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Returning to Guatemala

After completing 13 years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala after my retirement from the Air Force, I thought I had seen most of Guatemala, and knew about nonprofit development work in a third world country. However, when I volunteered for Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala at the age of 82 years, I found there was indeed more to learn!

I met the organization’s leader, Frances Dixon, almost a year ago. It surprised me to find out about an organization working in such a far-flung part of Guatemala, a place she described as being in one of Guatemala’s most remote regions, in the northern most part of Huehuetenango, just south of the Mexican border. The Peace Corps recently stopped sending volunteers to Huehuetenango due to protests erupting against foreign hydro-electric companies by the Maya, as they sought to protect their sacred lands. A peaceful protest recently had led to the murder of one of their Mayan leaders, and as a consequence, retaliation was to burn much of the company’s earthmoving machinery.

Despite my years spent in Guatemala, I found it difficult to imagine the challenges that Frances’ organization faced in its quest to educate indigenous youth at its innovative Maya Center for Education and Development. I was very curious to see this place she described, isolated, built on top of a mountain, far from the most rudimentary services, with only a four-wheel drive entry road, and no electricity or running water. So when my pending assignment with the Peace Corps was canceled for security reasons due to the area’s protests, I applied to volunteer with Adopt-a-Village. For me, it was a perfect opportunity to use my skills in helping the people of a country that I had come to admire and love over the past 30 years.

Whereas I had initially been assigned to work with livestock, and specialized in poultry projects with the Peace Corps, I also worked with many construction projects. So, I was pleased to be invited to be part of a three-man team that would begin construction for a girl’s dormitory. Through its ground-breaking educational programs, Adopt-a-Village empowers indigenous girls by giving them access to a quality education; this new dormitory would allow a surge in female registration and I was delighted to be a part of this project.

In December, I met with Frances and two fellows from northern California and another from Texas, to work out details for the dormitory construction. The three of us planned to fly to Guatemala and begin work in March at which time we would lay in the concrete footings for the building. I am proud to say that we completed all 42 piers plus the stem walls in just five days!

During my time at the Maya Jaguar campus, I had the opportunity to visit the school’s small free-range chicken farm. As someone with many years of livestock experience, and a particular interest in egg production, I was very impressed to observe 60 hale and hearty chickens that were laying on an almost daily basis. I was looking at the healthiest and most contented hens I had ever seen—with the highest level of egg production!

I found the campus to include a 5,000 square foot two-story high school with a quality computer lab and the region’s only school science lab, a site ready to receive a new middle school, a handsome kitchen and dining salon, and two-person student and staff cabins, which, by the way, are by no means “Spartan” as Frances describes them. I resided in one that was as good if not better than most of my Peace Corps accommodations. Meals comprised healthy organic food with vegetables fresh-picked daily from the student-tended gardens. In all my years as a Peace Corps volunteer I have never seen vegetable gardens as well cared for as those at Maya Jaguar.

On my final day, I hiked with my companions through the mountain jungle to a pristine volcanic lake. Along the way, we observed families eking out a living, working in the fields with a machete, living in tumbledown shacks with dirt floors, without electricity or running water. Perhaps if we all had an opportunity to see how these noble people struggle to survive, we would complain less at home.

In conclusion, I am truly grateful for the rewarding experience I had volunteering at Maya Jaguar and have nothing but the highest praise for Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala. The organization has an extraordinary team in place that is offering educational opportunities far above the norm. I was particularly impressed to see that graduates had returned to work as teachers. Equally as impressive was learning that graduates go on to study medicine, agronomy, and education. A major emphasis is placed on ensuring that students are trained to become leaders in their communities upon graduation.

If you are looking for an “off-the-grid” place to volunteer with dedicated, conscientious, and lovely people, this is it! And please consider donating to this fine cause, whether to support their scholarship program, the organic gardening program, or its child sponsor program. To view the donation page for options, click here.

Bill Riley is retired and resides in Roseburg, Oregon.

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