some words and we see that people appreciate it when we can at least say words like “bantiox” (thank you) or “masa’la chol” (how are you); so we keep trying. J

Andrew left last Saturday and I think it was a sad day not only for him but for many people in the village. It’s strange to be here without him. Who’s going to play guitar and sing every night, wake us up with breakfast ready, prepare delicious and (very) spicy food, teach us how to make tortillas, explain again and again who is who? It seems that now we have to start building our own female life here. J

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fighting Illiteracy

To this day I recall quite vividly my first day at Nueva Mercedes school back in February. Quite nervous and soft-spoken—uncharacteristic of myself--I decided to spend the day with the second grade, as I find children in this age group to be more often easy-going, compared to hormonal fifth and sixth graders. One of my first simple acts of assistance to Instructor Marta consisted of me passing out chapter books to the children, saying hello, repeating my name endlessly, and then walking around the room and listening to them read, sometimes helping them sound out a long word. Discovering that the majority of the class could sound out most of the words and read out-loud (sometimes to a point of obnoxiously yelling), my first relieving thought was, “Phew, at least they know how to read.” However, this conclusion I would come to discredit in time, as I have discovered the school, the community, and the entire region is plagued by illiteracy.

Upon realizing that almost all of the children-- grades 1 to 6--were reading in the exact same lifeless, monotone voice, even during sentences with question marks, exclamation points, and quotations, I sensed that something was inherently wrong. After examining closely the teaching methods in first and second grade I concluded that the teachers had been successful in implementing the phonics method of teaching reading but have failed in instructing the children to the convert the letters' phonetics into comprehensible written language. Considering the undeniable importance of literacy being at the basis of education, as well as its service as an invaluable tool to many children who will finish school after sixth grade and begin working, I say if a school should give a child anything it must be the ability to decipher text.

In a lecture held one day in the third grade, Instructor Elda discussed the problems of illiteracy having negative impacts in the communities of Guatemala. To make her point further clear, she asked the children in the room to raise their hands if their parent's knew how to read and write. In a class of twenty-five students, six raised their hands. Furthermore provoking, and a testament to the results of this exercise, in a study revealed in the national newspaper Presa Libre, the municipality of Panzos, where Mercedes is located, is red-flagged and identified as having the second highest percentage rate of illiteracy in the country (47.38%).

The numbers' are clearly daunting, however, we are going to fight this simply by planting seeds for the future and our solution to this is getting books inside the house for the kids to read. Whether it be due to cultural or financial reasons, currently the families of Nueva Mercedes do not own books therefore the children appear to be estranged to them. With hope of reversing this we have begun to provide books to the children via a small library system where they are given the opportunity to check-out a book for a number of days at a time to bring home or elsewhere. As of now we have forty books, varying in reading level and subject matter, and the plan is to increase this number substantially, diversifying as much as possible, including not only fiction but historical, scientific, and environmental topics. Operating for about three weeks now, it has become popular among a small group of students and I believe that we will see greater participation with the accumulation of more books.

We are currently writing a “Donation Call” similar to that which we made for our laptops to request books from individuals, as well as sharing our small campaign with our friends CampusTech and Empresarios por la Educacion in the city who both have expressed interest in helping promote our cause. With the summer approaching it will be a very straight-forward objective for Li Ch'utam to raise books for the 2014 school year and formally introduce it at the start of the school year to acclimate the children to the process.

 Of course, simply providing books will not improve the situation alone. It is going to take a great amount of joint effort between the volunteers and teachers, and with their evidently being lack of communication between the two parties, a common objective such as increasing literacy could be a means of bringing us closer together.

 “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” 
                                                                                         -Dr. Seuss

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Two Pivotal Steps

Picking up where I left off in the most recent post, regarding primarily more interaction with the community and searching for what might be desired, I'd like to share two current goals that myself and the Li Ch'utam team have set up for ourselves in the coming weeks. First, we are in the midst of setting up interviews with a dozen or so families that either have children approaching the end of primary school, children already attending basico (the equivalent of middle school in the United States) and/or children eligible to attend basico but currently are not for a number of different reasons which will be shared throughout this posting. Second, we are on a mission to discuss with chauffeurs in Teleman potential price range of developing a round-trip Transportation System accessible to only basico students at a discounted fare.

A note for the readers: in Guatemala, free public education beyond 6th grade is not provided, therefore it becomes the responsibility of the families to incur the costs, which in a large number of cases unfortunately is beyond their means. Once I gain more information about the total costs of education I should be able to elaborate on educational investment hindrance.

The purpose of the first task is for one, to have a formal discussion with the parents about the realities of higher education, to hear what they have to say about the potential opportunity, and express our interests in continuing a dialogue with them to explore choices and possible outcomes. Already having multiple discussions with parents and young adults in Mercedes, Teleman and surrounding communities, the desire to continue studying is ubiquitous. Even a number of teachers I have spoken to passionately expressed their cravings for a university level of education, as they feel it would allow them to perform their jobs better, but like the families of Mercedes the costs are beyond their salaries (Note: Becoming a teacher in Guatemala does not require university level certification which perhaps explains the high number of under-qualified teachers.  Excuse my lack of proper citing and statistics, but I was sometime back informed of a privately funded study that revealed that nearly half of primary level school teachers cannot pass 6th grade level evaluations. Food for thought.) This all being said, there is a lot to sit down and talk about, even if there are no apparent solutions. Secondly, it will provide us with basic data, such as overall costs including uniform, transportation, food, and school supplies (obtained by parents who currently have children attending), and the maximum amount of money families would be willing and able to pay given there was some sort of potential subsidy.

The idea for the second task was proposed by past volunteer Michal Azarkiewicz while we were discussing possible scholarship opportunities for female students considering the ratio of boys to girls that attend basico in Teleman is relatively high, especially among the outside communities such as Mercedes. We have discovered that this disproportionate ratio is in part due to security issues, such as sexual harassment and in extreme situations, rape. One of the underlying problems of the whole issue is that basico school hours are from roughly 2 pm to 7 pm therefore the children must travel back to their communities via bicycle or pick-up truck in extreme darkness, evidently an unsafe atmosphere for a young lady. Upon becoming aware of this reality, Michal suggested that we open up a conversation with chauffeurs in Teleman (there being many) and try to arrange a fair compensation that will likewise become a positive addition to the typical school day of dozens of children trekking multiple kilometers on foot or bicycle in the blazing hot after-noon sun and dangerous pitch-black evenings.

The necessity to set up this proposed Transportation System became even more pressing after a discussion I held with our scholar-student Waldemar when he shared with me his most recent experience of fleeing from men who were trying to lure him into their vehicle while on his way home from school one evening of recent. Aware that there have been instances of “ransom” in the region, Waldemar dropped his bike (perhaps his most valuable possession other than himself) and sprinted into the nearby sugar cane plants and hid for nearly 30 minutes until they passed. Part of me wishes that his story was merely a child's nightmare enhanced by paranoia and embellishment, and at first I was equally surprised as I was horrified to hear of a such story in a place that appears to be so calm and distanced from the crime-infested city, but it is a clear message that something as simple as a couple pick-up trucks dropping exhausted children securely off at or near their homes must be devised and promoted as soon as possible.

Much more to be said  and done.  Stay tuned : )

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Planning or Searching?

In the absence of writing in the past month, I have had many discoveries and realizations about Li Ch'utam's efforts in Nueva Mercedes, which was initially provoking and frustrating, but has since become constructive and useful criticism. One can see by looking at the blogs from the past six-months that we have been very involved in the lives of the children in and outside of the school, being a presence in the classroom, hosting an after-school program with computers, arts, crafts, books, movies, physical activities, and initiating weekly river trips. Speaking on behalf of myself and the other volunteers, in our time spent here, there has been many of those beautiful moments of absolute bliss where the children and us young adults, coming from different parts of the world, have lost our sense of differentiation, and to use the cliché, became one. These undoubtedly wonderful and beneficial experiences we have shared with the children, however, is not where my criticism lies.

 What I am most concerned about is our relationship with the adults. Being an organization that is seeking to assist a small rural community in regards to education and well-being, there must be a bridge between the intervening organization (Li Ch'utam) and the recipients (the members and leaders of Nueva Mercedes). I regret to admit that even after six-months of volunteering, this bridge is still inadequate, but to remain positive, it is in the process of construction and I see it as only being a matter of time, full of greater interaction and communication.

These recent criticisms and influences have come from a number of different sources. A month ago we said good-bye, thank you, and hope to see you soon to a wonderful member of our team, Jess Lyga, who was magnificent with the children and likewise very keen about visiting the community in afternoon hours, and interacting with the mothers. Her enthusiasm to embrace the community in the short two-months she was here was admirable and inspiring. Additionally, just today I said farewell to Quentin Veuillet, whose words in conversations I shared with were very eye-opening, even at times aggravating, as he discussed his views that we lacked clear tangible objectives in our work, which he pushed would only become clear through greater dialogue with the adults of Mercedes. Lastly, I am currently reading a book called “The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, by William Easterly, a former World Bank employee. The book, loaded with anecdotes and powerful controversial ideas, starts off with his comparison between what he calls Planners and Searchers. In summation, planners work from the top-- “trying to remake the poor in image of the West”-- and introduce ideas without much feedback or investigation as to what is truly necessary in the recipients community, and searchers, on the contrary, are more grass-root organizations that attempt to understand the communities they are working with first, initiating a dialogue, forging relationships and trust, and ultimately together introducing and proposing solutions that are contextually relevant to their reality.

Li Chu'tam, a minuscule organization in comparison to the IMF and World Bank efforts however capable of creating both positive and negative externalities, must strive to be a Searcher, which requires a different effort that is beyond fund-raising and brainstorming, which in a sense is seemingly counterintuitive, as the “western” mode of thinking typically assumes that with finances and human capital, anything is possible.  But to our dismay, we are not in the “Western World” therefore we must train ourselves to think differently. There will be a time for accumulation of funding and for proposals, but for right now, I whole-heartedly believe, in accordance with the beliefs of Mr. Easterly, that our efforts must be focused on simply observing, listening, conversing, and digesting our discoveries to paint a clear picture of Guatemala, the Polochic Valley, and Nueva Mercedes.

At first I considered many of these thoughts to be along the lines of “back-tracking” and making our previous efforts seemingly less valuable, however, I now see it all to be apart of my own personal learning experience in this sort of work. I couldn't be more proud of what we have done in my first six months here, as I still feel that the school and children are the perfect means of becoming acquainted and familiarized with the community. This month I will be shorthanded, with only myself to work with until the arrival of two new volunteers, embracing the exhaustion following a day's work with the school and sharing it with the hard-working men, women and children of a community that I look forward to knowing more about day-by-day.  

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cambia, Todo Cambia

Positive energy, rather than mosquitoes, has been currently swarming us here in the Polochic Valley as we are seeing and feeling tremendous development in our impact in the school-day, our after-school class, and our overall presence in the community of Nueva Mercedes. A proposed library system, four fixed computers, greater scheduled computer/reading/art classes, proposed singing classes, and weekly river trips, it's almost overwhelming, yet music to our ears and kudos to our efforts.

The relationships that we are building with the teachers --what I find to be perhaps one of the most important steps--is really beginning to blossom, as there are conversations before, during and after classes about how we want to be more involved in and out of school, and likewise how they can be more involved in what we are doing (This was a problem I  faced and have noted again and again, and perhaps it is just time permitting, but also for future volunteers, I'd like to note that it is imperative to take the initiative to reach out to the teachers and get to know them as best as possible for we must learn to feed off of each other.)  With attendance for our after-school class climbing above thirty children we have proposed a solution for the teachers to help promote and support us by dividing the children into two groups based on grades: first, third, fourth, and second, fifth, sixth. They gladly accepted and now the teachers each have a fixed weekly schedule posted in their classrooms that identifies which group practices on each day and likewise they announce reminders at the end of class. This little effort by the teachers is important as they are the main authoritarian figures on the school grounds, thus it reminds the children that our class is an extension of the school-day, and deserves the same mandatory level of respect. Most importantly, this involvement signifies a bridge between the two teaching bodies, which at times in the past seemed detached from and disharmonious with one another.

School director, Reginaldo, has been of great help lately by lending us school records of student evaluation scores permitting us to begin developing a statistic-based tracking system that will allow us to see our impact in student performance. Also, he has approved of our plan to introduce a library system where children can check out books for certain amounts of time to bring home and read. This idea was inspired by the discovery that very few children in Mercedes have access to books , therefore have zero opportunity to read leisurely outside of school. Our small volunteer operated library would be a means to provide children with books to bring home and practice reading, and hopefully will promote greater reading interests among all ages in the community as well as responsible behavior since the children will be expected to care for the books and return them on time in the same condition when borrowed. Lastly, Reginaldo has spoken to the first grade teacher Anna on behalf of us and received permission to open up her room in the afternoon to be used for our after-school agenda. Our plan is to have the computers in one classroom with only the students practicing, and the other classroom to be a library setting or art class. This idea including the split groups we find to be a potential solution to the on-going problems we have faced in regards to distractions and over-crowding.

Since the arrival of our current volunteers over a month ago our after-school class has tremendously improved. Being here for the entire school year, it is an incredible experience to see something step by step grow and mature as new minds and personalities contribute what they can. Beyond the arts which Jess has been largely responsible for (check out last weeks Blog by Jess detailing her efforts) the IT class has really evolved since Quentin's arrival. Possessing technical skills I and others have lacked the past 6 months, Quentin has fixed four malfunctioning computers (we now have 8 functioning machines), and got them all up-to-date with the current Edubuntu software that we use the majority of the lessons. The increased number of laptops allows more children to practice each day and at longer intervals. With our split agenda this means that 15 children get 45 minutes to 1 hour of practice twice a week. A giant leap forward.

Something important we have realized about the math programs we are currently using is they do not not effectively “teach” the children new concepts, but only allow them to practice which they already know, therefore we have begun to give one-on-one lessons on the dry-erase board. For example, my third graders are working on multiplication so I use to board to explain alternative methods of counting to find the product of two numbers. Like most third graders, larger factors such as 8 and 9 are more difficult for them to calculate internally.   We intend to begin creating lesson plans that we could give for 10-15 minutes to five or six students prior to each computer session. This will be specifically helpful for the students who are falling behind in their day classes.

On top of all of this I have constructed an educational board game incorporating day-time material into a race against peers that has become extremely popular among the third grade students (soon to be shared with other grade levels). We have begun weekly river trips to Pueblo Viejo on Sundays, a day to simply cool off, relax, practice swimming, collect flowers, search for flat rocks to paint, and explore the awe of the Polochic Valley walking through the many corn fields which have decorated this region of the world for thousands of years. We are trying to make more frequent trips to the village in the late afternoon to interact with families, for instance, we have begun to visit one of the local churches to support the children's choir. These evening trips have inspired the idea to bring music to our after-school program, which is in the works as I am talking to Reny, a community member and guitarist who is enthusiastic about playing music with Quentin and myself which we will in turn share with the children.

"Cambia, todo cambia" -Mercedes Sosa

Monday, July 15, 2013

Art in the Valley

By Jess-
Today marks the midpoint of my time volunteering with Lichutam with barely four weeks in the Polochic. My short stay has flown by, marked by the methodical smacking of mosquitos. So from my peak here in the valley, I’d like to make a rough analysis of the work I’ve done so far as I also start looking towards an impending departure.

After the first day helping out with the afternoon computer class, the most pressing problem seemed to be the ratio of four working computers for the 30+ students who attended. Many of the children would initially occupy themselves with the approximately 50 books that comprise our mobile library, but after the first half of their two hour class, their attention starts to falter. As the volume in the classroom slowly rises, and the echoes of the voices of 30 restless children bounce off the tin roof, my co-volunteers and I leave each session completely drained. I decided to try and rally the reckless troops behind a loosely organized art project to both diversify the 2 hour session and give the children an interactive, creative outlet that seems to be missing during the school day.

The first day that I brought paints and brushes to class was a complete success. We started with the simple assignment of painting a flower, but based on the enthusiasm and patience of the kids, I have since been able to organize more involved projects such as making beads out of recycled plastic bottles.  The kids’ complete embrace of every activity we have thought of, from paper cranes to bracelets to small writing tasks leaves us excited and challenged to fill this new niche. 

 I’m continuously amazed at the versatility of paint and paper, which leads me to contemplate the connection between the school’s lack of materials and the oftentimes slow and monotonous school day. On the bright side, the lack of first-world school supplies forces us to find unique ways to use the Polochic’s grossly underutilized resource: namely the garbage that can be found lining ever roadside and riverbed. 

  In the coming weeks I hope to further explore and test both the limits of my own and the kids’ creativity while simultaneously spreading the message of the importance of recycling. (This seems to be especially important here because the river that holds thousands of discarded pepsi bottles is the same water many people use at home.)

On a more personal note, I would like to comment on my rather unique situation of being one of the first women volunteers that has visited the valley. I think being female has made my experience distinctly different in some ways than those of my co-volunteers. From the first day at school I noticed a sharp divide between the boys and girls. The most obvious difference being the jeans and western  t-shirts sported by most of the boys, while almost all of the girls wear a traditional skirt and top. While I have had a little bit more difficultly connecting with the boys, my relationship with the girls has been especially easy and open. I’ve already had more than several cooking lessons because to the horror of everyone here I don’t cook and can’t make tortillas. From accidentally sitting on the wrong side during a church service to my strange tendency to ‘dress like a boy,’ it’s been interesting living in a community that’s so divided along gender lines.

As the date on my return flight quickly approaches, I hope I will have time to expand the ‘art-class’ and spread out a little more in the community. If the next half goes as well as the first I think my only problem will be finding the willpower to pack my things.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Rain Rain Go Away

On the way back from classes the other day I said to co-volunteer Jess that it is interesting how the external environment influences our internal thoughts and perspective as I realized that my most pervading thoughts at the time were, not so much to say pessimistic, but  critical of what I was observing in the classrooms.   Up to this point in the school year, days have rarely offered anything other than blue skies and sunshine, translating to and providing me, a consistent stream of optimism (an ideal standpoint to begin any experience in a community very different from my own).   However, of most recent, the rain which I have noted in an earlier blog has become such a force that it has altered the entire mood of the Polochic Valley.  For example, the sun no longer awaits us outside our door every morning, but instead has been replaced by grey skies and thirsty mosquitoes, and the pollen released by the various floras at times plays tricks on our bodies.  Needless to say the rain-season has its benefits undoubtedly, yet it requires slight adaptation.

The main points that I have been most critical of in the classroom are poor teacher attendance, poor time  management, and lack of resources.  I walked to school this Monday excited to continue classes after a national rest week for teachers, and was immediately frustrated to see that classes had been cancelled for another national holiday.  Tuesday classes continued, but were slow to start, lacked energy, and one of the teacher’s was not present.  After over a week of resting I had hoped to see an excited rejuvenated teaching staff, but this was not the case. 

After reviewing our teacher attendance sheet, I’ve noticed we have two teachers that have already missed at least twenty days of classes, many of the reasons being “work-related” and some unexcused.  Regardless, the children on these days are not provided with substitute teachers therefore miss out on days of learning.  Unfortunately the issue of attendance is something that seems out of our reach in improving, but I believe that through greater communication and coordination, we will be able to allow for more transparency and perhaps we can develop some sort of safety-net system where we can catch the children up on missed lessons via our afterschool program.

The time management of the third grade class has improved substantially since my arrival in February, however, there is plenty of room for improvement.  There are still moments throughout the day where the children will finish a lesson or activity, and rush to the corners to play marbles or jacks.   With success, I have been able to isolate up to two or three children in these moments to really see if they absorbed the lesson or activity, but I’d like this to be the norm of the entire classroom.  The other day I asked third grade instructor Elda if she could give me the lesson plan for the following day at the end of each class so that I could plan extra activities that coincide with what we are doing.  She kindly agreed and added that she finds it to be a good idea.

The resource scarcity at this point is my largest qualm and is something that stems deep into the economics and politics of Guatemala.  A month ago I was informed by Elda that the construction of the government funded school was never actually finished as it was designed to have finished bathrooms and a small kitchen to cook the children’s mid-day snack (of which were not provided to the school until two months after the year begun).  Furthermore, we are having issues receiving all of the other smaller school materials that the government is required to supply.  Textbooks have arrived (3 months late) for grades kindergarten to fourth, but we have not been provided with the correct amount.  In a discussion that I shared with Veronica Spross, director of Empresarios por la Educacion, she mentioned to me that at the start of the school year every school was to be provided with four-hundred reading books for the children.  I brought this up to the school’s director Reginaldo that knew nothing about it.  lastly there are basic simple things which are lacking in Nueva Mercedes such as paper for the children and markers for the dry-erase board.  The other day Elda gave lessons with a faint marker that was practically unreadable from the seats of the children.

Class Materials Shelf
Many of the issues that I mention have begun to frustrate me further because these are obstacles that are much larger than we are at Li Ch’utam or the teachers are in Nueva Mercedes.  As a grass-roots organization we have no ability or intention to recreate the whole system, but are here to work within it and strive to set an example to the hundreds of other schools that are in the same predicament.  Like the pesky mosquitoes, some problems we face are inextinguishable, yet we relentlessly push forward even if only inch by inch.  

*In contrast to this useful critical analysis, our afterschool program is thriving, and we eagerly look forward to sharing our stories and the many photographs in our next posting that testify to its success.