Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Take Me to the Feria

Text by Elizabeth Barnes and photos by Lily Bodinson

Xela is covered in blue and white flags, streamers, and balloons this week for Día de Independencia on September 15. Parque Central is already hung with huge banners, stages are going up all over the city for concerts, and the streets will fill with parades and parties.

At Pop Wuj we're planning to explore Xela's annual feria as a group of students, teachers, and staff this evening. But the real party happened last week at our mini feria at the Family Support Center.

As always we started with a short civic ceremony. It is a historic holiday! The kids had prepared decorations for the stage featuring Guatemala's national flower (la monja blanca, or white nun), tree (the ceiba), and bird (the quetzal, of course!) as well as its flag and coat of arms. Our best performing students had the honor of carrying the flags of Guatemala and Xela to the front, which they executed with much gravitas to the traditional march "La Granadera."

Sixth grader Maria had the highest average at the FSC. We are so proud of her and of all our hard-working students! 
We followed with the national anthem and "Luna de Xelajú." (Carmen commented before the ceremony that a singer lamenting the beautiful woman who abandoned him is not the most appropriate subject, but hey, it's better than "That spells Dallas, where every home's a palace.")

The Guatemalan himno (national anthem) has a lot of words. We were impressed by the elite singers who knew all of them!
Carmen Rosa followed with a presentation about the significance of Independence Day in Llanos del Pinal, which the Spanish attacked en route to Xela in 1524, and we played a recording of a lovely poem about Santa Maria by a local writer.

Though well behaved, the kids had a hard time concentrating knowing that games awaited them outside.

Former Pop Wuj student Jeremy managed to pull himself up the backyard wall to hang our payaso (clown)...and then climbed up again to take the clown down when we realized it was going to rain! What a good sport.
At long last, Carmen unleashed the kids on the games. They tore out of the room so fast that they beat all the volunteers to their stations!

Wilson throws a beanbag through the clown's mouth as his peers queue behind him. Each game winner received a ticket that they could reimburse for a premio (prize) -- you could spot winners because they were sprinting back to the prize table inside!
Moms were welcome to play too! Surama owned bowling even with a baby on her back. Should've won double tickets.
Pop Wuj volunteers ran a beanbag toss through the clown face, a coin flipping game, foosball, bottle knockdown, and bowling, while Carmen presided over lotería (similar to bingo). In addition to games and prizes, we enjoyed traditional feria snacks and drinks prepared by FSC moms.

FSC moms gather around the food table to begin uncovering and distributing everything. We love getting to see FSC family members outside monthly FSC/scholarship meetings!
2-year-old Andrea had a blast at her first feria.
The last of us straggled out of the FSC at 7 p.m. after hours of festivities. Everyone had a blast, played dozens of games, won a ton of prizes, got messy, and wore ourselves out. Good thing we had the weekend to recover before Xela's official feria opened!

Ilcy is the most photogenic person ever to be born. Also, Lily is an unbelievable photographer.
 Many thanks to the Pop Wuj volunteers who staffed our games and to the moms who provided our wonderful food. ¡Feliz Día de Independencia a todos!

Did you know that Pop Wuj now has an Instragram, run by the same talented photographer who took the pictures for this post? Check us out @popwuj!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Nine More Birthdays

Text and photos by Elizabeth Barnes unless otherwise noted

August 11 saw 2016's second birthday party, celebrating our nine cumpleañeros from May to August. We held the party outside to take advantage of the unseasonably clear, sunny day.

We started with piñatas! Damaris, who just turned 11, takes a swing at the first while Pop Wuj teacher Carlos works the rope that moves the piñata back and forth.
Eri, who celebrated her birthday in May, gets a little tangled in her first ever piñata. Eri studied at Pop Wuj in both the Regular Immersion and Social Work Spanish ProgramsStudents are always welcome to join us for activities at the Family Support Center on Thursdays!
Carlos shakes the busted piñata to scatter candy and peanuts over the heads of the older kids. Most of them were so ready to start picking up treats that when the younger kids' piñata broke they tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak pieces early. (Photo by Lily Bodinson)
I had my mouth open, ready to yell, "Get down!" at the kid who'd decided to mess around on the wall when I realized that the "kid" was in fact our teacher Santos.
Following piñatas we sang "Feliz Cumpleañeos" and dug into the cake. Arturo doesn't seem to realize that Emmanuel has dropped his cake icing-down on Arturo's sleeve and given up on plates.
Next came sorpresas (party favors, or literally "surprises"). Amy and Samuel have wasted no time tearing into their punch balloons and bubbles.
Finally, the birthday kids got their presents. We pull birthday gifts out of donations, so sometimes finding age-appropriate gifts is tricky. But little kids are easy—newly 3-year-old Yosvin is already attached to his stuffed lion! 
Our final birthday party of the year will be November 10, in the middle of school vacation. The kids have just a couple months of school left in 2016, and then we'll be extra busy with activities!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Life as a Pop Wuj Intern

Text by Nadia Mondini and Photos and Captions by Elizabeth Barnes

On Friday, July 22, Pop Wuj bid goodbye to interns Chris Conklin and Nadia Mondini. Adaptable, enterprising, and enthusiastic, the two of them have been involved in every single one of Pop Wuj's projects and helped us tremendouslyAs one of her last undertakings, Nadia wrote a reflection on her experience volunteering with us.

When I applied for a position as an Environmental Projects Coordinator at Pop Wuj in January, I had not much of an idea of what to expect. I didn’t know much about Guatemala, about what my everyday routine as an intern would look like, or about the people I was going to work with. Today, on my last day after almost two months at Pop Wuj, I cannot believe how sad it makes me to leave.

My experience at Pop Wuj has been more amazing than what I could have imagined, and I’ll take more wonderful memories with me than I can possibly count.

My Monday mornings, coming in, getting my coffee, chatting a while with students and the just so amazingly cheerful and welcoming teachers, always with a smile and a joke ready for me.

Pop Wuj teacher Mynor Arrivillaga, Nadia (far right) and Pop Wuj students tuck into homemade pie on an afternoon break. 
My Monday meetings with the other interns and social work students, in which Director of the Social Projects Carmen de Alvarado would introduce the projects and tasks for the week. Her tales about Guatemala, culture, history, and her work, fruits of 25 years of experience.

My afternoons out in Llanos del Pinal, building stoves with the students and my fellow interns. The families helping us mixing clay and carrying bricks, sometimes offering us delicious tamales at the end of our work. Our sunset chicken bus rides back to Xela.

Our days planting little trees together with families and children, working all together in the sun and green of Llanos, San Juan, Chirijquiac. Carrying back our empty boxes, happy about our work, joking around.

Nadia and Social Work Spanish student Caroline Palleschi came to Chirijquiac for a long morning of planting trees and distributing scholarships. The biggest challenge was hauling 150 saplings up the mountain  on foot after discovering that our minibus couldn't manage to drive up the narrow trail!
The big stove meeting, in which we received the group of 14 new stove recipients to explain the building process. Día de compra, when we went out together with the recipient families to buy and distribute all the necessary materials, building long human chains to pass on bricks and cement blocks.

My Thursday mornings in the nutrition program, giving short educational speeches after the children had been weighed, measured and checked. Enjoying my banana and my cup of Incaparina together with the mums and kids, before heading back.

My afternoons out at the Centro de Apoyo Familiar, reading books with beautiful Zulmy, crafting Father’s Day cards or running around the courtyard.

Our Thursday dinners at the school, when one of the students would cook for everyone and we would spend a fun and delicious evening all together. “Mojitos para arbolitos” Thursday, on which us interns prepared mojitos to raise money for reforestation.

Nadia rests between planing saplings in the "very healthy forest" in San Juan where we planted in early July. Having written her undergraduate thesis on reforestation , Nadia was eager not only to use her own knowledge to benefit Pop Wuj's Reforestation Program but also to listen to and learn from the experiences of local community members.
All of our awesome weekend trips, visiting coffee farms, hot springs and natural volcano saunas, ziplining, climbing volcanos. Our night hike up stunning Tajumulco, the highest volcano in Central America, and watching the sunrise from the top, tired and freezing, but happy.

Eight weeks with my absolutely gorgeous Guatemalan host family, the insanely delicious “comida típica” (tradicional food), all of their tales about Guatemala, all of our laughs, all of our game nights.
Just simply every single stroll around beautiful Xela, which in only two months has become a home away from home.

In just two months, I learned more than I can say. I gained an insight into the absolutely stunning and fascinating country that Guatemala is, and realized that despite all the problems and issues it is facing, it is home to the doubtlessly most amazing, cheerful, and genuinely friendly people I have ever met. I made so many friends and so many experiences, and I am incredibly thankful for having been able to become a part of the big great awesome amazing Pop Wuj family.

I leave Xela as a happy, sad intern, knowing I will miss everything and everyone here, and hoping I will be able to come back one day.


Chris and Nadia spent their last morning at Pop Wuj saying goodbye to teachers, students, and staff and basking in the satisfaction of a job well done.
We miss Chris and Nadia already! Chris has returned to the U.S. to pursue his master's in global affairs at Yale University, and after a few more weeks of travel, Nadia will go home to Switzerland to pursue HER master's in Comparative and International Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. We wish our brilliant interns all the best and remind them that they will always be welcome at Pop Wuj.

To learn more about Pop Wuj's long-term volunteering program, check out EntreMundos, the local nonprofit that facilitates our internships.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reforestation 2016

Text by Nadia Mondini and photos by Dawn Liberto (unless otherwise noted)

On June 24, we had a special day at Pop Wuj: reforestation day in Llanos del Pinal and Xecaracoj.

Tree planting is one of our main environmental projects. Although we plant in several other communities, in Llanos del Pinal and Xecaracoj especially reforestation complements the safe stove program. Pop Wuj stoves are designed not only to prevent smoke-related health issues, but also to save more than 50% of firewood: in order to reinforce this step against deforestation, during the rainy season we plant tree saplings on lands owned by new participants in the Safe Stove Project and families in the Scholarship Program.

Every year, reforestation gathers Pop Wuj staff, students, teachers and volunteers, safe stove and scholarship families, and children from the Family Support Center for a day of work and fun out in the green of Llanos.

Even after two hours of dividing trees up by families and organizing trees into boxes according to their destination on Wednesday afternoon, Nadia is excited for reforestation on Thurdsay morning! (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
Saplings wait downstairs to be loaded into a chicken bus for their trip to Llanos del Pinal. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
We partnered with 14 families, all of whom received five trees to plant by their houses, and 7 of whom also received trees planted on other properties used for firewood or farming.

Pop Wuj teacher Alberto shows a group of 5- to 9-year-olds how to plant their saplings. Kids of all ages helped with planting, from the 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds in the youngest class at the Family Support Center to the teenagers who participated in the FSC last year and aged out.
FSC participants show off their saplings before planting. This year we planted a mix of pino blanco, aliso, and ciprés (white pine, alder, and cypress), all species that do well in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. 
This year, we were able to plant 275 saplings belonging to three indigenous species, as well as one eucalyptus tree for each family, very appreciated for its medicinal effects. Since we had to reach different patches of land, we split up into four groups. I joined the last group, which went the furthest and consisted of a funny mix of children, adolescents and the women owning the land.

Everybody was in a good mood, laughing and telling “bromas” (jokes). Our chicken bus took us high up the slopes of Santa María volcano in a beautiful drive across corn, bean and onion fields. When we reached our destination, everybody helped cleaning the lands from shrubs and weeds and digging little holes for the young trees. It was a challenging task, but together we made it, and finally left the lot with its share of young trees waiting for some afternoon rain. After a well-deserved banana and orange snack, we then went back to the lowlands in a fun pickup drive altogether.

Evelyn peels plastic wrapper off a sapling with care not to damage its fragile roots. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
For me as a relatively new intern at Pop Wuj, reforestation day was a highlight. It brought together such a lot of different people, all having fun, all learning from each other, and all contributing something to our common effort for a small step against deforestation and firewood shortage.

Friday, June 10, 2016

May's Timmy Brigade

Text by Elizabeth Barnes and photos by Claire Butkus (unless otherwise noted)

Three weeks ago today, our May Timmy Global Health brigade volunteers finished a week of clinics in Xela. Over the course of five days they saw hundreds of patients in Xela, Llanos del Pinal, Pujujil, Xeabaj, and Buena Vista. We'd like to thank the students from the Timmy College Chapter at Butler University and the medical professionals on the trip who donated so much time, expertise, and energy. These volunteers not only work long, hectic days in Guatemala but also spend months fundraising and collecting medical resources to bring on the brigade.

Butler University student Claire Butkus was kind enough to share some of her photos of their experience.

Ten brigade volunteers arrived in Xela a week early to study Spanish at Pop Wuj and take advantage of extracurricular opportunities like hiking Volcán Santa María. (Photo by guide)
Early mornings in the mountains can be incredibly foggy! Start times for brigade days fall between 7 and 8 a.m.
Although professional pharmacists check prescriptions before and after they're filled, the pharmacy couldn't operate without volunteers counting pills and hunting through medication bins for the right medicine.
Medical professionals allow us to see 60-100 patients a day instead of our usual 25.

We're grateful for Timmy's ongoing solidarity with Pop Wuj's medical work and for their dedicated volunteers. We would love to see you return to Guatemala—¡siempre serán bienvenidos acá!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Cultural Competency at Pop Wuj

Text by Nadia Mondini

All students in our Medical Spanish Program, Social Work Spanish, and Spanish for Educators Program and all long-term volunteers completing internships at Pop Wuj begin their time here with cultural competency, a three-day course that prepares them to engage more conscientiously with the communities they serve. New Environmental Projects Coordinator Nadia shares her thoughts here on Day 1 of cultural competency.

Getting up on my second week as an intern at Pop Wuj, I already felt quite confident. My first week had introduced me to many of the beautiful projects Pop Wuj runs: I had had my first safe stove building experience together with Doña Carmelina and my fellow interns Adam and Chris, I had held a presentation on environmental risks for children’s health alongside Jonas and Julia from the social work Spanish program, and I had met the kids at the Family Support Center. I had been shown around everything at Pop Wuj, and I had participated in my first delicious and fun all-together Thursday dinner. I started my second week motivated and excited about everything more that was to come.

On this second Monday morning, my weekly program said something special: “competencia cultural.” I had been told that new interns and medical or social work students attend, at the beginning of their activity at Pop Wuj, a lecture about the cultural framework we operate in in Guatemala. I expected instruction and advice on dos and don’ts in Chapin culture, things like taboos or particularly appreciated behaviors. What the five other participants and I got was so much more.

Roney Alvarado, Director of the Medical Program and member of the Pop Wuj founding committee, gave us a profound and elaborate insight into Guatemalan mindset, trying to make us truly understand how things work in this country and why they do so. He explained to us that Western strategies often fail in Latin America because its system is based upon improvisation rather than long term, rigid and detailed planning. Small, local organizations are therefore best suitable to induce change: they know how people and communities approach issues, can adapt to those specifics, and work with them.


Carmencita addresses members of our current Safe Stove Project group at our last pre-construction meeting on April 13. The process by which Pop Wuj finds, interviews, selects, orients, and collaborates with safe stove recipients has evolved over the years as we learn more about how best to serve the communities where we work. We plan to finish building the stoves of these families and finalize the next group in the next few weeks. (Photo by Robyn Nielsen)

Roney also pointed out that much of the present-day Latin American attitude, for instance understanding of time, finds its roots in the colonial shock, through which people found themselves not only deprived of their own socioeconomic and cultural structure and identity, but also denied access to the enforced new system. The only means of resistance available back then was the refusal of European timing, a reaction which became engraved in collective memory and today results, even though without people being conscious about it, in what we call “tiempo Chapin,” that is the fact that time is merely a guide value and not a fixed measure. Roney told us about Guatemalans’ perception of foreigners, the racism toward Maya communities deep rooted in Mestizo population, about the reasons why it takes generations to bring about real change.

When I walked out of my first day of “competencia cultural,” I had spent some really interesting time and learned a huge deal about the sociocultural context I’ll be working in for the next two months. But especially, I had realized how fundamental it is for students and volunteers at Pop Wuj or any other comparable organization to be given such information. Competencia cultural is the step that takes us from looking at Guatemala, to starting to truly understand it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

You Say It's Your Birthday

Text by Elizabeth Barnes and photos by Amalyah Leader
On April 28, the Family Support Center threw the year's first birthday party. For the 10 kids there who are new to the project in 2016, it was their first FSC fiesta de cumpleaños!

A "train" of little ones (not yet in school) arrive in the party room linked together and repeating, "Choo choo!"
Incredibly, though usually one or two kids are absent any given day, we had 104% attendance at the party. (Ximena, who was in the FSC last year, came just for the day because her mother was in the hospital with her new baby sister.)

As our youngest FSC birthday boy, Alex had the honor of going first. Despite Carmen's coaching he barely touches the piñata.
 Interns Adam and Amalyah and several Pop Wuj students joined us. After the little ones finished lightly tapping at their clown piñata, Julia and Lynchy (who have birthdays between January and April) each had a turn. We usually spin each piñata hitter who's old enough once for every year they've been alive. Fourth year medical student Lynchy watched Julia get blindfolded and spun around 23 times and announced that he turned 15 this year.

Even blindfolded, Lynchy makes short work of the little ones' piñata.
The little ones rush in to collect candy and peanuts.
We brought two piñatas—a clown for the little ones and a monkey for the school-age kids. Several of them who are old enough to read cried, "Jorge!" when they saw their piñata. Jorge el Curioso (Curious George) is a popular series at the FSC.
Amy turned 6 this year and told us that she didn't want to use the blindfold. Because she was the youngest of the school-age kids, we foolishly let her at the piñata without it. 
The instant that her bat first smashed into the piñata we knew that we we had made a mistake. Fortunately Jorge survived for the rest of the birthday kids' turns!
The piñata survived enough for Arturo, our oldest and last birthday kid, to have his turn. But we barely managed to keep all the kids alive, as they kept diving to pick up stray candy while someone was still wildly swinging a bat! 
One of our General Projects Coordinator, Amalyah, made vanilla and chocolate cakes and cream cheese frosting from scratch. All the birthday kids gathered around for the birthday song and candles.

Most of these birthday kids know that cake is serious business. Though Amy seems quite alarmed!
We finished our festivities with party favors for everyone and gifts for the birthday kids. (Carmen had to purchase some last-minute candy for Ximena's party favor, but we actually had an extra age-appropriate gift on hand for her. We weren't sure when Andrea's birthday was and so prepared a backup present that came in very handy when Andrea's birthday turned out to be in November and Ximena's in February!)

Zulmy and Amy open their gifts.
Before the party was even over, kids were asking when we'd be having the next one. Not until August! But we've got other great activities to anticipate before then.