The Guatemala connection: Raleighites making a difference across borders

weddingby Marietta Stewart

A funny thing happened on my way to a wedding in Guatemala.

It was the end of the holiday season, and I craved a warm-weather vacation. Jess, a good friend from college, was to marry the love of her life, a native Guatemalan, on an avocado farm just outside of Antigua, Guatemala on Valentine’s weekend.  It was the beginning of the dry season, which meant it felt like spring, and the coffee beans and avocados were ready for harvest. Perfect.

As I prepared for an indulgent vacation, I realized another connection to Antigua – one that went far beyond the boundaries of my vacation mindset: Raleighite Cindy Schneider’s nonprofit Nueva Generación, which has built a preschool and helped its children and families in numerous ways. I remembered that she had been taking regular trips from Raleigh to Antigua to do this work for years.

Cindy’s children and my sister, brother and I had bonded through our education at The Raleigh School. We stayed in touch through the years and learned about her commitment. “It’s a ‘New Generation’ of learners,” she says. “That’s what we always talked about at The Raleigh School, a community of learners. All children can have an impact on the future.”

Looking back on my education, I realized that each step had brought that lesson home. From The Raleigh School’s small classrooms, to Exploris Middle School’s ethos of global thinking, to Raleigh Charter’s community-oriented mantra – I had taken a path that encouraged me to give back. So it seemed perfectly natural to connect with Cindy and Nueva Generación and make mine a volunteer vacation.

Cindy first saw Antigua as a chaperone for her daughter’s class trip 10 years ago. “It really changed my life in that I realize how much I have, and how much that it’s just by the grace of God that I have it.” She started by directly funding a 7-year-old girl she met on that trip. “She was very bright and very good at English.” The girl politely asked if Cindy had any friends who could help more children. She did, and the nonprofit was born.

Cindy came to learn that although education in Guatemala is compulsory for six years, the average student only stays for about four. Because many are made to stay home to care for younger siblings – or simply cannot afford school supplies – they receive zeros on assignments, repeat grades, even flunk out. Cindy felt she could use her knowledge and network of connections to create a solution. “It’s the same wherever you go; these families want the same thing that our families want: healthy children, a good education, food and shelter,” Cindy says.

Simple goals, but hard to reach in Guatemala. After a 36-year civil war and years more of violence and political uncertainty, Guatemala has yet to fully recover. It also has the fastest-growing population of any country in Latin America. More half of the country’s population is younger than 19. But there are no safety nets, Cindy says. “If your house burns down, there’s no Red Cross, nowhere to get a blanket. If you can’t buy shoes for your child, there is no PTA to give parents money to buy shoes.”

Nueva Generación’s goal is to help weave that safety net. In addition to its preschool and stipends for school supplies, the group has created a women’s cooperative to sell woven products and has built houses for families of students.

I left for Guatemala excited to become a part of the Raleigh-Antigua connection.

cindy&kids_sandboxGenerating good

When I arrived, it was after dark, and when I woke the next day, Antigua’s beauty blew me away. The streets were cobblestone, the buildings colorful. There were no high-rises, just volcanoes towering over the town at a distance.

Cindy guided me through the central market and, at the speed of locals, cut right through to the very back. This was a lively place; a busy hub where students and workers piled off the colorful revamped school buses known as chicken buses. We boarded a bus and rumbled out of town toward San Antonio Aguas Calientes, the small nearby town that is home to Nueva Generación.

As we rode, Cindy told me about the challenges of setting up a nonprofit here, about how she had recently found teacher training for preschool teachers, and about her plans to set up a space for a computer lab and a lending library for her students.

Soraya Hernandez, Nueva Generación’s program director, greeted the chicken bus when we arrived. With a degree in social work and an intimate understanding of the community in which she was born and raised, Hernandez is a crucial part of Nueva Generación.

She helps put the money Cindy raises to work at the preschool. For donations of $150 to $250 a year (depending on the level of schooling), Nueva Generación provides a stipend to cover a student’s school supplies for a year. Since 2009, the group has funded more than 500 scholarships.

The members of Raleigh’s Temple Beth Or congregation have both donated and become deeply invested in other ways. Members have traveled to Antigua three times to build houses and have supported the women’s craft cooperative. The women use a rare local technique to make weavings that show a mirror image on the reverse side. They make beautiful kippot, or skullcaps, and the prayer shawls known as tallitot for sale to Temple Beth Or and congregations across the country.

On the day we arrived, Soraya Hernandez had learned, by word-of-mouth in the community, of a new potential student: Marta, a 3-year-old eager to go to preschool. We walked to meet Marta at her family’s compound, a 15-foot by 50-foot sliver of land that contained one cinderblock room, an outdoor kitchen, and a tented shelter. Marta was so excited that she ran inside to get her little pink backpack to show us.

The following days I spent helping out where I could. In the afternoons I assisted preschool children with their art and counting, and prepared snacks with the teachers. Marta showed up a couple of days later, in her best outfit, shy and quiet.

Traveling between San Antonio and Antigua for the next few days, meeting with families and children in their homes and at school, I found the power of the devoted community fostered by Nueva Generación to be tangible.

etta&coconutBetween worlds

Meanwhile, back in Antigua, my friends Jess and Choko were in the throes of last-minute wedding plans. Family and friends were arriving. The avocado farm reported that the fish for the wedding dinner – two huge dorado – had been caught and delivered that day. We ordered flowers from the market and crafted table arrangements.

As the wedding planning went into overdrive, two friends of the groom – who are also two of the country’s top trekking guides – announced that they would take a group of guests on an overnight hike up Volcano Acatenango. The six-hour, 13,000-foot climb was daunting, but became the feat of a lifetime. The adjacent volcano, Fuego, was active, and put on a raucous show for us all night long.

The next Saturday, we all made the trek down a slippery dirt road to the avocado orchard, and watched as Shaman AumRak blessed Jess and Choko’s marriage around her sacred fire pit.

The culture of Guatemala is alive in its people, and it greeted me and hugged me the entire trip. I was touched by this place, by the children eager to learn and grow, by the land so active beneath my feet, and by its indelible connection to Raleigh. It’s one I now share through Nueva Generación, but also through Soraya’s and Choko’s families.

I have also learned that no matter where you’re traveling, opportunities abound to find a deeper and more meaningful experience.