Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Li Ch’utam: Coming Together to Create Solutions

During the 21 years that Caleb Winship and myself (David Kando) have spent on this Earth we have always been very “different”…. It might have something to do with the fact that we have traveled or worked in 27 countries including every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Since we met at Northeastern University 4 years ago, we have helped build schools in the Dominican Republic with a grass roots student run NGO, worked with multinational sustainable development organizations like the Deshpande Foundation and Northeastern’s own Social Enterprise Institute, studied Spanish and International Business in Spain and Mexico, and been given the opportunity to create our own internships by the school’s international co-op department. We are part of a well-respected International Business program where in our graduating class of 2013 over 30 students chose a sister-school in Spain and 3 of us chose the sister-school in Mexico (Caleb, myself, and 1 peer.) Caleb and I specifically chose to be in Latin America to work in sustainable development and encounter opportunities like the one we’ve shared with Li Ch’utam during our last 6 months in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. More specifically for all the lovely Guatemalan people reading this: 4 hours from the capital in microbus to Coban, 4 more hours to La Tinta, quick bus to Teleman, then a 10 minute ride in the back of a pickup to Nueva Mercedes. Purrrroooo Poloochic…..

I don’t think it came as any surprise to our University when we told them we were going to Guatemala to live in a tropical rainforest for 6 months. Nor when we added that our house would be in a community of plantations where the average 15 year old has 2 children and the majority of children enter the work force at 14, unable to read or write Spanish with their 6th grade education.  Not only were they not surprised, they were extremely generous with scholarships and marketing Li Ch’utam’s efforts in the United States.

 It was Guatemalans that were surprised when Caleb and I explained what Li Ch’utam was, where we would be working, and what we would be doing for the next 6 months. From the official meetings with politicians and businesswo/men in the city and less official conversations on 8 hour bus rides through hills and valleys of beautiful Guatemala no one was betting that they would see our faces again apart from that first conversation. To their surprise, “the two gringos from the Polochic” showed up like clockwork every first of the month in the city to relate the latest and greatest news from Li Ch’utam in the Polochic Valley and see how the urban reform projects by government and private businesses groups were progressing and when the next collaborations between the pueblo and the city would be taking place. We began by relating our horror stories of the local rural education systems over lunch with the who’s who in national educational reform. As the months went by we stopped losing time in the negatives that everyone had been talking about for years and started to talk with people like Campus Tec, Ashoka, the Pirate Party, and the U.S. state department about real solutions to these problems and different steps we had taken at Li Ch’utam to address grave issues in the rural education systems.

Li Ch’utam itself is a blessing to the Q’eqchi people who live in the Polochic among a sea of foreign owned super-plantations and cash crops.  Of all the corporations and wealthy foreign and central American families that own land in the valley, the majority don’t care very much about their workers or their worker’s kids (future employees.)  In fact, most owners just visit their plantations once in a blue moon to see the money machine ticking away and then they whisk away their families to some giant house in a more relaxed climate with a better school system. This is where one very special family of German plantation owners and Li Ch’utam steps into the picture. 

Hugo Droege came to Guatemala before World War 2 in search of a better life for his family. Not your typical modern plantation owner, Hugo was known for carrying just his safari hat and walking stick around the uninhabited jungle chopping down piece by piece of dense rainforest with his team of workers he convinced to come from various corners of the country. Speaking the local Mayan Q’eqchi language and being in the field with his workers every day Hugo is a legend in the area for his kindness, work ethic, and his ability to build a business that his children would come to run for generations.  The Droeges are famous for always living in the Polochic in the same rainforest as their workers (no doubt the houses are built to slightly different specifications, but the Droeges by no means live like the other plantation owners of the area) and having their children grow up alongside the children of the Q’eqchi people who work the fields. This relationship between the children is where Li Ch’utam all began some 25 years ago with our boss Henning Droege (grandson of Hugo.) Henning was a smart, dynamic child who could balance a spreadsheet and navigate a horse through a densely forested hillside…probably at the same time.  All of his friends would run through the jungle with him and play with the animals and spend hours talking to Henning about dreams and the future. And this is where Henning started to notice that his future was destined for other things than that of his peers. At 12 years old, Henning was dreaming of a life of airplane rides to Europe, a multinational education, and a future as a diplomat. His peers were looking to finish their education in the next 3 years, start working the fields, and making a family next door to the house they grew up in. Memories of these drastic differences in education and opportunity never left Henning even as he achieved his dreams of being a diplomat and studying in prestigious European Universities.  Now a young adult, he rallied behind the pre-existing organization and goodwill of the Droeges and decided to create Li Ch’utam. A sustainable development organization that provides diverse education and work opportunities for the youth of the Polochic Valley. Li Ch’utam not only provides opportunities to a group of people living in the Polochic Valley, it is addressing serious issues that exist in communities and on plantations world-wide.

Technological advancements eliminate jobs on plantations each year with more and more man-power being converted to machines and more efficient strategies. This poses a serious threat to families that have on average 7 children. Out of these 7 kids, it’s rare that 1 will learn to read and write and find work outside of the valley. If every family has 7 kids, and less and less jobs are required on the plantation every year, and no one can find work elsewhere because they can’t read or write….you can see where a problem might arise concerning future local job opportunities.

For the last 6 months, Li Ch’utam has provided support to any child who needs help with homework and can’t find support in the household. We have the first public library in town which is open to any child or adult. You would never know how useful an atlas could be until someone who asks you, “What’s Mexico”…and when you reply, “It’s a country close by.”…they say, “What’s a county?” This is even scarier when the person asking is 1 of 3 lucky kids in the whole community who is enrolled in middle school, the other 30 having already ended their education.  We offer computer classes and typing courses which 18 youth took part in. Many of these 8-13 year olds couldn’t recite you the alphabet 6 months ago. After a few months of typing lessons, with the keys completely covered they can not only type flawlessly, they average 12 words per minute. One 13 year old is training to be the first local Li Ch’utam volunteer: he can type at 35 words per minute, cooks meals for the other kids, takes care of the garden, gives typing classes, and teaches the other students Math, Science, and Geography with Encarta Encyclopedia. He’s been out of school for the last 2 years, he never met his parents, and his grandparents don’t have the money to send him to 7th grade. Kids like this have a mountain of potential and no one to lend a hand to meet them halfway. Li Ch’utam is here for them and is proud to offer people like this a chance to learn more about the opportunities that surround them. Lucky for him, he will receive our first scholarship, and with a little luck and a lot hard work Li Ch’utam will grow to offer more and more opportunities to those willing to put in the time and effort for a future not reliant on the plantation. 

Contact for any requests for more information, for collaboration or job opportunities, or to inquire how you can help our scholarship fund with monetary or technological        donations.

Friday, June 22, 2012

New Computers Arrive

Lichutam’s computer literacy program has now been running for close to four months. Students attend classes each day focusing primarily on typing as well as other basic computer functions. The classes also entail a creative aspect in the use of cameras and video cameras in order for the students to express themselves and learn how to use digital cameras and video equipment in conjunction with the computers with which they have become so well acquainted. 
            Two weeks ago a generous donor promised us two laptops in perfect condition. I am happy to announce that a few days later they were successfully delivered to the Polochic Valley and we are now running our classes with six functioning laptops. This is a great success both for Lichutam and the computer literacy program itself. We can now accommodate more students at once. Lessons can be held with more students at a time which frees up more time in the afternoon for other programs like art, cooking class, gardening, and sports.

            The students are very excited about the new computers and each day everyone rushes to class in hopes of arriving first and getting their chance to try out the new laptops. As one student remarked, “They are the prettiest machines.” I could not agree more. The average student is now typing between ten and fifteen words a minute. Typing is now a fun and easy activity for the majority of students. This morning, one student, Elmer, was explaining to me how he now wants to learn how to use many computer programs. He is driven to continue learning more about computers and how to use computer programs with hopes of one day working with computers professionally. He even inspired his family to purchase a home computer which he described to me with pride. 

            The dreams of Elmer are the dreams of Lichutam. It is not to force all forms of 21st century life into this culture but rather to put the advancements of the developed world into the hands of these people in order for them to do as they please. Many indigenous peoples have been trampled by development, but as minor successes from Lichtuam’s programs continue to build, we are confident that the people of the Polochic Valley will be in control of their own development to gain from its advantages and continue on their way to a bright future.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

One Seed at a Time

One of the several programs we have been working on the past months in the Polochic valley is gardening. While the earth here is quite fertile and the tropical climate allows for the easy growing of plants all year round, the gardening of vegetables is not a common practice. This mostly stems from the lack of education on nutrition and the dietary value of vegetables. The gardening project aims to educate the youth of Nueva mercedes in a fun and interactive way that helps to tackle the lack of nutritional education.

We have planted a small garden in front of the house with tomatoes, chili peppers and carrots. The plants were first sprouted in old can and bottles then planted in the garden plot several days later. These activities were carried out with the help of the youth that attend daily computer classes and the implementation process was a combination of both work and education on plants and nutrition. Each week we do a little garden maintenance with the help of our students and incorporate the conversations about nutrition into our cooking classes. Thus far it has been a huge success. Many of the plants have been given away to families and students who now plan to start their own gardens. In combination with the cooking classes students now realize that vegetables are not only healthy but easy to grow and delicious when cooked properly. Our goal is for every family in Nueva Mercedes to have a garden of their own someday. This will reduce the cost of food and get kids much needed vitamins as the vegetables add to a more a balanced diet.

In the coming days we plan to expand the garden as our small plants have now grown and will soon be producing vegetables. The students here are excited and it is safe to say that the gardening project of Lichutam is showing great results both for the students and their families.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adelante Segundo Grado

This week we continued our efforts in the Polochic Valley town of Nueva Mercedes working in the local primary school in the morning, teaching computer classes in the afternoon and also hosting a myriad of extracurricular activities that include, gardening, arts and crafts and physical education.

Here is a quick update on the primary school situation—particularly second grade where we have seen success as of late. It seems that the second graders are at the perfect age and literacy level to really see positive short-term results from our supplementary actions in class. As we have reiterated many times our work in the classroom is mainly focused on:
-Making the job of the teacher as smooth and stress-free as possible
-Providing supplements to day-to-day lessons that offer the opportunity for students to be creative and utilize critical thinking and problem solving skills (both of which are absent from standard curriculums in the region)
-Eliminate teaching time lost from grading papers, maintaining order in the class, and monotonous busy work

This was the plan for all the classes we worked with and the short-term results have been very positive. Here is a snapshot of what it has been like in second grade. The second grade teacher, Martha, was great at maintaining order in the class, but lacked creativity and tactile activities that accommodate a wider range of learning styles. Also a few disruptive students were falling behind. They were constantly being disciplined so that the rest of the class could not function smoothly and were not getting the necessary one-on-one time to excel academically. After a few weeks in the class we identified these students and it was apparent that if they understood the lessons and were given the necessary attention to excel like their fellow students, both the disruptiveness and the academic shortcomings would be eliminated. Months later we can safely say that our strategy worked. The disruptive students were reseated in the front of the class and given special attention in each and every assignment by the teacher for the first month. As their confidence built and literacy improved we slowly began to ease off and help them less and less. The students now only require a little encouragement in the activities that are difficult for them but are functioning as part of the class and learning each day.  The second issue (absence of creativity and tactile activities) was one that had a simple antidote. For each dull exercise by the teacher (usually involving a two-minute explanation of material followed by thirty minutes to an hour of copying by the students from the whiteboard), we incorporate solving of exercises on the board for the students who finish first, a game for all students that reinforces the new concept learned, and a tactile demonstration of the concept. For example, when studying how the heart works volunteers were selected: one was the heart, one played an arm, and two students pretended to be blood cells. Every time the heart clapped his hands, symbolizing one pump of the heart, the blood cells had to run across the room to the arm and then run back at the second clap. Tactile demonstrations like these grab the students attention, provide a supplementary explanation for students who did not understand the concept fully from the teacher’s verbal explanation and make students excited to then work individually on whatever homework or busy work has been assigned. The other main advantage of games, demonstrations and board drills is that they are the perfect filler for the time that was being wasted previously. Now when the teacher begins the day by grading homework from the previous night, the students will be playing a game or solving exercises on the board related to a previously learned concept. The result is a teacher who can efficiently grade the work with no distractions and a class that is receiving extra attention during this time. Board drills and games that require students to answer questions in front of the class have built confidence in each child in the class and developed their public speaking skills. In the first weeks students were terrified to answer a question in front of the class. This has changed to a culture of participation where students are now completing assignments faster in order to be the first to answer questions in front of the class or participate in a game.

There is still much work to be done and each grade has its own set of specific issues that need attention. However, short-term results have shown obvious increases in productivity and teachers’ morale. Long-term results, if we continue at the current pace of improvement will be monumental for the students, teachers and all the families of Nueva Mercedes. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back to the Valley

So much has been going on in the Polochic Valley ever since Caleb and I have returned from renewing our visas. We had a chance to hit the open road for a week or so and talk to all sorts of people about all sorts of ideas regarding Li Ch’utam.  After discussing the project with so many people and running everything over in my head for days on buses from Mexico City back down to Guatemala I returned to the volunteer house in the Polochic more impassioned than ever. The timing is perfect as well, because all of the seeds we planted in our first few careful months here are now coming to fruition in these months before we have to say goodbye. When we first got here all we had was a great big house on a hill that none of the people were allowed to come into.  We started playing sports with the kids every day and then the adults invited us to their daily soccer games. This initial connection to the people led us to the town hall gatherings and the parent/teacher meetings where Caleb and I were asked to help out in the 1st and 2nd grade. After 4 months in the classrooms, we both have seen great progress in the students as well as the teachers. Not only do they show up every day to work, which was the biggest issue in the first months, they even stayed with us after hours this week to construct a huge float for the kids to ride in the big parade in Teleman.  A big issue in local education is that the majority of the kids still can’t read, so the school definitely has a ways to go before everything is A-ok, but with 3 volunteers helping out in 4 grades we are currently as effective as we have ever been in improving the local primary schooling.
Since opening the doors of the house to the kids every afternoon some very interesting projects have risen as they explore different interests and activities. Our most recent project is a compost and garden in front of the house which will give us plenty of vegetables for free cooking classes and restaurant/movie nights. All of the kids helped us plant various seeds in old tin cans that we poked holes in. With pulp from cleaned coffee beans and great soil from a lombri compost the plantation provided us with the perfect mix for our new plants. About one week has passed and the plants are ready to be transferred directly in our garden which is sectioned off with fallen banana trees.
It has become a tradition for Osman, Caleb and I to take the kids to the river for a swim every weekend. It’s so hot here, but no one really minds the long walks because we all know what’s waiting at the end of that long dusty road…We have our own hidden swimming hole tucked into a quiet corner of the woods. It came fully equipped with a white sandy beach, a nice tall rock to jump off of, a clean not so strong current to play in, and 20 funny, fearless kids learning how to swim. 
Osman, our newest volunteer from Guatemala, is an artist and has brought an interesting dynamic to the house. The kids have been painting and incorporating natural materials like rocks, leaves, and twigs into their designs. Also on walks to the river and in the hills we collect things like seeds from the corosso palm and rubber tree saplings to craft rings and earrings with some tools we picked up in the neighboring town. Hopefully all of the kids will have made their own rings by mother’s day…

The computer literacy program has been running for close to 2 months. By now everyone is familiar with the keyboard, knows how to handle the computers, and can find the programs they need to practice their typing and upload/view photos they’ve taken with various volunteers who have visited. The kids have the majority of the letters and keys memorized (we make sure they aren’t cheating by covering their hands and keyboards with mats) which is a huge accomplishment since most of them didn’t know the alphabet very well before the  computer classes started.  This means the computer classes have helped with basic literacy as well as giving the kids an advantage for future careers, entrepreneurial endeavors, and the challenges posed by modern society in the age of information and technology. There are 18 students from 1st through 6th grade that have been attending the 2 hour classes 5 times a week for the last 2 months. Six of those students are typing close to or above 10 words per minute while the majority is typing at 5-6 words per minute.
Caleb and I have 2 months left with Li Ch’utam before our Co-op with Northeastern is over. That puts us right on schedule to maintain our pilot projects in technology, art, agriculture, and primary education while linking our project to the national leaders in educational reform at the Universidad del Valle convention in May and at Tech Camp Guatemala in July. We will speak at these events with a team of local leaders from the community (ages 13-26.) This will be a good opportunity to transfer some of the ownership and management of Li Ch’utam over to the people who live in the Polochic Valley. This will assure sustainability and relevance of projects as new volunteers take over as 6-12 month consultants to the local leaders.
We give a big thankyou and hug to all of the people who have ever read a Li Ch’utam blog post, thought about our project, or came down to visit and share this amazing year with us.
1 Love – Li Ch’utam 2012

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Li Ch'utam's Feeling the Love in Guatemala

Caleb and I give a huge thank you to all of our friends and family who have supported us from around the world and right here in Guatemala. There are so many great groups of people working towards positive growth in education and human equality. Our Guatemalan friends at Campus Tec are working on an amazing Tech Camp to connect innovative youth leaders from the city and the pueblo in order to collaborate on common issues and solutions. We would love to send a team of talented, motivated youth from Nueva Mercedes to meet with some very interesting, dynamic folks during what could be a life changing experience. This exposure to technology will probably add to their growing interest in the computers and cameras we’ve used with the kids to explore media and computer literacy. They come to the house a few days a week in the afternoons to tinker with the tech stuff and lounge on the sofa picking books from the library. God Bless the Marist Brothers of Guatemala City who were so kind to us and donated books, soccer balls, and toys during our last trip to Guatemala City. Thanks to Br. Rene Roy from Central Catholic High School for putting us in touch with his friends around the world! We’d love to send some photos and stories by the kids to some students studying Spanish at Central Catholic.

It was a big past week for Li Ch’utam as we had 2 more volunteers visiting the project and lending a hand. Eric Johnston from Northeastern University came down for his Spring Break to take the whirlwind tour of Guatemala’s beautiful landscapes, cultures, and of course magical pueblos like Nueva Mercedes!  Picking up Eric in the City, we stayed the night with our friends at the QuetzalRoo Hostel for trekkers on a social mission. To celebrate our progress over the last few months we had a great big barbecue on the roof of the hostel and exchanged stories and project details with the visitors from all over the world. We met professional photographer Florian Luxenberger (Flo) and we all decided it’d be best if he spent a week with us helping out with Li Ch’utam’s multimedia projects. On the road we have met great people like Flo and the crew from the QuetzalRoo; Guatemala seems to be brimming with young, motivated do gooders from around the world. If we can link the international entrepreneurs with the innovative local leaders there is great potential in Guatemala for large scale social change.  We have 4 months left before we have to leave this beautiful place and I know by then the project will be in strong Mayan hands… not mine.  Help us encourage young, motivated youth to pursue their education by staying in touch with the projects in the Polochic, consider working for Li Ch’utam, or by joining endeavors of your own.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arrival of Textbooks

School continued this week as we hung on to a piece of good news from one of our contacts in Guatemala City regarding textbooks due to arrive any day. On Monday we were delighted to see that textbooks had arrived for the children of Nueva Mercedes; one for each child in two subjects: Math and Language Arts. Though the textbooks arrived late they are a welcome supplement to the current lessons and very helpful in reinforcing concepts in a way that requires less monotonous copying of the whiteboard. The only issue now is that fourth, fifth, and sixth grade do not have textbooks and in second grade there are only 25 textbooks for 36 students. We are hoping that the rest of the textbooks will arrive at a later date but this is certainly not guaranteed. Also we were informed by the ministry of education that this year the government is only providing textbooks for grades 1-3. Perhaps next year this will change but it certainly leaves the grades 4-6 in a more difficult position. In any event, our work in improving the level of education has been greatly aided by the late arrival of good learning materials.
This major improvement in the classrooms has increased not only the amount being learned but it makes it much easier for students to comprehend what they are being taught. The traditional system of copying an entire lesson from the whiteboard with little or no explanation (which is typical when textbooks are lacking) is now much less frequent. Students can actually spend the majority of their time reading, comprehending, and completing fun exercises instead. First grade is using the textbooks everyday and second grade is beginning slowly to incorporate the new materials into their daily routine. A full shift to individual textbook use is due in the beginning of March.
Aside from the good textbooks news our work as teacher’s aids is beginning to bear fruit in other ways as well. As Dave and I begin to understand the dynamics of the teachers we aid in the mornings, we are now able to contribute more each day. Every teacher in the world has his or her own rhythm and style of teaching. This past week it has been apparent (as Dave and I both agreed) that we are now in sync with the rhythm and style of our respective teachers in first and second grade. As their trust for us grows and we begin to understand their character better, class time has improved greatly. There has been much more collaboration, better planning, and more use of creativity on a daily basis. We are also much more aware of each teacher’s strengths. Since we recognize these strengths it is much easier to know where to contribute and where to be less vocal and let the teacher excel. One testament to this new bond between teacher and teacher’s aid was apparent between David and the first grade teacher last week. He suggested that the students learn gardening and nutrition in an interactive way—by planting a garden. The teacher was completely supportive and took initiative (something unimaginable in the first month) instructing each student in the class to bring a few germinated seeds to plant in the schoolyard beside the classroom building. The students responded to this idea with enthusiasm and a few days later each one showed up to class with a few germinating seeds in their hands. Now the beginnings of a great school garden are taking root all thanks to some good communication and a little collaboration.
Between Martha (the second grade teacher) and I a bridge of trust is beginning to build even more rapidly than I anticipated. Martha has been a teacher for many years and is now beginning to express her frustrations with the current education system. She even emphasized to me her confusion at the lack of importance local families place on education. Yesterday as six students did not show up school she shook her head in frustration and explained to me that this was wrong saying, “this view of education must change!” I could not agree more that a greater importance must be placed on education and it is great to see teachers that recognize this as well.

Next week we look forward to seeing how the textbooks continue to augment the level of education and hope to meet with the local town committee members again to brainstorm more programs ideas. The key now will be identifying local leaders to help run the programs or even run them fully in order for all of Li Ch’utam’s activities to be sustainable. We have built a strong presence and growing trust in the school but it is critical now to make this increasing value of education sustainable and to begin branching out to other effective areas as well. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Li Ch'utam's Projects in the Polochic Valley

Our Projects in the Polochic

We rolled in to Nueva Mercedes last night after a few hop, skips, and jumps through the mountains. The kids ran up to the fence to welcome us back as we played soccer with the adults…5-4, I let in the last goal, but it’s more about laughs and time spent together as a community. We are happy to be back in school with the kids everyday trying to be good examples for the 1&2 grade teachers who are making class more creative and efficient… poco a poco (little by little.)  They kids don’t learn much in class, but it’s something we’re working to fix every day and show them that learning can be fun, interesting, and challenging.

They are so fun to be with when they are learning new things; their faces are so bright and amazed to see the photo they’ve just taken, or a sentence they’ve written on a computer, or play a new sport.  We’ve been very lucky so far to have such good friends passing by to meet the community and have fun on a cultural exchange.  One of our Australian friends from Mexico even decided to stay as a 1-3 grade teacher for our friends at Sepur private school a few rivers down.  Now we are working in two sites in the Polochic and have a great team of people trying to improve the local primary education. Any and all ideas can be adapted for both groups. We are happy to welcome Li Ch’utam’s next volunteers in early March. They are Northeastern students who are happy to help and practice their own style of sustainable development. As I type they are surrounding a table at Espresso Royal CafĂ© in Boston planning a week-long photography/phys ed curriculum playfully dubbed Kodaks and Crayons that will help the kids look at life through a different lens. This will be part of our after-school program for anyone who wants help with their schoolwork, wants extra work, or is just curious as to what the big fuss is all about.

This after school program is intended to help more students develop their education past the 6th grade where the majority ends their studies each year.  Kids who wish to pursue their education and interests will have access to tutors, computers full of educational software, books, and fun projects to grow individual & community development. Any ideas about creative, interesting after school activities or curriculum would be warmly accepted and likely adapted for our curriculum if relevant, so please do send those comments to my facebook page or e-mail,

 In the name of innovation and sustainable development we have been exploring with our partners at Campus Tec in the city some very interesting possibilities for educational technology. We were invited to Maria Zaghi’s Innovation class at Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City this past week. Her students were wonderful and have decided to develop an open-source software for cheap tablet pc’s that will put the nation curriculum for all Guatemalan primary school students into an interactive adventure video game that will allow students to  journey through an educational world using the touch screen tablets and pens. I’m sure they will do a great job and enjoy their experience working as a team and producing something with so much potential for replicability.  Our feet are firmly planted in the fertile soil of Nueva Mercedes where we will work with the people to develop local educated leaders, and in the name of innovation as global social entrepreneurs we’re reaching for the stars. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Road Continues

             The squawk of exotic birds and a moist breeze wash over David and I each morning to lift us out of sleep. Our house has no windows, but rather huge openings strung up with screens to keep the evening throng of insects out. It is quite a change from the caves of homes to which we had become accustomed in our urban lives past, but a welcome change at that. There is no boundary between our resting place and the outside wilderness here, save a thin strip of mesh screen, and I think we would not have it any other way. Much like the nature of our work here, in contrast to previous jobs in the United States, everything is much more interactive and tangible.

Free of office cubicles, time sheets and the like, we are at work day and night. Any hopes that our time here would be an extended summer vacation have diminished, to our delight, as our commitment to make a real impact in six months grows stronger. That is not to say we do not enjoy each and every day, but it is to say that all the markers of hard work are apparent: falling asleep each night just an hour or two after dinner, awakening early with no aid of alarm clocks,  and soar muscles and brains pushed so hard that an hour of reading a good book each evening is a welcome escape. With every new person we meet, every new fruit we try, and every new schoolchild we teach, we move slowly but surely in progress—the long-term vision of which David and I have spent the last four days arduously deliberating on our balcony conference room (It coincidentally happens to be both our favorite part of the house and the spot with best Internet reception though like explorers on a distant planet searching for signs of life we sometimes must turn our computers to and fro, even leaning over the balcony’s edge to pick up any traces of internet). Our meager air card, however, has served us well in hours of research and many a conference call this last week.
We have been here a month now and seen the extent to which the people of Nueva Mercedes are in need. This was no surprise, but this week we have begun the fun of grouping the needs and actually settling on courses of action. It is in this tedious process to which I alluded previously regarding hard work. That being said, our proximity with the people has given us a refreshed understanding of the tasks ahead. The inhabitants of Nueva Mercedes are a tireless bunch of laborers—mostly farmers. They work in the same fields and forests in which their families bathe, their children fetch firewood, and their wives plant gardens. In the west we all have personal lives and professional lives. It seems that an abyss lies between them that we hope will never grow shallow. In the Polochic Valley there is a single, simple life for all, and this is the life that Dave and I have discovered and live now. Work is a constant process as we keep reading, writing, and taking in every morsel of knowledge to be had around us. So as the lines between work and play fade, we begin to see outcomes and the picture of how we will facilitate the progression of our neighbors here. More comprehensive and detailed plans have been drawn up now, of which Dave and I will share in a later post. This was the fruit of our efforts this week so much so that when the weekend arrived we both found ourselves, again roused early, alert, and in the “conference room” discussing future projects, doing research, and continuing to try and make something legible out of our mountain of thoughts, ideas and ambitions.
The arrival of our good friend, Khaled is now upon us. He is Li’Chutam’s second volunteer (the first being our good friend Gabby) and was a welcome surprise yesterday. We arrived home from a lunch with the neighbors to find Khaled in road-worn garb, helping himself to a bowl of fried potatoes from our pantry. Khaled, was a good friend of ours in Mexico and will be a welcome addition to our work here each day for as long as his nomadic spirit warrants him to stay. Gabby proved to us that a fresh perspective from a traveled individual has much to contribute to Li’Chutam’s work. We anticipate that Khaled will certainly have some valuable insight. Dave and I are excited to see what the coming weeks have to offer as the real implementation phase begins, meetings in Guatemala City are expected, and the evaluation/deliberation phase is winding down. But, in the meantime, the sweetness of the humid valley air in the morning and the peacefulness of the afternoon showers will continue to be welcome luxuries. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ready? Set? Go!

First things first, I’m sorry it’s taken so long to write this post. You see, I've been wanting to explain what our experience has been in the classrooms of Nueva Mercedes, working with the schoolteachers to improve the day to day learning of the students. I thought I must write about our past week and all of the reasons why the public education taking place in this town has been so pitiful, so that everyone would understand where we were starting from before we try to improve things.

What came out was 3 pages describing the horrible conditions in the classroom, the lack of discipline, and overall horrible teaching that was going on in grades 1-6. I looked this over many times contemplating whether to post it or not and I finally decided that many of you would be downright shocked to hear what has been going on in these classrooms for the last few years.  I decided when all is said and done it is not problems that people need to hear, but rather solutions, so I’ll briefly pass over some of the issues in the classroom and then present the agenda for a meeting we are planning with the teachers this Monday as our first school week comes to a close.  (Special thanks to Gabrielle Ward from Australia, who was the first member of Li’Ch utam’s Global Exchange program for this new year and proved invaluable in helping us get the ball rolling)

Issues in the Classrooms!!! (Not unique to Guatemalan public schools!)

- School enrollment down from 151 to 100 from last year

         -  No Discipline (Kids punching each other in the face, running out of the classroom, playing soccer in the classroom, stealing school supplies, and yelling things out loud… With No Consequence
      - Enormous inefficiency (starting class 20 minutes late even though everyone is already present and seated including the teacher, disappearing for 30 minutes in the middle of the class without saying anything, takes 2 hours for 1st graders to color in 3 shapes in the 3 primary colors, but it isn’t taught why they are called the primary colors,  and the teacher sits in the corner at her room waiting for the kids to finish so she can rubber stamp each individual notebook)

       -  Girls refuse to talk in class and are not encouraged to do so, girls are not mixed with boys in the seating arrangements , and the best students sit in the first 3 rows while the worst students sit in the last 3 rows)

       - No creativity or critical thinking involved in the teaching method (Teacher reads new vocabulary and the class repeats it…Repeat this process until the new topic has been “learned”…apply to all subjects)

       - Lessons are not planned in advance (teachers often spend an hour a day reading the lesson book to figure out how they will teach today’s lesson)

           -  No leadership or accountability among the teachers (Best teacher on the staff, who also happened to be the staff supervisor, the record keeper, and the soccer coach was relocated to a different town yesterday because the teachers voted him out for being too demanding)

Immediate Solutions to be Posed at Friday’s Teachers Meeting to be Implemented on Monday
       - Assigned seating to mix the boys with the girls and the more advanced students with the slower students 

       - Labeling the fronts of the notebooks to prevent the thrice daily 20 minute waste of time rifling through notebooks to pull out the specific notebook for each lesson

       -  “Common” sense: No leaving the classroom while students are present, no cell phone in class (teachers), and no stamping individual notebook FROM THE BACK CORNER OF THE ROOM (So individual checking of the students work takes place at their desk proactively instead of waiting for them to finish 10 minutes of work in 2 hours)

       - Discipline Every act of violence…no exceptions, but not with more violence (Stand up in the front of the room facing the class with arms raised above head for lengths of time depending on the infraction, while being tested to ensure that students are still paying attention) 0 tolerance
       - Downtime exercises (Instead of punishing students who finish early and talk to friends by a slap on the hand with a ruler…incentivize finishing early with downtime activities that will allow faster workers to continue learning at their own pace with extra, more advances activities) 
       - Introduce student hand raising in the classroom to ensure comprehension by random testing and to teach respect by preventing uncontrolled yelling of answers

Most importantly, tomorrow we will ask the teachers to review their lesson book for the upcoming week so as to suggest 2 creative ways of teaching each upcoming lesson. This will either a) give teachers ideas that they WILL use in class or b) get teachers to start thinking in more creative ways of their own, even if they don’t choose to use our specific suggestions.

This is our immediate game plan to fix the issues in the schoolroom on top of introducing extracurricular programs to the youth of Nueva Mercedes. Stay with us in the weeks and months that follow to see how the school reforms are coming along, as well as our technology literacy program! 

Please feel free to send any suggestion to or leave your comments directly on this page. 

Pictures from Top to Bottom: 2nd grade Physical Education Excercise run by teacher, 2nd grade Physical Education Excercise run by Caleb and Gabby, 1st grade teacher sitting in the corner correcting papers as most of the class goes joyfully unsupervised, 2nd graders learning to use a camera for the first time

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Warm Welcome Indeed

Our journey continued last Tuesday as we flew into Nueva Mercedes on a four-person “avioncito.” The plane was rather tail heavy for comfort sake, but we managed to lift-off none the less and soon had a bird’s eye view of Guatemala City.  A few hot air currents and nervous laughs later we crossed over a large mountain range and found ourselves overlooking the vast Polochic Valley, our home for the next 6 months. This valley is one of the most fertile areas in Guatemala, consisting of many a snaking river buffeted by rich, green plots of farmland and forest laid between parallel mountain ranges. The plane’s captain and nephew of our host, Beto, got us to Nueva Mercedes in just 45 minutes; not bad considering the micro-bus would have taken 6 hours and no doubt been packed like a can of sardines. A smooth landing on a grass airstrip at the “Constancia” farmhouse meant we had reached our final destination where our host Klaus awaited us. He gave us a brief history of the farm and surrounding areas as he drove us to his house to meet his wife. the farm’s matriarch, Sylvia. Klaus and Sylvia are part of an old community of German farmers in the Polochic Valley. They have been here for generations and are responsible for much of the infrastructure and the towns that have sprung up over the years. Klaus explained the local indigenous farmers’ way of life and their connections to the valley and region as a whole. Our history lesson made it quite apparent that ties between the people and the land run as deep as its winding rivers and are as old as the mountains themselves.
The next day Dave and I ventured to Teleman bright and early hoping to expel some of the energy we had built up in months of excited anticipation over our arrival here in Nueva Mercedes. Teleman is a neighboring, larger village just a quick hitchhike down the road from Nueva Mercedes. We were determined to explore the open-air market that occurs every Wednesday. We had no intention of paying “gringo-price” for the goods being sold, actually we had no intention of paying any price at all for that matter; we were more interested in the free culture lesson being offered by the families of buyers and sellers. As expected, we were stared at without restraint for the 3 hours that we stumbled through the crowds of indigenous Guatemalans like 2 drunken giraffes. What we learned was well worth the price. Apparently on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning all of the farmers in the surrounding mountain ranges and foothills descend to the Marketplace and gather to buy and sell some of the highest quality fruits and vegetables on the planet. We passed by innumerable, unnamable objects we had never seen, larger than life carrots, yams the size of small children, and a vast array of counterfeit soccer jerseys, showerheads, cell phone accessories and dozens of other small trinkets. It was quite the Wednesday to say the least and a remarkable introduction to the humble and collective nature of the Polochic inhabitants.
Nueva Mercedes welcomed us home after our little excursion that morning. It has roughly 75 families, a few small corner stores, one primary school, and a soccer pitch. Running water and electricity are a given in our freshly constructed volunteer house fit for kings, but most residents lack 1 or both of these amenities in their own homes. Imagine the average family here of 9 people living on a dirt floor, with nothing to protect them from the relentless swarms of Mosquitos that have been known to plague the valley. As the average household has 7 children you would think that there would be many more students enrolled in the school, but this is something that Li Ch’utam is focusing on in the coming months. Our plan is to implement an after school program to provide an extracurricular backdrop to the meager education system and encourage more children to want to come to school.
In the meantime we have been building relationships with the school’s five teachers and school director, who made it clear that the vision for the school’s development is optimistic and limitless. but the lack of manpower and resources has been a crippling handicap. However, little by little we are making advancements. Along with several volunteer parents from the community we gave the school a fresh paint job and took a machete to the overgrown schoolyard. Needless to say these kids were welcomed into their first day of class with a crisp message of new beginnings. We will be strengthening our relationships with the teachers as David and I begin to work with the 1st and 2nd graders this upcoming week. We hope to harness the drive of the children in their yearning to learn along with the vision of the enthusiastic director and hopefully reflect all of this positive energy outward to the parents who are largely indifferent toward their kids’ education. In any case our objectives are clear and now the path to accomplishing them is steadily manifesting itself. Each day we have been playing soccer with the children and then the adults of the village after they finish their work shifts and becoming closer friends with many of them. While at times we still may appear as albino giraffes who stumbled into the wrong village one day, we are determined to learn from this community and share any support we can offer to these wonderful people. One way we have been building trust and taking in our surroundings here is by working the fields with the men of the village.

The first such man was named Norberto. He took us around to see how coffee and vanilla were grown and harvested. We then were invited by to attend a village meeting. We were informed, after building rapport throughout the workday with Norberto, that this would be our time of formal introduction to the community by Norberto himself. With excitement we attended the meeting and watched as family after family poured into the courtyard of the schoolhouse and the meeting began. The leader of the town committee began speaking softly in Q’eqchi (the local indigenous dialect) as the town sat in a wide circle around him in the grass listening and swatting mosquitos in silence. The meeting continued like this for about an hour without a single word being under stood by either David or myself. Then, all of the sudden, we heard our names and we looked up as 100 pairs of eyes stared back at us. In that uncertain moment the next 6 months of work seemed to hang in the balance, we breathed a sigh of relief as the entire circle erupted into applause and then laughter as we failed to sit down when the meeting continued. Like I said, we really had no idea what Norberto was telling these people, but it seemed to be important. Dave and I both knew that we had our work cut out for us; not only through Li Ch’ utam empowering these people to lead themselves to a brighter future, but also simply to repay the kindness and hospitality that the families of Nueva Mercedes have already shown us in the first days of our journey.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bienvenido a Guatemala Amigitos

That's it, tomorrow morning the journey begins to Alta Verapaz. We arrived in Guatemala City about 5 days ago and it has been a whirlwind tour of wonderful people, creative ideas, and powerful people who are doing good things for the right reasons. You could say Guatemala took us in with love in its eyes because the perfect people have come together at the perfect time to make our future in Guatemala more sustainable and even more beautiful than it already is here.
 Basically, we met Maria Zaghi of Campus Tec for breakfast at our hostel and we were off to the races from there. She gave us the tour of Tech City in Guatemala which is a Silicon Valley type hub of technological innovation and social entrepreneurship.  She brought us to all of the small businesses and teams of young entrepreneurs working on creative projects all with a tech savy artistic edge. These teams all had advice for us and avenues for collaboration we could tap into over the next 6 months with Li Ch' utam. One of these startups named Milk N Cookies has an online game called Mini Mundi which teaches kids to care for their online planet by recycling types of trash properly everyday they login and playing fun mind strengthening games for dexterity and strategy which accumulate points in an online scoreboard. The kids receive medals for good care of their planet and are released a new game each week they continue up to 16 weeks. I'm happy to say I'm climbing the game's leaderboards rather quickly, my "mini-mundi" is in tip top shape, and the kids in Nueva Mercedes are going to have a heck of a time beating me in the game where the mosquito cleans up all the trashy dust particles. These are the kind of ideas and projects we have been presented with from all angles the minute we entered the country. And its not just from Maria or her wonderful friends throughout the city who she has introduced us to. Our generation is kicking butt and taking names as well, or so they say in America…really intelligent 20-30 year olds are full of bright ideas and entrepreneurial zeal in this country.

So far the family and friends of Henning Droege have cared for us in a way that only Guatemalans could. Henning Droege and Hannes Niemann started Li Ch’utam International some years ago with the intention of using local resources while alleviating serious problems in communities he grew up and loves with all his heart.  His cousin Fernando took us to our meetings in the city, helped us prepare our office with phones and internet, and took us to the most delicious Guatemalan food stands all while giving us the guided tour from a bright yellow Volkswagon Van.  As if this wasn’t enough he arranged our transportation to the family farm, cousin Beto’s airplane should be a lovely way to see our new home for the first time.  We packed plenty of peanut butter, bread, and cookies to hold us over until our bags arrive on bus a few days later. Not that we really need food at this point we are so excited to meet the community and the rest of Henning’s family tomorrow to begin a wonderful 6 month project where anything is possible. Who knows what will happen now until July, but I can promise it will be an exciting journey, full of successes, failures, projects, and relationships that will help sustain a bright future in Nueva Mercedes. If the first 5 days was any indication of what Guatemala holds in store for us, there is truly much to learn and much to love in this little green country.  Before we begin our journey, we really must thank the good doctor Ofelia Cervantes for her wonderful work with youth leadership camps for sustainable development and social entrepreneurship that she is running out of Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico. Without her I'm quite sure our last 5 days in Guatemala and the next 210 would have been extremely different…Funny how one person can change the course of events taking place in another city or another country with just an e-mail.  Now would be a good time to ask everyone for money to support our projects as you read about them in the coming weeks & months. So I think I will ask you all to support Li Ch' utam and other well-intentioned, sustainable, scalable projects like this one as you hear about more and more of them springing up around the world. The support I ask of you is not monetary, rather that you follow our progress and stay involved in projects like ours. If you wish to contact us regarding getting involved from where you are or by visiting the community please do so here.