Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"Hasta Luego," not "Adios"

Text by Emily Rempel and photos as noted

General Projects Coordinator Emily Rempel  finished her 3 months of intensive volunteering at Pop Wuj on May 5.

How does one properly reflect on a life-changing, four-month-long experience in one single blog post? It simply doesn’t seem possible.

I arrived in Xela the evening of Saturday, January 7th and to be honest, I was terrified. The sun had already gone down, my terrible sense of direction was failing me completely, and I had spent the day subsisting on the few remaining power bars that I had in my backpack. Looking back on the “what the heck am I doing here” messages I had sent to my mom (like the proper almost 23-year-old adult I am), I can’t help but laugh and be completely amazed by how much has happened since then and how much I’ve experienced.

During my time at Asociación Pop Wuj I helped build numerous stoves, I interviewed families for our current group of stove recipients, I got to see our “compra” day where we bought and delivered enough materials for some 11 stoves. I listened to Carmelina, our stove boss, explain to every group of volunteers just how big of an impact our safe stove project has on the families of Llanos del Pinal, Xecaracoj, etc. I was welcomed into the homes of so many families.

Carmelina and I on my last day of stove building (Photo by student volunteer)
I also got to participate in all of our medical projects, which is a life experience I never expected to have. I got to help measure and weigh babies in our Nutrition Prgoram and learned all about the different supplements we use to help combat varying degrees of malnutrition. Through my own research for the blog, I also learned way more about the pervasive problem of malnutrition in Guatemala, how it self-perpetuates and is compounded by intersecting social, political and institutional oppressions. I spent a week working in the medical brigade with Pop Wuj and Timmy Global Health and learned the Spanish names of countless medications that I had never even heard of in English. I helped translate during triage in our Pop Wuj cCc, so that our medical volunteers could provide the high level of care that Pop Wuj promises.

A favourite photo from a Nutrition day in La Victoria (Photo by Emily Rempel)
I also spent a lot of time working in our Scholarship Program and Family Support Center, two projects that focus on providing opportunities for education. Meetings in our Scholarship Program always amaze me. First, every participant there (usually mothers of scholarship recipients) greets us and welcomes us to their community. Then, we discuss the progress of our becados (scholarship students), challenges faced in school and at home, so that the educational journey of each of our becados is something shared and supported by the entire group. At my last scholarship meeting, with our group from Chirijquiac, we also discussed human rights: what are our human rights, examples of how human rights are being denied, and the barriers that exist in demanding our rights. The scholarship meetings always remind me that it is the participants in our projects, usually women, who are leading the struggle for human rights. It’s been an honour to work with Pop Wuj in helping to support this struggle.

My last meeting with the scholarship group from Chirijquiac (Photo by Carmen de Alvarado)
By far the most fun part of my internship was my afternoons at the Family Support Center. The kids there are just SO GREAT. Each one is so full of energy, so full of kindness, so full of potential. The FSC is a vital part of the community of Llanos del Pinal. It provides a safe place for these wonderful children to be nurtured, to explore, to grow. Saying goodbye to the kiddoes there was incredibly hard, but I look forward to following their growth through future posts on this blog - like this one!

All smiles with Rosemari and Yadira (Photo by Emily Rempel)

Packed into our casita with the pequeños, Yosvin, Daniel, Emmanuel, Yadira, Andrea, and Daniela (Photo by Ashley Aue)
Yadira and Daniela running circles around me (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)

Pop Wuj is a labour of love. It’s a project of passion. It’s sustained through constant, non-stop work. In a country marked with institutional weakness, pervasive corruption, that continues to be robbed of its resources, that has been, and continues to be, so thoroughly affected by colonialism, it’s grassroots organizations like Pop Wuj that help realize the human rights of the most marginalized Guatemalans. The opportunity to be a part of this human rights work has been, by far, the best thing that I have ever done in my life. I am eternally grateful for my time here and look forward to supporting Pop Wuj from afar, in whatever way I can. A Pop Wuj - gracias y nos vemos otra vez.

Emily's internship at Pop Wuj was the final requirement for her Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights at the University of Winnipeg, and she graduates this semester. ¡Gracias por todo, Emily, y que te vayas bien!

You can read more blog posts written by Emily or spotlighting her by clicking here.

Friday, May 12, 2017

El Día de la Madre 2017

Text and photos by Elizabeth Barnes

May 10 is el Día de la Madre in Guatemala. The annual Día de la Madre celebration at the Family Support Center always requires lots of forethought and preparation.

Director of the Family Support Center Shaaron Hurtado welcomes everyone to the Día de la Madre event. This year seven students from Butler University who will be participating in a Timmy Global Health brigade attended.
This year our FSC staff had to set up the new site for the festivities with the possibility of early rainy season showers. Our chef, Kevin, had to cook a special dinner for more than a dozen extra people. The teachers planned mini competitions for the mothers to be interspersed throughout the Día de la Madre presentations by the kids.

The most challenging competition requires mothers to beat an egg into a foam so thick that it stays in the bowl when you turn it upside down! Doña Silvia (fourth from right) won the competition. She is the afternoon teacher of the youngest kids at the Family Support Center and the mother of Santos, teacher of the middle group of kids (third from right).
Most importantly, the FSC kids had to make gifts for their moms and learn choreography for Mother’s Day performances.

The girls of the oldest class kicked off the dances with marimba music they'd chosen themselves.
Later they'd return to the stage for a Top 40 hit: "Despacito."
The boys of the oldest class incorporated some classic 90s boy band moves into their routine.
Some dancers in the youngest group favored a more improvisational style.
Santos's class of the youngest school-age kids started with a cowboy-themed number.
After a costume change, they reappeared for their own dance to typical Guatemalan marimba music.
The last pair of dancers, Jonathan and Zulmy, exit the stage. In the tradition of proud moms with cameras everywhere, Zulmy's mom Doña Sofia was up front to capture the moment!
Pop Wuj collaborates with dozens of mothers who continually advocate for the health, education, and wellbeing of their families. We couldn’t work with the children at the Family Support Center without their parents’ active participation, and we’re proud to count many women in Llanos del Pinal among our partners. ¡Feliz día de la madre!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

¡Nos vemos, Pop Wuj!

Text by Mary Gramiak and photos as noted

Environmental Projects Coordinator Mary Gramiak finished her 3 months of intensive volunteering at Pop Wuj on April 7.

 General Projects Coordinator Emily Rempel and Mary celebrate a successful day of stove construction! You can read more about their experience flying solo here. (Photo by Señor Sales, Safe Stove Project participant)
Three months of laughs later, and the time has come for me to say goodbye to Pop Wuj. 

Interning as Environmental Projects Coordinator with Pop Wuj has been such a wild ride. From stove construction to translating in the clinics, from scholarship meetings to Timmy brigades, these three months offered an opportunity to test skills I didn’t even know I had.

Mary carefully negotiates moving one of the Family Support Center's cabinets alongside Pop Wuj students and Director of the Medical Program Roney Alvarado. You can read more about moving the FSC here. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
Mary helps sort recycyling to be weighed at the private recycling center outside Salcajá in March. You can read a little more about recent recycling work here. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
While I focused on safe stoves, something which was awesome about Pop Wuj was the diversity of projects I was able to lend a hand in. Working with the clinics was a personal favorite. Whether it was translating consults, helping out in pharmacy, or weighing babies with Dr. Herman, there was always something new to be done.

Mary helps sort recycyling to be weighed at the private recycling center outside Salcajá in March. You can read a little more about recent recycling work here. (Photo by Elizabeth Barnes)
Above all, working in the communities around Xela was the most rewarding part of the internship. While three months isn’t an exceptionally long time, it was long enough to get to know some of the women, children, and families, who participate in the programs. After a couple weeks, faces in Xecaracoj and Llanos del Pinal started to look a lot more familiar, and we were regularly greeted with kisses on the cheek.

Mary leads a Nutrition Program presentation about indoor air pollution in Llanos del Pinal in January a couple weeks after starting her internship. You can read more about Mary's experience with this presentation here. (Photo by Elise Lynch)
What really struck me was how easy I settled in at Pop Wuj and in Xela. Even the chicken bus felt totally normal after a couple of rides, and I had to remind myself when we had volunteers that this was a totally new experience for them. That feeling of comfort and normality, even in an environment which is so different than what I was accustomed to, is completely attributable to the community which Pop Wuj has built, and I will miss it very much. 

So thank you Pop Wuj and thank you Xela! You will always have a very special place in my heart and I am so grateful for the time we were able to spend together.

Mary hefts a bag of clay into a Safe Stove Project paricipant's home. You can read about our Safe Stove Project "compra," or materials shopping and delivery day, here. (Photo by Emily Rempel)
Mary has returned to Canada to complete her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Global Politics at Carleton University. ¡Te deseamos todo lo mejor, Mary! Que te vayas bien.

You can read more blog posts written by Mary or spotlighting her by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fiesta at the FSC

Text and photos by Emily Rempel

On Thursday, April 27 we threw a birthday party for all of the Family Support Center participants who had birthdays between January and April of this year. We had 7 birthday kids for this party: Arturo (13), Jonathan (8), Ingrid (10), Zulmy (8), Moises (7), Brandon (7), and Miguel Angel (11). To celebrate, we brought two piñatas (one for the bigger kids and one for the littler kids), party favours, presents for the birthday kids, and two cakes. The party started off with the piñata for our youngest group of kids!

Yadira and Daniela giving Mario a farewell hug before the piñata fun begins! 
Luis takes a hard swing ... 
...and breaks the stick!
The pequeños scrambling to collect their candy
Rosemeri shows off her loot!
Brandon and Carlos scored big!
Once the candy from the first piñata had all been scooped up by the kids, we strung up the second piñata for our older kids!

Birthday girl Ingrid takes her turn
It's a swing and a miss for Arturo!
Damaris getting ready to take her first swing 
Evelyn shows Mario some muscle!
Sisters Damaris and Zulmy pack up their candy  
After the excitement of the piñatas, we all went inside for presents and cake. First we handed out the party favours; each kid got a little backpack with a couple of treats, a sticker set, and a fun eraser.

Handing out the party favours
Then it was time for cake! Carmen led us all in a round of "Happy Birthday" before the birthday kids blew out their candles and everyone dug into their pieces of cake.

Carmen leads the group in singing "Happy Birthday"

Daniel is too busy enjoying his cake to care about the icing all over his chin!

Yadira follows Daniel's example and doesn't worry about the icing on her eyebrow
Daniel's smile says it all - the party was a sugar-filled blast! Our Family Support Center kids are truly the most wonderful young people. It's so special and so important to celebrate each and every one of them by marking their birthdays with a fiesta. We can't wait until next time, when we celebrate the May to August birthdays!

Daniel's all smiles

Friday, April 28, 2017

Spotlight on Nutrition Month

Text and photos by Emily Rempel

Throughout the month of March we invited you to share in the work of our Nutrition Program, offering the chance to view this project from a multitude of perspectives. First, we introduced you to the program by talking briefly about what it is that we do, why we need to do it, and how you can help. Take a look at the full Facebook post here.


Then we shared the words of our partner organization, Foundation Todos Juntos, who works with Pop Wuj to help raise funds for our various social projects. A call went out to Todos Juntos' network, as well as those following Pop Wuj, asking for help to continue running this vital project. In 2016 the costs associated with running the Nutrition Program grew significantly due to increased need for medical treatment including specialist care, medications, and baby and toddler follow-up visits. The reality is that this upward projection is expected to continue through 2017, which has certainly been the case over the first few months of this year. Foundation Todos Juntos offers an easy, secure way to make a tax-deductible donation online or via check.

Young Participants at a Nutrition Program Meeting in La Victoria

We then shared the stories of 14-month-old Eliseo and Elias, twins boys who quickly stole the hearts of the entire Nutrition team at Pop Wuj. Eliseo and Elias, both born prematurely, have spent their lives fighting a myriad of health problems and are both suffering from acute malnutrition. Recently the health of Elias took a scary turn for the worse and he had to be admitted into the hospital. Eliseo's health worsened in turn, due to the stresses of being separated from his mother and brother during their hospital stay. With the help of Pop Wuj's Nutrition Program, and the diligence of their parents, the health of the twins appears to be improving. That said, it will still be a long, hard struggle to support the growth and development of Eliseo and Elias. Read about their story here.


On the blog, Environmental Projects Coordinator Mary Gramiak delved into the complex question of why malnutrition is so pervasive in Guatemala. In her post she discussed issues such as the high cost of nutrient-rich food, environmental impacts on agriculture, and systemic discrimination against indigenous populations.

A young Participant in La Victoria playing a game of peek-a-boo with his truck

We were thrilled to share the Nutrition Program success story of Sheily and her mother Doña Eva. With the support of Pop Wuj and the diligence of Doña Eva, Sheily went from being "especially small and fragile" to being happy, healthy, and able to engage in the world with the curiosity expected of an energetic 2-year-old. Read more about Sheily and Doña Eva in our Facebook post.


Following Mary's blog post about the root causes of malnutrition in Guatemala, I wrote a post about the short-term and long-term effects of malnutrition. When a child experiences malnutrition during their vital years of development they risk stunted growth, weakened immune systems, delays to emotional and cognitive development, and lowered IQs. Within a system that already disproportionately discriminates against indigenous populations, the effects of malnutrition become compounded and cyclical. Our Nutrition Program aims to break these cycles.


A young Participant takes in the sights of our Nutrition Program in La Victoria

Our "farewell" to Nutrition Month post highlighted the generosity of our donors who supported us throughout March. We are so grateful to you for working with us in our life-changing Nutrition Program. Together, we will be able to help break the interconnected cycles of poverty and malnutrition for many children and their families in the department of Quetzaltenango. That said, we still need to raise about $11,000, or 33% of our annual budget. Although Nutrition Month has come to an end, our work continues, as does our need for continued support. A donation to our Nutrition Program will allow us to continue serving approximately 110 children per month - children like Eliseo, Elias, and Sheily. Donate today!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Very Feliz Día de la Tierra

Text and photos by Emily Rempel

Happy Earth Day and ¡Feliz Día de la Tierra! Although I'm a few days late with this post, Earth Day is something that Pop Wuj celebrates every day. This year the international campaign for Earth Day was focused on Environment & Climate Literacy.

"Education is the foundation for progress. We need to build a global citizenry fluent in the concepts of climate change and aware of its unprecedented threat to our planet. We need to empower everyone with the knowledge to inspire action in defence of environmental protection."
- EarthDay.org

Environmental protection is fundamental to the work of Pop Wuj, as indigenous Guatemalans suffer the brunt of climate change. The problems of disease, poverty, and malnutrition that our communities face are compounded by a lack of safe and clean water flowing through our rivers, nutrient‐rich soils to support crops, and pollution‐free air to breathe. Our communities are also left vulnerable to irregular weather patterns, such as severe storms and late rainy seasons. In addition to the physical importance of environmental protection, the health of the natural world is also paramount to the spiritual health of many indigenous communities.

At Pop Wuj we work with our communities to help build knowledge of the effects of climate change as well as strategies for combatting it. In our Safe Stove Project we discuss the dangers of burning plastic, including its effects on bodily and environmental health. With every new stove that is built Pop Wuj stresses to the family the importance of not using plastic and other trash as a fuel for cooking.

We also offer an alternative to burning plastic ‐ recycling! Our recycling program collects plastic, tin, paper, and other recyclable materials from our Spanish School and Family Support Center. We also encourage families in our Safe Stove Project to bring their recycling to the Family Support Center.

Once we have enough recycling stocked up we head out to the recycling plant. Our last recycling day was in March, and while being a bit impromptu, it was a success nevertheless. Former Environmental Projects Coordinator Mary and I spent the morning repacking all of the recycling (as some of the costales had broken down) and bringing it down into the school. Then, with the help of Carmelina and our Student Coordinator Elizabeth, we packed the many bags of recycling into the back of our rented moving truck and headed out to the recycling plant.

The moving truck packed tight with costales full of recycling
Interns Emily and Mary hard at work 
At the recycling plant the workers compiled our smaller costales into giant bags, which were then attached to a hook and manually held up, so they could be weighed. We were paid a certain price per pound of recycling, depending on the type. For example, the thick plastic medication bottles from our medical programs were worth more than thin plastic drink bottles.

Student Coordinator Elizabeth scoping out the grounds
Any extra money that we receive from the recycling day (after paying for the cost of the moving truck) is invested back into the projects. Unfortunately this day, because we were asked to deal with our recycling before we had saved up enough, we did not make up the loss on the moving truck. Nonetheless, the unfortunate amount of waste that we had generated though the projects will now be repurposed instead of sitting in a landfill or on the side of the road.

Having the recycling project active at the Family Support Center is another important strategy for supporting "environment and climate literacy." By teaching the Center participants about the principles of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" and the impacts of waste on the environment, we're helping to foster a cultural change in the attitudes and behaviours of the kids in our project and their families. To encourage the kids to continue recycling we held a small prize ceremony. Kids that brought in recycling from their homes during the month of March were able to pick out a fun pencil and eraser set. While the prizes were simple, it helped to reinforce the value of recycling at home as well as in the Center. As you can see by their faces, the kids were very happy to pick out their new writing tools.

Teacher Santos begins the recycling prize ceremony
Zulmy brought in the most recycling for the month and was allowed to take the first pick of pencils and erasers!
Jonathan choosing his prize
Rosemeri's turn!
With the rainy season shortly approaching, we will also be starting our reforestation project soon. Our Pop Wuj environmental projects, while simple, help to create cultural change around how we interact with our environment. By promoting recycling, disseminating information about the dangers of the common practice of burning plastic, and working towards reforestation, we can help make small improvements in the health of our world.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Big Challenges and Bigger Successes - An Update on our Family Support Center


Text by Emily Rempel
Photos by Elizabeth Barnes

The start of 2017 presented us with a bit of an unexpected speed bump for the Family Support Center. In 2016 the Center had operated in the community center Ixcanul Noj in Llanos del Pinal, with snacks and meals being served in the home of Doña Delfina. However in January of this year we were told that Pop Wuj would be required to pay a large monthly amount to rent the space. This fee would have been unsustainable for Pop Wuj so unfortunately we were tasked with finding a new location in Llanos del Pinal.

Over the course of January and well into February Carmen and Family Support Center staff and participants did extensive leg-work to find us a suitable new location, one that would be within-budget but still have all of the requirements necessary to be an effective space. Finally, on February 20th, we signed the papers for our new location. The following week included a huge moving day and many, many hours of dedicated work from the Family Support Center and Pop Wuj staff and volunteers to get the project up and running. On February 27th we were finally able to re-open the doors to the Family Support Center. 


The minute the doors opened, the FSC kids came running through to explore their new home. Our new Center is located behind a store, just a short walk from the local school where many of the students spend their mornings. The space has a large cement courtyard (which is regularly used for energetic soccer games), two classrooms, and a kitchen/dining room. When Carmen asked the kids if they were happy with the new location, she was met by a resounding "¡Sí!" and lots of smiles.

Daniela, Yadira, and Andrea are all smiles in the new Center! 

Another exciting addition to the Family Support Center is our new chef, Kevin Jimenez. Kevin has been preparing healthy and delicious hot lunches and snacks for the kids. During our first meeting with the mothers of the Family Support Center several of them shared that their children had given Kevin rave reviews! Moving forward, Kevin and Carmen will be trying to buy as much produce for the Center as possible from the mothers themselves. Not only will this provide the kids with fresher vegetables, but it offers another way for the Center to support the families of Llanos del Pinal (and vice versa)!

Boys Cook Too!  Julio and Arturo help Kevin in the kitchen

Our older group of students, the mayores, are being taught by FSC director Shaaron. Not only is Shaaron teaching while acting as Director, but she is also working on her Masters degree. The younger group of school-age students, the medianos, are still being taught by Santos, who, like Shaaron, is also pursuing post-secondary education. Our youngest group of kids stay at the Center all day, as they are too young for school. They are cared for by Doña Silvia and Angelica. Angelica is also attending university, but still working with the kids whenever possible. We are so proud of our dedicated, passionate, and hard-working staff! 


Eagerly Awaiting Snack Time

Sharp Hopscotch Skills 
The Center has been up and running strong for just over a month now. On March 8th, to mark International Women's Day, Shaaron and Santos planned some fun activities for the kids. One of the most popular was a game with balloons, where partners had to hold a balloon between their heads and race from one end of the courtyard and back without dropping their it. The message shared with the kids at the end of the activities was that girls can do anything that boys can do! 

Racing Ahead!

Hirrany and Damaris, concentraing hard on keeping their balloon safe!

We also celebrated World Water Day on March 22nd. The kids learned about waste water, the importance of boiling water before consuming it, and how they can help to keep our waters clean and safe. 


"The Importance of Water" - A beautiful informational poster by one of our talented participants
Although 2017 started off slowly and (very) stressfully, we're so excited to be back on track, providing 25 kids from Llanos del Pinal with a safe space to grow, play, and learn. Thank you all for your continued support of our project! 


Student Coordinator Elizabeth taking a group selfie with Yosvin and Andrea

Group coloring session with Pop Wuj Spanish student Jamie