Posted by: Project MicroMundo | February 5, 2012

The Secret Lives of Part-Time Volunteers

Hola, amigos, this time written from San Andrés, Petén! I arrived here a few days ago, but internet has been nearly impossible to come by. Have lots to say about Petén, but first I want to wrap up what was going on with Mayan Families in Panajachel. The theme of the day will be Non-Monetary Ways You Can Help – From Afar or Up Close.

Last week I was exposed to a variety of non-donation ways that people help out Mayan Families—from here in Guate to all over the world. I thought you all might be interested in some creative ways that you can volunteer without straining your budgets.

A volunteer helping some girls to find the right size (donated) shoe!

As for on-the-ground volunteers, Mayan Families (MF) this week has had—to name a few—Brenda, an accountant auditing their books; Cadu, a modest but very talented photographer providing great visuals for the MF website; Bethany, a botanist starting up a pot-grown agricultural vocational training program; Mike, who has been helping to install donated onil stoves; and an American couple sorting clothing donations. I was helping Mayan Families set up a system for routine monitoring and needs assessments of the Elderly Care Program, and I also did some grant (budget) writing. Name your skill (be it your mathematical prowess, your sense of fashion, or your biceps)—Mayan Families and many other non-profits could probably put you to work.

Sewing workshop led by a volunteer

That’s right– it’s just “work,” usually between the hours of 9 and 6. Before Project MicroMundo left for Guatemala the first time around, a lot of people practically acted like we were walking the plank. So (at the expense of being obvious) I want to set it straight that most volunteerism is no form of quasi-martyrdom. Jess, Steph, and I have had the times of our lives. All those sappy things that people say about volunteering (that it’s a huge growth experience, life-changing, etc.)—They’re true (to say the least). But we also had a ton of fun during work and off-time. There has been no shortage of relaxing on the shore, volcano climbing, clubbing, exploring the landscape, and being a tourist. We didn’t get PTSD and in a lot of places we could have even had most ‘American’ creature comforts (at a tourist price). And we could have never gotten to know the issues at hand so well without actually getting our hands dirty.

All that to say: If you get the chance to do on-the-ground volunteer humanitarian/development work, for your own sake you should probably take it.

But not everyone has the time or money for that, of course. Don’t let that stop you! A lot of MF work has been done from far away and on a part-time basis. The MF website was actually created by a volunteer, as were many of their brochures and other media projects (thanks in part to Jess!) Some ways that people volunteer from far away include:

• Getting your company, religious group, and/or other communities to support your cause
• Fundraiser events (bake sales, jewelry sales, fundraiser parties, etc.)
• Clothing/food/medicine drives
• Assisting in US branch operations (many international non-profits have a US office)
• IT and web consulting/services
• Grant-writing support
• Making flyers and brochures
• And simply spreading the word among friends and family (via internet)

Giving a workshop on nutritive cooking to the preschool cooks

A visiting doctor participating in a free health clinic

Just shoot an email to your favorite NGO and tell them what you’re good (or okay) at. (That is exactly what we did with Mayan Families and Volunteer Peten.) Lots of organizations (especially the relatively small ones) are tight on human resources and very receptive of volunteer help and expertise. Give it a shot! A little leap might lead you to great things.

For inspiration, I am providing an anecdote of the life of a far away volunteer…


Back in 2006 when MF was just getting started (as a response to Hurricane Stan), Michelle (that’s not really her name, but she likes to keep things private) founded the Mayan Families Connection Yahoo Group (MFC) to more easily get the word out to people who wanted to help. To quote her, “None of us knew if people would join but we figured it was worth a try. Sharon [the MF director] thought that we might be the only ones talking to each other.” Well, this whimsical initiative, from which no one really knew what to expect, turned into a huge force of support for MF, with many hundreds of followers from all over the world. We’ve never met in person, but through Project MicroMundo and Mayan Families’ continual and often critical communication with the MFC, Michelle and I became friends. She kindly indulged me in a virtual interview to discuss the project success.

What inspired you to get involved?

I love helping people in need and way back in 1976 and 1977 I went on mission trips through my church to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala because I had some personal friends volunteering at the orphanage there. Because I was a nurse, I got to volunteer some at the clinic there. I was in Guatemala during the 1976 earthquake and the sickness I saw before and the devastation after the earthquake changed my life. I could never forget the faces of the people who had so little who were so happy, gentle and loved their families so much. I never forgot the desperation on their faces after the earthquake. My heart has been in Guatemala ever since.

It seems like a very active online community… Could you tell me about your general impressions of the Yahoo group?

Mayan Families Connection was started to focus on giving people information about Mayan Families and the needs of the people in Guatemala but fundraising was not the initial intention of our group. The focus of MFC is to give people information and the opportunity to communicate together about the needs of the people so people have the opportunity to give to those in need from their hearts and not felt pressured into giving . . .

A lot of the group members are dedicated and involved in helping in their own ways. Some sell jewelry, some are involved in shipments, some send donations, some go on medical or mission trips, etc.

Mayan Families Connection has a lot of people just read what is going on but are not active in helping. We have a smaller group of several dedicated members who are very involved in doing things to help and come up with some great ideas about fundraising to help the people. Many of these same dedicated people have given as much as they can and also struggle financially in their personal lives. Many of the active members have become lifelong friends and are working together and also branching out to help in their own ways.

Shipments have brought people together who never knew each other before . . . The most rewarding part about MFC for me is watching people from all walks or life and religions from all over the US and some from Canada and other countries come together to help someone in need and become great friends in the process.

About how much time do you spend a week on Mayan Families-related work?

I probably average 30 or more hours a week. My main priority is to get the word out to get people the help they need. That involves keeping Mayan Families Connection Group and Blog updated and flowing smoothly, trying to keep track of who the people are needing help, answering emails from MFC members and volunteers, making flyers, and working with volunteers behind the scenes, etc.

Do you find that people tend to take interest in these issues?

Lots of people take an interest but it is hard to actually get people involved. Our private school raises funds for water filters for Guatemala every year. They got interested in helping because of a video presentation I did at the school. Spreading the word online and asking others to spread it to is the best way to get the word out.

Michelle and her husband are grain farmers in Minnesota. They have 8 children and 3 grandchildren. Many of their children (some adults now) are involved in one way or another with Mayan Families, and this common passion is definitely one thing that brings the family together. In total the they have visited Guatemala four times, and almost all of the family’s work for MF is done from home.

With MF staff riding on ( /hanging off) the back of a pickup truck on our way to lunch

Visiting a sponsored family

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | January 25, 2012

Give a Man a Fish!

Driving through Solola, just minutes away from Panajachel

Greetings, all, from Panajachel! Blissfully wrapped up my first full day of work here and wanted to share with you the updates (not to include a very unpleasant flight odyssey, compliments of United Airlines…)

First a few non-work reflections. Going back to Pana has been a homecoming. I’ve had such a warm reception by the ancianitos from the Elderly Care Program (ECP), Mayan Families (MF) staff, street vendors, taxi drivers, hobos—you name it. It’s a small town and everyone knows everyone. Of course the main feel-good thing is seeing people whom I’ve missed and being (a little) helpful again.

Hanging out at the Mayan Families office while waiting for assistance

But the sensation of walking these familiar cobblestone streets and weaving through these narrow passageways… It is amazingly comforting and disquieting all at once. Sometimes I feel like a ghost, and sometimes (especially in the buzzing setting of MF work) I feel as if I haven’t skipped a beat.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so much progress on the part of Mayan Families. They’ve grown a lot and have a bigger (albeit still overcrowded) office to show for it. Their student sponsorship now has over a whopping 2,000 members. They are in the midst of launching a Trade School, and their Sewing Project has been getting quite a bit of business for its artisans. Just yesterday they cut the ribbon on their seventh (!) preschool. And—which is especially pleasing to me—The Elderly Care Program has expanded to a whole other town and now has a total of over 60 members.

Some of the ancianos in Pana gathering for lunch. While the ancianos socialize and enjoy their time here already, we´re considering adding a TV to the room as well. After lunch the ancianos give us their tupperware, and we provide them with dinner, too. The dinner is thanks to a local hotel that has started donating extra food to Mayan Families.

Lucia getting medical attention from a Mayan Families nurse. Because of a lack of funds, we often cannot get the elderly what the nurses and doctors prescribe-- even things as simple and cheap as off-the-counter pain medicine. This leads to unnecessary suffering and premature death.

That’s the good news. Within hours of arriving in Pana, I sat down with directors Sharon and Dwight to discuss the bad news and which of their programs need the most attention. Sharon immediately focused on the ECP. While the elderly program has physically expanded, it has so with very few added resources. What this translates to is more people being fed, but fewer of them getting the critical medicine and attention that they need.  [For related posts on the ECP, click here and here.]

I didn’t quite understand what Sharon meant by all that until I tried to get pain meds for Maria Germana, one of the warmest and sweetest ancianas, who keeps photos of MF staff with her, invites us to her home like family, and cries when we leave.

No tenemos los fundos, lo siento,” a staff member told me. We don’t have the funds, I’m sorry. What do you mean, you don’t have the funds?! These are just a few ancianos!

The reality is that, while Mayan Families have been doing pretty well with some programs, elderly care just doesn’t seem to be all that popular. As you’ve probably noticed, the flavor of the year in international development is sustainability (Teach a man to fish! Or at least grow an organic coffee bean). But the fact is that you cannot teach Dolores to fish. She convulses and can’t even get out of bed. If you want to help her (and I’m sure anyone who’d meet her would want to help), you have to catch the fish and feed it to her (or make sure someone else does).

Like many others, I’m intimidated and sometimes paralyzed by the amount and complexity of world challenges we face. Even if you want to help, it’s very hard to decipher between the (trust)worthy movements and the unworthy ones.  With the ECP, though, I sleep with a clear conscience. Sure, my support of the Elderly Care Program doesn’t teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t disincentivize a man to fish, either. I may not be saving the environment or preparing the world for a growing population, but I am helping people who are alive now to live with dignity, minimal pain, and even happiness. I present to you a rare thing—a cause that is unambiguously good. And because the elderly care cause gets so little attention, your individual help—small as it may be—makes a tremendous, obvious difference. It is measured in sighs of relief as Maria Germana finally takes some pain medicine, in joy as Rosa hugs MF staff and chats with the other elderly care members during the lunch program, in every day of life that many of these people otherwise wouldn’t have.

Please consider helping. You can make (tax deductible) one-time or monthly donations to the ECP, and you can also sponsor an individual elderly person (someone listed on the ECP blog). To make a one-time donation to the Elderly Care Program, please click here and enter “Elderly Care Program” in the Other box. To sponsor an elderly person or make monthly contributions to the general ECP, please click here and put the details in the Other box.

Manuel Parajon enjoying some watermelon during the ECP lunch.

Maria Luisa Coraxon in the doorway of her room

Rosa saying thanks to the ECP donors. She has actually learned some English and says ¨thank you¨ to me!

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | January 19, 2012

So You Thought It Was Over?!

Dearest readers, happy 2012! I bet you didn’t expect to be hearing from me!

It’s hard to believe that over a year has passed since two-thirds of Project MicroMundo left Guatemala. A lot has happened since then, both with the people you got to know through our travels, as well as with us. A short blog post wouldn’t do justice to all the updates in Guatemala, but I’ll get to that later. As for us, Steph has been braving the law school trenches, Jess has been working in the Latin America sector of her marketing company and teaching English as a second language on weekends, and I’ve been working at a consulting firm and studying dance.

On to the punch line, though. As you’ve probably already guessed by now, I’m going for a visit! This time the trip will be just two weeks long, and two musketeers short. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am thrilled and in gear to get some work done! I am leaving this Saturday and will be spending first a week in Panajachel with Mayan Families, and then a week in San Andrés with the host family and the English/French/dance students.

I will do my best to revisit the people you’ve come to know and that we’ve come to deeply care about. Inevitably there will be new people to meet and more stories to share. Sure, two weeks is not much, but the things that we achieved last time—thanks to your virtual company—give me a lot of optimism.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Please stay tuned, and don’t forget to subscribe! ¡Hasta luego amigos!

… And as a sneak peak/refresher, here are some of the people and things I am looking forward to:

The Chiquirin family, whom Mayan Families helps out a lot

the view from the Chable host family home in San Andrés

and of course Pedro and the rest of the ancianos in the Elderly Care Program:

Pedro in his new room, funded by the generosity of readers

And here is one thing I am not looking forward to (alongside cold showers):

San Andrés streets.

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | June 2, 2011

Heading Home

I know, I know, I’m the worst blogger ever.  I wish I had had the time and the energy over the last several months to keep this up to date, but the truth is that after a day of work (much of which is spent writing blog posts for Mayan Families), I’ve rarely got the mental juice to come up with anything worth sharing.  But I’m headed home next week, and as I was packing up my house, tying up loose ends at work, and saying goodbye to friends, I’ve realized that there are a thousand things I could have written.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say them all now.  There are individual stories–inspirational, heartbreaking, horrifying, and sometimes all three at once–on the Family Aid Blog, if you’d like to catch up on some of what has been keeping us busy, or see who is in need now.  All of them have affected me, but there’s one that stands out in my memory, and if you read MicroMundo back when it was a real blog, you might remember Elyda’s story too.  It’s a hard story to tell, but one from which there is a lot to learn.

Lake Atitlan Sunset

A Lake Atitlan sunset. (Photo credit--Carolina Uechi)

I didn’t really know Elyda.  By the time I met her, she was already mostly hidden beneath a white sheet, too weak to respond to our questions on her own.  After she died, her husband described her to me as ‘la mujer generosa,’ so that’s how I like to think of her–the generous woman.  Just a few weeks earlier, she had been a healthy young wife and mother, pregnant for the second time.  She and her husband, Marco, appeared to have been doing everything right.  They didn’t have much, but they had saved their money and planned their family so that Marco’s salary as a carpenter would be enough to support them and their 7 year old son, Josias, and they were ready for another baby.

When Elyda became a little jaundiced and doctors told her she had a gallstone, they emptied their small savings to take her to a private clinic for the surgery–they didn’t want to take their chances in a public hospital.  The surgeon, a supposed specialist, made a series of mistakes during the surgery, and Elyda’s baby died.  The surgeon knew the extent of the damage, and that the baby had not survived, but he chose not to tell Elyda or Marco, and sent her home as planned.  When they called later that day, he told them that the pain she was experiencing was normal.

Marco and Josias

Elyda's husband, Marco, and son Josias

Frustrated and worried, they went to a different doctor, who performed surgery to try to fix the very serious damage.  Afterwards, she needed an Intensive Care Unit.  Instead, she was sent home the next day, without follow up or proper medication.  That’s when I met her.  Though she looked bad, the doctor had assured everyone that she was on the road to recovery. Her family followed his instructions to the letter, unaware that we were wasting precious days waiting for a recovery that both surgeons knew wasn’t going to happen on its own.

When she took a sudden turn for the worse and we realized something needed to be done, she was already too weak to survive the several-hour trip to an ICU.  A clinic here in Pana treated her around the clock for several days, and performed multiple surgeries to try to save her life.  Her husband and her sister took turns at her side.  We organized emergency blood donors, funding, and a specialist to come and consult with the doctor here.  Everyone involved fought with everything they had, including Elyda; she survived, seemingly on sheer force of will, long after most of her body had shut down.

I will never, ever forget Marco’s voice on the phone, early on a weekend morning, telling me that she had died.  It was his pain that left such a strong impression on my memory.  For the first time, I felt truly powerless.  We had done everything we could, used every tool that we had, and we lost.  Marco had done everything right, from before his wife got sick until the day that she died, and it wasn’t enough.  And this wasn’t a case of the universe deciding that it was her time to go.  She didn’t have terminal cancer.  She didn’t have a sudden stroke.  She had a treatable, routine problem, and she should still be alive.  The reason she isn’t is because of irresponsible individuals working within a system that was never designed to protect patients like Elyda.  The circumstances–the man-made, unjust circumstances–were just too much to overcome, and nobody with any power to change that equation was on her side.

Norma Walking

A year ago, this little girl couldn't even roll over, and with an abusive mother, her future didn't look too bright. Today, because social services and Mayan Families were on her side, she is running with her big sister.

One of the fundamental disagreements in politics–and it really goes beyond politics–revolves around this issue.  There are many who believe that anyone at the bottom of the ladder can, if they try hard enough and do things right, overcome all obstacles and eventually climb up the ladder.  The people who think this way–who are often those who might have the power to change things–refuse to accept or admit that circumstances are ever ‘just too much to overcome,’ and they use that as a justification for remaining on the side of broken systems, rather than standing up for the people that are victimized by them.

The only things that could reasonably have changed the outcome in Elyda’s case are 1) If the doctors had decided to be honest and responsible; 2) If the medical system was designed to better protect patients; or 3) If the legal system were effective enough to punish and deter malpractice.  Marco and Elyda had no control over any of those things; to survive, she needed someone with some power on her side, whether it was one of the doctors that she dealt with directly, or some hospital administrator or national legislator that she never met. Yet too many people in positions of power refuse to side with the Elydas of the world.

As a literate citizen of the developed world, you are in a position of power.  Whether it is with your vote, your dollar, or your life’s work, the decisions you make affect those less fortunate than you are, whether that’s in your home town or halfway across the world.  Be on their side.

I grew up in America.  I love the ideal of the self-made (wo)man, pulling him/herself up by the bootstraps.  I’m not saying it can’t happen or that we shouldn’t strive for it.  But please, please, don’t be fooled by the myth that it’s always possible.  Some circumstances are insurmountable, and sometimes people are truly powerless in the face of the systems society has created.  If we don’t want their stories to end–to continue ending–in tragedies like Elyda’s, we have to acknowledge that fact, and accept our responsibility to help.  We have to be on their side.

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | March 5, 2011

Why I don’t just crawl in bed and hide

This was a tough week.  It began with the funeral of a man just a year older than I am, and ended with a mountain of parents and children with serious illnesses, hoping for help from the Family Aid program.  It was sad, and it was a little overwhelming.  I tried to think of something a bit happier to write about, but without Jess and Ronnie here to help me, I failed.  The only positive thing that I can offer is admiration for the incredible strength of the people I get to work with, so here’s a hats off to some of the people that have taught me something recently.

Lucas, with his characteristic smile, a few months ago.

There’s Lucas, who passed away at just 24 after fighting stomach cancer for over a year.  He only had pain medicine on a handful of occasions, but he never, ever complained, and rarely even admitted that he was in pain.  He remained positive, hopeful, and faithful until the end, and he only expressed sadness or regret about the hardship that his illness had caused his family. The entire world has something to learn from Lucas.

The Valentine's day card Dilson made for Mayan Families staff while he was in good spirits after his first day back at school.

There’s Dilson, a 13 year old boy who has suffered from chronic kidney failure for nearly three years.  He insisted on going to school this year.  Doctors warned him against it, and it may have cost him dearly–he is now very sick with pneumonia–but he was determined to get back a piece of normal life, even if he still had to travel to the capital for 30 hour dialysis sessions every Friday.  His smile and enthusiasm after his first day back in the classroom are things I won’t forget–he reminded me we’re lucky, even on normal days.

Celestina and her husband in their room. You can see that Celestina is holding herself upright for the photograph.

Celestina’s spine is bent nearly double, and it costs her an enormous amount of pain and effort to walk.  Every day, she walks from her small home in San Jorge up a long, steep hill, to get a hot meal from Mayan Families’ Elderly Feeding program.  She picks up lunch for herself and her husband, who is blind and mostly bedridden, and brings it back down the hill to eat.  This Wednesday, Celestina climbed the hill in the morning to go to a medical clinic arranged by Mayan Families, hoping to have a doctor look at her back.  The lines were so long that she was still waiting when the doctors took a break for lunch, and Celestina went over to the Elderly Care kitchen to pick up the meal for herself and her husband.  Knowing she’d have to climb the hill again to see the doctors in the afternoon, I offered to run the lunch down to her husband, so she wouldn’t have to walk all the way down just to come back up.  She said no–she didn’t want him to eat alone.

A lot of this week was heartbreaking–a lot of this job is heartbreaking–but it’s still a privilege to be here, for many reasons, but especially for the chance to know people who so perfectly embody courage, selflessness, determination, and love.

(And that, to answer a question that I’ve been asked more than once, is why I don’t just crawl in bed and hide.)

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | February 26, 2011

Sorry I’m Late…

I’ve been a bad blogger.  I’ve been back in Pana since the beginning of the month, but I’ve been keeping busy at work with Mayan Families and generally enjoying being back in Guatemala, so I haven’t quite found the motivation to sit down at the computer and write, until now.  Right now, writing seems like a pretty decent alternative to taking a cold shower (we’ve got no hot water), doing laundry and cleaning the house, which is what I told myself I was going to do today.

Alex taking a little break in Pixabaj during his first trip out in the field with Mayan Families

First, a bit of catch-up:  The better 2/3 of MicroMundo is still in the States.  Ronnie and Jess are both in the Baltimore/DC area, traipsing through the job search jungle.  Good luck to them.  I, on the other hand, plan on waiting several years before I start pretending to be an adult, and I’ve got a few more months to play with before law school in the fall.  So here I am.  I am not, however, completely alone–this time I have Alex Eaton, an old friend from Westminster, as a traveling companion.  Alex is also volunteering with Mayan Families; he has been working in the woodshop as well as doing some photography.  You’ll hopefully be hearing from him on here a bit, too.

We’ve got a great place to live–Mayan Families managers (and strong contenders for my Coolest People Ever award) Julio and Gloria have rented us the house they used to live in, complete with everything we need–dishes, pots and pans, furniture, etc.–right down to the disney princess sheets on my bed.  Now that Jess and Ronnie are safely at home (and therefore the risk of giving their parents an actual, life-threatening heart attack is minimal) I think I can safely share the reason that Gloria and Julio no longer live in this house: it’s RIGHT on the river.  Last year it almost fell into the river.  This will probably become an issue during rainy season, but for now it just means that we have an amazing view of the volcanoes when we walk out the door.  It’s in a little compound (Guatemalan-style) with 5 other houses, all of which are occupied by other MF employees and their families, so we won’t have any trouble borrowing a cup of sugar.

The Mayan Families crew at the summit.

The weekend before last, we went with some of our MF coworkers to climb Volcán Tajumulco, which is the highest point in Central America.  It was pretty awesome.  We went with an organization called Quetzal Trekkers, which guides climbs as a way to raise money for a school for street kids and a boarding house for children in need.  (They did a great job–I definitely recommend them if anybody’s interested.)  The first day, we climbed up to an altitude of 4,000 meters, 200 vertical meters below the summit, and camped there for the night.  It was high enough that it was tough to breathe–Alex even got a touch of altitude sickness–and it was COLD.  Then we got up at 4:30 and climbed the rest of the way to the summit in the dark, so we could watch the sunrise from the top.  It was freezing–there was frost forming on our sleeping bags, which we brought to keep warm–but totally worth it.

Watching the sun rise from the top.

A few months ago, this little girl could hardly sit up on her own, but her family couldn't afford therapy. Now she's running, under the watchful eye of her big sister, thanks to help she got through the Family Aid program.

Alright, it’s time for me to get back to my weekend cleaning.  One note before I do: I’m going to try to keep MicroMundo from turning into the Family Aid Blog (which is where we put the stories of everyone we’re trying to find help for), but I encourage you to check it out on your own.  Donations of $10 or $20 can literally change lives, and life-saving medical care is often under $100.  If you need a little perspective on what you have, or if you’re feeling pretty lucky and you want to give something back, or (for my family) if you’re just wondering what I do every day, that’s the place to go. The people you’ll read about are, for the most part, ordinary parents–the kind of people you would like if you met them–struggling against very long odds.  A little hand up during a difficult time can make all the difference, especially for their children.

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | January 14, 2011

Stuff Drive!

Pedro gets some donated clothing. Ancianos like Pedro, sponsored students, and people in the Family Aid Program benefit from donated goods.

Hey, Steph again.  As I mentioned before, I’ll be heading back to Guatemala at the end of the month.  When I return, I’d like to take back a load of donations for Mayan Families, so if you’ve been planning to clean out your closets, send that extra stuff with me! We’re looking for clothes and shoes (for babies, children, and adults), primarily, but let me know if you’ve got something else you think will be useful.  I’m happy to pick things up if you’re within reasonable driving distance (I’m back and forth between Westminster, MD, and College Park).

Some guidelines:

1) Used stuff is awesome, as long as it has a little use left in it.  We want to help people feel confident in school, at work, or in the hunt for a job, and clothes that are badly ripped or stained won’t do that.

2) People in Guatemala are generally a bit smaller than people in the US.  Hand-me-downs from the very tall will probably go to waste.  Same goes for shoes–it’ll be hard to find feet for ladies shoes bigger than size 7, or mens shoes bigger than size 10.

A little boy receives a pair of donated shoes.

3) When I was there, I noticed a special need for sweaters/sweat shirts/jackets for girls and women.  The shirts that are a part of the traditional clothing are short-sleeved, so girls and women need an extra layer to keep warm.  Zip up is better than pullover, but both are great.

4) Shoe-wise, we especially need footwear for bigger kids and teenagers.   Flip flops, crocs, and jellies are great, since they’re waterproof (a big plus during the rainy season), and girls can wear them with traditional skirts (girls who wear traje don’t wear tennis shoes).  Small heels are OK, but keep in mind that streets are cobblestone and many areas aren’t paved at all.

5) Short shorts, mini skirts, and tank-tops aren’t culturally appropriate.  Also, since most of Mayan Families’ female clients (especially the adults) wear traje, there isn’t much demand for women’s pants.

If you’ve got stuff you’d like to send, email me at slwolf10(at)gmail(dot)com and I’ll arrange to get it before I go. If you’ve got a pile of stuff and you don’t have time to sort through it, I’ll do it for you (and donate the rest locally).  If you’re closer to Jess (Ellicott City) or Ronnie (Bethesda), I can arrange to pick things up from them, too.  Thank you again!

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | January 6, 2011

Hello From Home

MicroMundo is back in the USA.  Jess and I (Steph) flew in a few days before Christmas, and found both our families and a Baltimore winter waiting for us when we landed (needless to say, we were happier to see our families than to see the snow that was on the ground).  Ronnie was a few days behind us coming from Petén, but she’s back home now, too.

Saying goodbye

For Jess, this marks the end of her Central American travels, at least for a while–she’ll be staying in the States and looking for a job in social marketing.  For me, this is a slightly extended Christmas vacation.  I’ll be returning to Guatemala at the end of the month to work with Mayan Families and the Family Aid program again.  While I’m here, I’m going to try to organize some clothing/shoe drives, so stay tuned for more info on those, especially if you’re looking to clean out your closets for the new year.  Though we still have some work left to do, this seems like a good time to send out a huge and heartfelt thanks for everything that you’ve done and all you’ve given over the course of this project.  The generosity that we’ve seen in response to these stories has been incredible, and has made a real difference to a lot of people.  We can’t thank you enough.

Tamale basket packing

Our last few days in Panajachel were jam-packed.  All of Mayan Families was in high gear trying to get Christmas gifts distributed and tamale baskets packed and ready to go, and preparing for two staff members to get married (to each other).  On top of that, Jess and I were busy trying to finish up some Family Aid cases and bring Anna—the new employee who will continue working on the Family Aid and Elderly Care Programs—up to speed. In the middle of all that, we barely had time to think, much less write—that’s why the blog has been so quiet.  Now that we’re home, though, and the initial rush of holidays and visits is over, I’ll try to do a little public reflection on the trip.  Here goes.

It’s hard to really believe that one place is real when you’re in the other.  When we were in Guatemala, the US seemed like a dream world.  Sometimes it was a dream world like Disneyland—the kind of place you can’t wait to get to, because it seems infinitely better than where you are.  Most of the time, though, it was just an idea that was almost impossible to really wrap my brain around: when you get into your car at 6am in Febuary and you’re sitting there shivering, waiting for the heat to kick in, can you really imagine what it’s like to lay on hot sand and get a sunburn in July?  I can’t—everything I’m actually seeing and feeling is just too different, and too strong, to allow the beach to stay in my head for more than a few seconds at a time.  That’s what it’s like to think about America when you’re in a place like Pana, with so much poverty and suffering, and institutions (like the police, healthcare system, and courts) that are completely unprepared to help.  It’s just as hard to really imagine Guatemala while you’re sitting in The Green Turtle with a plate full of food, surrounded by 20 flatscreens all playing different sporting events.


One of the views from the middle of town, which I thought might help to illustrate why the US seems surreal when you're there, and visa versa.

I’m not saying that America is a day at the beach–life here has its own challenges–and I don’t mean to paint Guatemala as a miserable February morning–I love it there, and there is plenty that we would do well to learn from it.

One thing that I really admire in Guatemala is that, for reasons that are probably fairly obvious, people don’t tend to wait for experts. If not having the training to do something stopped people from doing it, then not much would get done in Solola (the departamento, or state, that Pana is in), where only 7.9% of students graduate from high school.  If you need something done, or made, you usually do it yourself.  Now, there are times when this is a very bad thing—removing surgical stitches is not a DIY activity—but, in moderation, this is an attitude that I really admire.  If you need a step outside your front door, you don’t hire a contractor; you make one.  If you need a place to keep your dishes, you don’t go buy cabinets and have them installed; you figure out a solution using what you’ve got, or what you can get easily.  If you’ve got one motor scooter and a family of 5 in need of transportation, you make it work. Sure, it results in some slightly less than level carpentry, but exercising that kind of resourcefulness is also a form of empowerment in a place that really needs it.

No matter where you live, there will sometimes be things that make you feel powerless.  In Guatemala, there are a lot of those things.  Natural disasters strike vulnerable communities; medical treatment is out of reach for many; crime is rarely punished; the government is riddled with corruption; the job market is bad.  I’ve seen many people experience this powerlessness, and on a few occasions I’ve felt it myself–it’s frustrating, depressing, maddening, and it can easily be paralyzing. Still, we didn’t often hear “Well, I can’t do that because…” or “I have to wait for X before I do that…” in Pana. In a place where so many big things are out of control, there is often a can-and-will-do, take-charge and get it done attitude about the little things. I’m going to do my best to adopt it myself.  But more importantly, I think that that attitude can be a powerful resource, and I hope that over time, and with the help of broader access to education, it will be applied not just to everyday problems, but to creating real social and political change in Guatemala.

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | December 7, 2010

Mayan Families Holiday Cards

Jess here, with an update from Mayan Families. One of the projects we’ve been working on here  is a way to make charitable giving at the holidays a little easier. To do this, we’ve created a set of holiday cards that can be used to let someone know a donation has been made to Mayan Families in his or her name. There are six cards total: two are for general donations, and four are for specific donation types. You can download the card as either a PDF or JPEG file. Just download the card you want, print a copy, write your name and the donation details, and give it to the person in whose name the donation was made. Scroll down to see all of the cards we have available.

General Holiday Card

General Holiday Card JPEG

General Holiday Card:

This card can be used for any donation type or amount. To make a donation or to see the donation types available, go to the Mayan Families Donate Now page.

<– Click on the photo to the left to open the full-size image in a new window. Then right-click the photo and select “Save File As” to save it to your documents. You can also download the card as a PDF file by clicking here.






Easy to Print Holiday Card

Easy to Print Holiday Card

Easy to Print General Card:

This card can also be used for any donation type or amount, but will use less ink than the other general card. To make a donation or to see the donation types available, go to the Mayan Families Donate Now page.

<– Click on the photo to the left to open the full-size image in a new window. Then right-click the photo and select “Save File As” to save it to your documents. You can also download the card as a PDF file by clicking here.




The following four cards are for specific donation types:


Holiday Card for Bed Donations

Holiday Card for Bed Donations

Bed Donation Holiday Card:

This card is specifically designed for a bed donation. A complete bed and mattress donation costs $170. To donate a bed, go to the Mayan Families Donate Now page, enter the donation amount in the Other box, and in the Extra Details box specify “Bed donation — where most needed.” Or, choose a specific family in need of a bed from the Family Aid Blog.

<– Click on the photo to the left to open the full-size image in a new window. Then right-click the photo and select “Save File As” to save it to your documents. You can also download the card as a PDF file by clicking here.



Tamale Basket Holiday Card

Tamale Basket Holiday Card

Holiday Tamale Basket Card

This card is designed for holiday tamale basket donations specifically. A tamale basket provides enough food for a traditional Guatemalan Christmas feast for up to twelve people, and costs $35. To donate a tamale basket, go to the Mayan Families Donate Now page, enter your donation in the General box, and write “General Tamale Basket Donation” in the Extra Notes section. You can also send a basket for a family specifically — read about families in need on the Family Aid Blog.

<– Click on the photo to the left to open the full-size image in a new window. Then right-click the photo and select “Save File As” to save it to your documents. You can also download the card as a PDF file by clicking here.



Water Filter Holiday Card

Water Filter Holiday Card

Water Filter Holiday Card

This card is specifically designed for water filter donations. A water filter donation costs $50. To donate, go to the Mayan Families Donate Now page, enter in your donation in the Other box, and write “Water Filter — where most needed” in the Extra Notes box. You can also choose a specific family to receive a filter from the Family Aid blog.

<– Click on the photo to the left to open the full-size image in a new window. Then right-click the photo and select “Save File As” to save it to your documents. You can also download the card as a PDF file by clicking here.



Stove Holiday Card

Stove Holiday Card

Stove Donation Holiday Card

This card is specifically designed for a donation of a fuel-efficient stove, which costs $160. To donate a stove, go to the Mayan Families Donate Now page, enter your donation amount in the Other box, and write “Stove — where most needed” in the Extra Notes box. You can also donate a stove to a specific family — read about families in need on the Family Aid Blog.

<– Click on the photo to the left to open the full-size image in a new window. Then right-click the photo and select “Save File As” to save it to your documents. You can also download the card as a PDF file by clicking here.


Please leave a comment and let us know if you have any trouble downloading the files. Happy Holidays!

Posted by: Project MicroMundo | December 5, 2010

Updates on the Elderly Care Program and Our Voyages

Hey everyone, this is Ronnie. Sorry I haven’t reported back for a while! As you can imagine, sometimes our work here really takes over. I wanted to give you some updates on the Elderly Care Program (ECP), as well as some personal updates.


Esther receiving medicine

Esther receiving medicine

First, the Elderly Care Program (for my first post about it, click here). It has really made great strides this month. We´ve added seven new members to the daily lunch run (started off with 18 members) and have received some extremely helpful onetime donations for the ancianos (elderly people). In the past couple of weeks, we´ve given out food, clothes, towels, blankets, sheets, and soap to many in the program (see more photos here), and we were even able to bring new beds to four of our neediest ancianos. One of those people was 91-year-old Francisca, who was in desperate need of a bed. Fransisca broke her leg and had to be taken to the hospital. When we brought her home and asked where we could lay her down, we were told that for years she had been sleeping curled up on a tiny bit of floor, directly behind the door. A onetime donation brought her a new bed, and she can finally sleep soundly and heal properly. We´ve also received donations for a year of rent for a new room for Fransisca, 8 to 12 months of food and medical support for two other members, a new fully-furnished home for Pedro, as well as quality medical care for Esther, an anciana who has been suffering intense pain for over 13 years.

In terms of physical resources and meeting basic necessities, the Elderly Care Program has really improved the lots of these people. But more than that, it has provided them with something that some of them have never (or for many years haven´t) had: caring. The fact that someone cares about how they are feeling, whether they´ve eaten, if they´re comfortable and happy, etc—It means a great deal to many of these ancianos. Many of our members have been abandoned or neglected by their families. Some, like Pedro, never had families. Pedro was orphaned as a small child. He never had a decent place to live—until now—and he never had someone looking after him like now. Mayan Families in some ways really is like family to our elderly program members.


Manuel, very excited about the donations!

Manuel, very excited about his new blanket, clothes, towels, and soap!

All of this became especially clear to me when I said my goodbyes to the ancianos—which brings me to a more personal update: I´ve decided to go back to San Andres for a while in order to continue teaching dance, as well as English and French. The success of the dance program and the close contact that the students had been keeping with me after my departure convinced me to come back, at least through Christmas.


Ronnie and Ana

Ronnie and Ana

Of course the Elderly Care Program will keep running. Mayan Families expanded Ana, the fantastic ECP cook and my co-food deliverer, from part-time to full-time, so that she can fill most of my functions (minus the blogging, since Ana cannot speak English). Ana and I became very good friends, as well as a great team, through our work together. She is a very caring and responsible person, not to mention an excellent cook. She also has a much better memory than mine (mine being nothing to brag about), and was often reminding me that I had already given this or that anciana her vitamins for the week. Before I left I made up a few documents with all the information that she and other Mayan Families staff need, including profiles (in both Spanish and English) on each anciano, and I showed Ana everything that I did. We´re also keeping in touch on a daily basis, mainly so that she can update me on what I need to put up on the Elderly Care Program Blog. Sharon, the MF director, already told me that Ana is doing great.

As I was saying, my departure from Panajachel (filled with hugs and tears) made me realize just how truly Mayan Families and their clients are family. For me, although I already have the fortune of having a wonderful family, this was an incredible gift. I can only imagine how much it means to our clients who are otherwise alone.

I encourage you all to go visit the elderly in your own communities.  You certainly don’t have to go all the way to Guatemala to find—and fill—such needs. A small time commitment from you could change their worlds. I know you hear that a lot from us these days, but it´s true. I honestly had no idea how much this all meant to the ancianos until I saw the reaction from those to whom we´d just been delivering lunch (as opposed to those, like Pedro and Fransisca, who had gotten much more substantial aid).

Yes, the 3 of us at Project MicroMundo are sadly splitting up for now. Jess and Steph are going to stay in Pana to continue work with Mayan Families´ Family Aid Program and Christmas donation handouts (a rather chaotic endeavor), while I´ll be teaching dance and blogging for the ECP here in Peten. On the bright side, you´ll be getting updates from not just one, but two, corners of the world! Thank you so much for your ongoing support. And Happy Hannukah!

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