Friday, February 17, 2017

Off Come the Training Wheels

Text by Emily Rempel

As with any position of responsibility, there comes a time when the trainees must learn to fly solo. Sometimes we know exactly when our newly learned skills will be put to the test, and other times we’re surprised by a pop quiz. For Environmental Projects Coordinator Mary-Mak and I, last Tuesday was definitely a “pop quiz” kind of day.

We set out on the Safe Stove Project just like any other day, our bag of tools in hand, following the lead of our stove expert, Carmelina (who we’ve lovingly dubbed “La Reina de las Estufas,” or “Stove Queen”). We would be finishing up the third and final stage of a stove we’d been building in the home of a truly lovely couple and their sweet little baby. This particular stove project was memorable for me as it would be the first time I’d gotten to work on the same stove through all three of its stages.

We had just barely gotten started with the day’s build when our Stove Queen, Carmelina, was called away on family business. Of course, not only can Carmelina build a stove faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, but she’s also a mother.

Talk about a #LadyBoss, am I right?

Stage 1 of the stove (Photo by Emily Rempel)
And that’s when the training wheels came off, when the pop quiz was handed out, when we learned to fly solo. Now, before I indulge myself in any more dramatization, I should probably clarify that this was definitely not my, or Mary’s, first stove. I’d participated in about 5 different builds, doing every stage at least once. Mary-Mak, as our beloved Environmental Projects Coordinator, had completed her full stove building training, which you may have read about here (if not, check it out!). She had also been co-leading builds with Carmelina.

Stage 3 ft. the family's creative addition to help even out the cement (Photo by Mary Gramiak)
Nevertheless, it was still nerve-wracking to be left reliant on our own understanding of the project… especially when dealing with materials as unforgiving as cement. This would be Mary-Mak’s first time leading the project solo, and unfortunately for her, I was the only other Pop Wuj volunteer there to help. It was also only my second day as an official intern.

Luckily, Mary-Mak’s training quickly kicked in, and she was able to guide us through the final stage of the stove with only a few minor speed-bumps along the way. We were also helped along significantly by Señor Sales, the husband and father of the house, who was wonderfully patient with us and managed to contain most of his laughter at our masonry struggles. He also rigged up a very effective method of smoothing and evening out our final layer of cement. All in all, it ended up being a real team effort, and was an amazing experience to be able to work so closely with the family that will be using this stove for many years to come. Through lots of broken Spanish, hand gestures, and laughter, we were able to communicate well enough to get the job done.

There’s something really special about being welcomed into someone’s home, in a space as intimate and vital as the kitchen. For food lovers like me, the kitchen can really be understood as the heart of a home. As such, it can’t be stressed enough how important it is to make sure that a kitchen is as safe, accessible, and functional as possible. To read more about the numerous health concerns associated with unsafe stoves, check out the last blog post by our Environmental Projects Coordinator. At the end of a building session, when you’re up to your elbows in clay and cement dust, it’s this knowledge that brings the most satisfaction: these stoves will undeniably have a tremendous positive impact on the everyday lives of the families who are using them.

With that last thought, I leave you with one final photo:
(Photo by Señor Sales)
The (almost) finished stove, Mary-Mak, and myself ... and the dirt-smeared, exhausted, triumphant smiles on our faces.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Talking Indoor Air Pollution

Text by Mary Gramiak and photo by Elise Lynch

One of the most exciting moments of the week before last was during a Nutrition Program meeting in Llanos del Pinal, where I was able to give a short presentation on the impacts indoor air pollution have on the lungs of women and children.

Here at Pop Wuj, we run a Safe Stove Project which upgrades cook stoves in the Llanos del Pinal region just outside of Xela. These stoves are constructed to reduce the probability of burns, reduce smoke in the kitchen, and reduce the amount of fuel needed by about half. With this presentation, we were able to continue to educate women on the impacts open fire cookstoves have on the health of themselves and their children.

Mary and Carmen talking about the impacts of indoor air pollution on health. 
Many people don't know, but indoor air pollution is one of the leading causes of premature death in the developing world, with World Health Organization estimates ranging around 4 million deaths every year. The indoor air pollution comes almost exclusively from stoves which use open fires, biomass fuels, or coal, and has profound impacts on the health of communities and individuals.

Indoor air pollution affects children the most, and can lead to low birthweight in infants, pneumonia, atypical lung development, asthma, and tuberculosis. In adults, it contributes to strokes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and cancer. For the community, these stoves can pollute the air and their energy inefficiency leads to rapid deforestation. On a day to day basis, the smoke from these stoves contributes to skin and eye irritation and headaches. Of the 3 billion people worldwide who cook over  these stoves, many are inhaling the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day. Of course, because women and children spend the most time in these environments, they are disproportionally impacted.

In the Thursday presentation I was able to talk with a group of women from Llanos del Pinal whose children participate in the malnutrition clinic about the different ways indoor air pollution effects women, children, and babies. In order to illustrate these points we filled three different size jars, small, medium, and large, with water in order to represent the different sized lungs. Then we dropped the same amount of ink into each and watched the ink spread throughout the jar. In the smallest jar, which represented the lungs of a baby, the water was pitch black while in the adult's jar the colour was significantly more diluted. This represented how the effects of indoor air pollution on babies are significantly more profound than the effects in adults. By using the visual demonstration of the jars and the ink we were able to turn a complex topic such as respiratory health into a user-friendly experience for the women involved.

A really rewarding moment from this presentation came the next day, Friday, when Carmen, Carmelina, and I went out to conduct interviews for the new group of safe stove participants. Before someone can receive a stove we conduct short interviews to identify their needs and overall profile, including number of dependents, level of education, and so on. What was special about these interviews was that we met with many women who had intended the presentation the day before. This was important because we were able to follow through with a lot of women by not only talking about the impacts of indoor air pollution, but actively offering them alternatives to their current cooking situation.

If you're interested in learning more about the impacts of indoor air pollution in the developing world there are many resources available including this fact sheet  from the United Nations.

Monday, January 23, 2017

"¿Cómo se dice 'cinder blocks' en español?" and other learning curves from the Safe Stove Project

Text and photo by Mary Gramiak

¡Hola todos!

What a wild ride this first week with Pop Wuj has been. After spending the first couple days getting the lay of the land I was able to start working on the Safe Stove Project in full force. This started on Tuesday and Wednesday with half-day excursions to complete one stove and get started on another. After getting a taste on those days, I spent the weekend with a Guatemalan engineer and Spanish teacher named Mynor in another community learning how to build the stoves from start to finish. For those of you who may have never built a stove before, let me explain a little about what that looks like.

The first phase consists of laying a 90cmx125cm base of cinder blocks, held together by cement. The cement has to be mixed by hand with either a shovel or a spade. While the cement is being mixed two cinder blocks need to be cut in half, and then a third cut into quarters. When I told my dad this his response was "How do you cut the blocks? Do you have a masonry saw?", the short answer to this is no. In order to cut the cinder blocks they have to be chopped in half with one of our two machetes. Before beginning the Safe Stove Project I had never considered just how many uses there are for machetes, I have since learned they can be used for pretty much anything. Once the cement has been mixed and the cinder blocks have been cut we use small trowels to fill the gaps in the blocks and let it sit to dry. This is a very messy process if, like myself, you're not so handy with trowels or cement. There are three layers of cinder blocks in the first layer, and after each layer is completed the first stage of the stove is finished.

Once the first stage has dried overnight we are free to get started on the second stage. This stage is similar to the first and consists of placing three layers of brick atop the cinder blocks with both clay and cement. This stage is significantly more difficult than the first as both the clay and cement need to be mixed by hand which is a tough job when there's only two people, as was the case over the weekend. Once the clay and have cement have been mixed you can begin laying the bricks on top of the cinder blocks from the day before. When laying the bricks it is important to account for the door at the front and the chimney at the back, but other than that it's pretty straight forward. Upon reflection the hardest part of the work was mixing the clay and cement. It's hard to say how long it took to mix the two pastes because in my head it took 16 hours at least; realistically it probably took more like an hour. Michelle Obama arms here I come.

Mynor putting the final touches on the Safe Stove
this weekend. 
The final stage is the most satisfying by far because it's the stage where the stove top and chimney are installed. There is still some cement mixing in this stage, but significantly less which is a nice break. The tricky part in this stage is cutting the hole in the roof in order for the chimney to have somewhere to go. In order to do this you have to climb up a ladder and cut the hole using very rusty tin cutters. As one person is working on that others are busy constructing a ramp within the stove to provide a direction for the smoke, and filling the final layers of brick with clay. Once the chimney has been installed and the bricks have been laid we install the stove top and lay a final layer of cement. From there we set to work levelling the cement, filling any holes, and cleaning the chimney and stove top so it's bright and shiny for the family. You can check out a picture of the final product above.

Working with Mynor this weekend was challenging it was so cool to be invited into a space as intimate as someone's home. Everyday with Pop Wuj has proved to be an incredible learning experience so far and I'm so eager to see what the next few months have to offer.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Celebrating Education at the Scholarship Assembly

Text by Elizabeth Barnes and photos by Lily Bodinson

The Pop Wuj Scholarship Program is our oldest and biggest project. Founders recruited the first scholarship recipients 25 years ago, a few weeks before Pop Wuj Spanish School opened!

But the Scholarship Program also maybe the least visible of our projects, as typically only interns or students in the Social Work Spanish Program volunteer at monthly meetings. Also, investment in education is a longer-term project. We wait longer to see results than in, say, the Safe Stove Project.

Once a year, we dedicate a day to spotlighting the Scholarship Program and celebrating student achievement. In 2016 we invited all 122 students and their families to the school for our Scholarship Assembly on November 30.

We try to accomplish a lot—checking everyone's health, writing letters, recognizing students, taking photos, and gathering updates.

Scholarship students wait in line outside the Pop Wuj Clinic.
First each student checked in at the clinic, where Medical Spanish Program student volunteers did a quick height/weight check. Anyone needing further medical attention also saw a doctor.

Medical Spanish Program students Lauren and Terry take a brief history with a family.
Upstairs, students started at the letter table to write notes to their padrinos y madrinas (sponsors).

Busy with letters!

 When all the students had passed through the clinic, everyone convened for a ceremony.

Roney Alvarado Gamarro, Director of the Medical Program at Pop Wuj, opens the ceremony by welcoming the students and their families. Family Support Center participant Yadira (bottom right) was not the most attentive.
The ceremony celebrated the hard work of all our Scholarship Program students. But we set aside time to recognize those who have now completed primary school (8 students), middle school (9), high school (9), or a post-secondary program (1—Dinora).
Dinora completed her program to be a nurse's assistant this December. We are so proud! You can read more about her accomplishments and Pop Wuj's other post-secondary students (including her brother Gustavo) in the last issue of Solidaridad, the Pop Wuj and Foundation Todos Juntos newsletter.

Ceremony over, we broke out tamales! (None of which lasted long enough to make it into a photo.)

All day the school was bursting at the seams with people. Amid the chaos, our photographer Lily and visiting volunteer Amy Scheuren rounded up students to take photos on the roof. (Amy is a former Pop Wuj Student Coordinator and current president of Foundation Todos Juntos. We were delighted to have her back for a week!)

Everyone who completed primary school! 
Finally, before leaving, at least one representative from each family checked in with Director of Social Projects Carmen de Alvarado to receive the year's last scholarship payment, discuss any problems, and share plans for 2017. Scholarship sponsors will get the latest news in an update from Amy soon.

Even though the Scholarship Assembly arguably makes for the most jam-packed, hectic day of the year, it's also a highlight for staff and volunteers. It's a chance to see all of our awesome students and their families and celebrate victories after their hard work!

Letters done? Yessica and Erick break out Pop Wuj's guitar. Erick graduated from high school this year!
Astrid and her son Emmanuel pose on the roof. His dad, Gustavo, is a university student. (Gustavo is also featured in Solidaridad!) Emmanuel is a Family Support Center participant and will start school in 2017.
¡Felices fiestas a todos! Happy holidays, everyone! Nos vemos en 2017.

Have you checked out the fall / winter issue of Solidaridad, with news from Asociación Pop Wuj and Foundation Todos Juntos? Read it online and subscribe to receive the next edition by email!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Cakes & Races: School Vacation at the FSC (Part III)

Text and birthday photos by Elizabeth Barnes
Olympics photos by Pop Wuj teacher Gerson Yax (unless otherwise noted)

Today we're wrapping up a series of blog posts showing off recent events at Family Support Center. The participants are all on school vacation, and we've celebrated with special activities.

On November 10, we threw 2016's final birthday party!

Family Support Center Director Shaaron Hurtado leads everyone in applause for one of our birthday girls, Jessica. She turned 5 this year. We celebrate groups of birthdays, so this party featured everyone born between September and December.
After completing primary school, students graduate out of the FSC. (They do continue receiving support through Pop Wuj's Scholarship Program, and we invite graduates to join us for certain events like baking pumpkin pie for the Halloween party, the Olympics, and other fun days.)

This year we have a sixth grader, Maria, who just turned 15. The Director of Social Projects Carmen de Alvarado decided to honor her and Luisa, another FSC participant and scholarship recipient who turned 15. Quinceñaras (girls who turn 15) traditionally have special celebrations on that birthday to mark their transition into womanhood. (We emphasized that there's no rush to stop being kids!)

Carmen opened with a brief speech of congratulations and invited Doña Delfina, Luisa's grandmother and the FSC cook, to share some advice with Maria and Luisa. Then the girls held a mini dance.

Luisa and Maria have their quinceñara dance. Although our celebration wasn't fancy, we hope that upholding these traditions helped Maria and Lusa know how much they are loved at the project.
The younger children waited patiently for the more "grown-up" portion of the party to wrap up. When Maria and Luisa's dance song ended, it was time for piñatas!

At 3 years old, Andrea was our youngest birthday kid at this party. She couldn't be coaxed into having the first shot at the piñata, but after watching some older peers take their turns she changed her mind and went for it!
Shaaron ties Luisa's bandanna. Older kids hit the piñata with their eyes covered!
Once the ground had been picked clean of every last piece of candy and peanut from our two piñatas, we brought out the cakes.

Carmen and Shaaron light the candles.
Returning Pop Wuj student Alison generously baked those two cakes from scratch, frosted and decorated them, and had them completely ready to go by Thursday morning. She not only saved us time spent baking them or money spent buying them, but also produced the year's most delicious birthday cakes!

Angel and Samuel dig into their cake.
Brenda, Ilcy, and Norma enjoy the party! 
We're proud of all the Family Support Center participants and how they've grown this year.

Next up: On November 17, we held the Olympics! We rent a hotel's well-tended, enclosed soccer field in Llanos del Pinal for our games. First, in two groups, the participants presented their gimnasio (synchronized fitness dance routines).
Ilcy and Norma can't stop grinning at each other. Because they are in sixth grade, sisters Maria and Norma were leaders of the two gimnasio teams.
Gimnasio triumphantly executed, we divided everyone into four teams—yellow, blue, green, and red. 

I can say with absolutely no bias that Equipo Rojo was the best.
Our first Olympic event was a sack race!

Samuel tears toward the finish line. The sack race was a relay, so on his return Damaris took off in her sack.
Next we lined up with jump ropes for an over/under, jumping/rolling relay race.

Julio vaults over Daniela's jump rope as Equipo Azul looks on.
Jessica runs back to the starting line to tag the next member of her team.
We took a water, oranges, and tamales break (mostly so that participating adults could catch their breath) and started blowing up balloons for the next event. The object of this game is to pop everyone else's balloon without having the balloon around your own ankle popped.

Lesly charges forth! She graduated out of the project last year but came back to represent Team Blue.
You can't catch Evelyn!
After that—guerra de globos! Balloon war!

Photographer Gerson couldn't get too close to the carnage for his own safety/dryness.
Once everyone was wet—¡fútbol!

Long-time friend of Pop Wuj Tom and Family Support Center graduate Angélica sportingly play for Equipo Verde.
Afterward, sweaty and breathless, everyone reconvened in the shade to hear the winners announced. Team captains went up to have their points tallied. Equipo Azul took first place!


Pop Wuj student Will and his teammates put on their medals.
Equipo Amarillo came in second place!

Team captain Maria calls her players forward to be honored as FSC teacher Lidia untangles medals.
Equipos Verde and Rojo got stickers that said, "You're Dynamite!" which are better than some silly medal anyway. I'ts not like Equipo Rojo even wanted to win. (As a certain Student Coordinator privately sulked, Shaaron spoke with the kids about the importance of good sportsmanship.)

Along with the FSC participants, Pop Wuj staff and volunteers have had so much fun at all these activities. We have the Christmas party next week before the project closes for 2016, and we plan to make the most of that time!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Bites & Frights: School Vacation at the FSC (Part II)

Text and photos by Elizabeth Barnes (unless otherwise noted)

Last week we started a blog series on the activities we've held in the last month or so at the Family Support Center. Today is the last regular day of the project for 2016. As the kids are enjoying a water balloon fight and afternoon movie in Llanos del Pinal, we're looking back on one of the funnest days of school vacation: Halloween!

Director of Social Projects Carmen de Alvarado invited some helpers to Pop Wuj on the morning of October 28 to prepare pumpkin pie for the Halloween party. Older students who aged out of the Family Support Center came from Llanos del Pinal (no easy feat given that unexpectedly, no buses were running that day!), and long-time Pop Wuj volunteer Ashley Aue brought participants from her  new project, Pathways, serving adults with developmental disabilities in Xela.

We used every part of the pumpkin—the seeds for roasting, the insides for pie, and the shells for jack o'lanterns! (Photo by Marie Barranco, Pop Wuj Social Work Spanish student)
Carmen and our bakers roll out dough for pie crust! The pies turned out absolutely delicious, but they didn't last long enough to be properly documented by our photographers. (Photo by Marie Barranco)
That afternoon, with dozens of pies of all sizes baked, we packed up in a hastily rented minibus to head out to the FSC Halloween party.

First we helped everyone get into their costumes. We had a huge jumble of witches, pirates, zombies, princesses, Spider-Men, vampires, a Little Red Riding Hood, and a butterfly. (Participating adults were a bat, a pirate, and a soccer witch in a jersey and spooky shawl.)

Trying to get everyone to keep their costume on, hold still, not show off their karate kicks, look at the camera, and smile at the same time proved to be the scariest part of Halloween.
Costumes on, we gathered in the party room to tell scary stories.

The room was lit only by jack o'lanterns.
Spooky jack o'lantern light completes Ilcy's witch look.
The kids and Carmen took turns telling scary stories. In Carmen's tale, dogs howled as the dead walked past. She asked the kids over and over, "What did the dogs do?" and over and over, they howled.

Stories told, we turned the lights back on, had pumpkin pie, and set up trick-or-treating. Kids approached Pop Wuj students in pairs to say either "Trick or Treat!" or "¡Dulce o Truco!"

Wilson and Manuel choose from mini Halloween notebooks offered by Pop Wuj Medical Spanish student Katrina. Another student, Will, handed out candy at the next trick-or-treating station.
Halloween is always a blast. After our party on Friday the 28th, the FSC had a few days of vacation for the children to celebrate Día de los Muertos (or Día de Todos los Santos) with their families. Check out our next blog post to see what they've been up to since then!

"Can you smile, Andrea?"

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Hikes & Kites: School Vacation at the FSC (Part I)

Text and photos by Elizabeth Barnes (unless otherwise noted)

If you were to visit the Family Support Center on a typical weekday morning between February and October, you'd find only the children too young to attend school (ages 2 to a just-turned-5). Schools in Guatemala usually run January to October, and most offer classes in the morning. Our school-age participants join us around 1 p.m. for lunch and stay the rest of the day.

Since mid-October, when the older participants started their long vacations, the FSC has been busy with everyone all day long. We take advantage of the extra time with all the kids to host a ton of special activities—academic support, outdoor excursions, crafts projects, sports, and more. Our new director Shaaron Hurtado has implemented some new ideas, but we've also observed all our annual traditions.

This post and two follow-ups will highlight vacation activities which Pop Wuj Spanish School students (and the Student Coordinator!) have joined in the last five weeks.


First up: hiking!



Katrina plays customer at an imaginary restaurant run by Emmanuel, Ximena, Yadira, and Daniel. She and fellow Pop Wuj Medical Spanish Program student Lucy joined the FSC crew on October 20 for one of two hikes. The older FSC participants were all off playing soccer and too blurry to photograph! 
The FSC teachers took the kids on a second hike on the morning November 3. One advantage of the Llanos del Pinal location is being surrounded by breathtaking mountains! (Photo by Shaaron Hurtado)
The group heads back from the October 20 hike. Despite having the shortest legs, the little ones never seem to complain about being tired like the older ones do!
Next up: kites! You see them all over Guatemala around Day of the Dead on November 1. We held our flying day on October 27 after a week of kite construction at the FSC.


FSC teacher Santos launches a kite. Yosvin, Samuel, and Moisés figure out their own.
Arturo proved to be one of the FSC's most skilled kite flyers.
Andrea (who recently turned 3) had very little luck with getting her kite off the ground, but not for lack of support from Katrina! They both had fun anyway.
Another one of our older boys, Manuel, is also an adept kite flyer.
He kept his kite aloft despite cows, trees, and a host of other obstacles!
Most children at the FSC have attended the project for years, which means we get to watch them grow up. Annual events like kite flying highlight those changes.

Here's Evelyn (age 6) with her kite in 2012....
Evelyn (age 9) with her kite in 2015....
and Evelyn (age 10) with her kite in 2016! 
Better said that these activities highlight how kids stay exactly the same! Evelyn still loves kites.

Keep an eye out next week for Foundation Todos Juntos newsletter and another post on Halloween. To our U.S. readers, have a wonderful Thanksgiving! At Pop Wuj we are grateful for everyone involved in our projects, from participating families to the students, volunteers, and donors who make our work possible.