This blog entry is adapted/excerpted from Julie Zimmer’s personal blog.  To see the full blog entry, click here.

My first week in Guatemala was grandma time. My second week was learning lab. This was bucket list week.

Walking down to Earth LodgeBrian and Denise (Stella and Juniper) guided us (Sue & Julie) 7 km uphill through the small pueblo of El Hato … and then the length of three+ football fields down a steep path (watch your FEET, not the sky…) to a unique experience at Earth Lodge, a retreat/hostel/campground with a spectacular view and a steady stream of adventurous guests with tales to share. And really, really good food.

It was Sunday when we arrived, live music and lots of day guests.  The lodge, overlooking the valley, with hammocks past this overhang and next to our cabin:

Earth LodgeMorning view:

Morning View from Earth LodgeEvening view:

Evening ViewStaff included owners Drew and Brianna, people from the village (El Hato), travelers who came and stayed to work for room and board. The cook was incredible, and … did I mention the food??

Earth Lodge MenuRoosters greeted the dawn, and the resident donkey (a player in transporting stores down the steep path) let us know it was time for his breakfast.  We left too early in the mornings for yoga, but they put out a special breakfast for us.

Sue and JulieAnd we were off … a hike back up the trail …  past the pilas (communal laundries) filled with women washing clothes …


Laundry drying… past two small “convenience” stores where women were making tortillas … past an impromptu game …

Impromptu game…..greeting men headed for work with implements on their shoulders, on our way to the village, population between 800 and a thousand.El Hato SignBy noon, when we returned, men and women would be coming back down from the hills above El Hato with loads of firewood on their heads, and the two pilas on our path would be humming with activity.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We were on our way to the school, where an amazing corollary NGO (non government organization) named Las Manos de Christine welcomed us to participate.

Boy with kiteThat’s Sue in the background, on the way through the village. This boy is off to enjoy his kite from the weekend Dia de los Muertes activities in his neighborhood.

Church in El HatoThe iglesia (church), next to the school, the center of the community.

And below, a photo of the school, or part of it.  Sue is sitting outside the gate with students and a teacher intern, a young woman from the village.

Sue waitingBelow, waiting for Salina and her car full of teachers and volunteers to arrive from Antigua, 7 KM down the mountain, an intern working towards a career in teaching.

Julie and internA crew of happy feet stood lookout and greeted the blue Volkswagon:

Happy feetThe gate is opened for early arrivals:

Gate opensThe public school in El Hato has 315 children from kindergarten to grade 6 and has 79 in other grades. Average income for workers is typically less than $200/month, with most families having one income and more than two generations under one roof. It is not uncommon to have 6 to 12 children in one household. In some Guatemalan schools the families must buy the school supplies for their children, which can be very difficult given the income levels.  Fortunately, in El Hato, Las Manos, Earth Lodge, and Proninos have purchased all the necessary school supplies for the past two years.  Even so, many opt to keep their children at home to help with cooking, collecting firewood, cleaning and caring for younger siblings. Some are kept at home while both parents go to work in Antigua. Some send their children to school only until they are able to read, write and do basic math, skills needed to find work in the future.

Las Manos de Christine augments the public school in El Hato, providing English instructors (children who learn that second language have enhanced educational and employment opportunities later), adding a library with computers, building and staffing a preschool, and raising money for scholarships and breakfast.  Libraries are few and far between, and books must be read on the premises, so a school library with check-out privileges is a big deal for this community.

Sadly, tax money and foreign development aid going directly to the government rarely makes it to the people it is meant to serve. Both Isabel (my Mayan Spanish teacher) and Blanca (our Ladino hostess from Lions Club) said more than half of public money ends up in private pockets. Corruption at the top is a very serious impediment to the whole country.

At any rate, it was wonderful to see first hand the people and organizations that involve Guatemalans in creating their own opportunities, and Las Manos de Christine is one of those.  This was a “summer” break for the kids at El Hato school, with a day-camp underway.

The older kids had a variety of options, from sports to learning a heritage dialect. We corresponded ahead of time with Salina Duncan, the director, to find out how we could contribute and stuffed a throw-away suitcase (and our own suitcases) with items on her wish list that couldn’t be purchased in or mailed to Guatemala — including an adaptive bocce ball set for a new special-needs class, a long-reach paper punch, and laminating supplies.  We came prepared to read some books, do art activities and speak English with preschoolers and with a group of grade 2-5 students. And we joined in with the preschoolers’ morning activities, their choices based on a Montessori model.

This was Sue’s photo, and one of her favorite moments, watching little boys doing exactly the same things her grandsons love to do, a half a world away.

Boys playing with train set

b1 1103140933bPaper weaving and stickers:

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b3 CIMG2225Cutting triangles for arbol de Navidad cards, trees from green paint samples with the hole-punch ornamentation:

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b6 IMG_1513Butterflies and caterpillars from the delightful book “Charlie” that Sue’s friend sent:

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b8 CIMG2216Salina, program director:

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b10 butterfliesElHatoUsing pipe cleaners, colored pencils, the very popular stencils (thank you, Don):

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b12 CIMG2210And that fabulous giant box of crayons, the fun stuff donated by Don Eells from Creartivity.:

b13 CIMG2219And glue.  Lots of glue:

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b18 CIMG2200We read the book “Caps for Sale” and made lots of colorful caps to act out the story:b19 1103141001a

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b22 1104141055The older kids went big for tissue paper poinsettia cards, based on the story, “The Legend of the Poinsettia.” Back in Iowa when we were planning this, we had no idea how experienced some families are with tissue paper (think kites…). But we noticed craft supplies for sale in even the most humble villages, everywhere we went.

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b25 1104141039bWe tried our hands at oil crayons and overlaid paint for wax resist roosters in honor of Misa de Gallo, the Mass of the rooster, a Christmas tradition. That’s Nicole on the right (below), their real (and really wonderful) English teacher.

The kids took plenty of cards home, but a few were saved to sell at Earth Lodge. I wish I’d thought to commission my Christmas cards, theirs were so colorful and fresh.

b26 IMG_1504We made Five Little Monkeys for Jumping on the Bed…
Well, one fell off and bumped his head, but you get the idea:

b27 1104141133aAnd we tried some Christmas tree chains, bigger versions of those old gum wrapper chains we made as kids. I love this stuff. Any excuse to mess around with kids and art supplies. The time went too fast for me.

We also brought along a new projector for the school that Salina drop-shipped to my house. It couldn’t be trusted to arrive via the postal service. Apparently “postal service” is a misnomer in Guatemala. Packages arrive empty, or not at all. In this case, the projector was serendipitous. Salina let me borrow it for my own purposes one wild night, but more about that in my next and final post.

For now, we’ll share the goodbyes, and link you to Manos de Christine’s website where you can read about their program and about sponsorship, should you be so inclined.  Many times you have no idea whether a cause you support actually gets the money and actually makes a difference with those dollars. This is one small situation where Sue and I were first-hand observers, both of us with some appreciation for quality education as former educators ourselves, so there you have it. This is good stuff.  A big thanks to Salina, Nicole, and everyone at El Hato school for letting us play.

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b30 IMG_1511This blog entry was adapted/excerpted from Julie Zimmer’s personal blog.  To see the full blog entry, click here.

Indian Culture Day