Friday, December 13, 2013

Life as a Pop Wuj Student and Volunteer

Text and Photos by Travis McMullen 

My time studying at Pop Wuj was incredibly enjoyable and left with me with a range of treasured memories. Apart from learning Spanish, the main reason I chose Pop Wuj was their reputation for their projects which assist the local community. 

Life at the school follows a general formula – class in the morning or afternoon. I studied in the mornings from 8:00am to 1:00pm, Monday to Friday. As I came with zero Spanish, my first few weeks were filled with learning the practical theory behind the Spanish language, as well as useful and common phrases and words. This then progressed to looking at the different tenses, to free range conversation – focusing on the areas and interests that I had. Learning took the form of a variety of different methods, to keep things constantly fresh, interesting and active. A sample includes:
  • Free range conversation to practice speaking and listening – and in my case – also learning to speak without a heavy Australian accent
  • Going on a trip to the market, to discuss foods, cultures and practice Spanish when purchasing food for the weekly school dinner or event
  •  Reading newspaper articles – to practice comprehension and articulation – then to discuss the article and learn more about Guatemalan news, politics, history and culture
  • Reading a short story in Spanish, then reading the English translation, making notes, then repeating the story back in Spanish – a great way to learn new vocab, or use existing words in a way which describes the story
  • Traditional text book style learning
Originally I planned to study for four weeks. However, I was having too much fun and really wanted to get a firm grasp on the language. Xela is a fantastic place to learn and my stay turned into nine weeks. 
Apart from traditional studying, the school also offers additional activities most days, which are a mixture of learning, adventuring, and spending time with fellow students and teachers. Movies, lectures, stove building, visits to the Family Support Center, and weekly excursions. The weekly lectures provided a great way to learn more about Guatemalan culture and the teachers told personal stories about each of the topics – always leaving you with much to think about. Pop Wuj also offers many interesting excursions and I was lucky enough to partake in a hike up Chicabal and down into the lake, and a visit to the glassblowing factory. The weekly dinners provide much entertainment and a change to interact with students and teachers outside of a learning environment. You can also help cook dinner – which was probably the most amount of stress, in a fun way, that I experienced in Xela.

Volunteer Projects
Pop Wuj is responsible for several projects in Xela and the surrounding area. Students have the opportunity to participate in these projects if they so choose. During my studies, I assisted in the Safe Stove Building Project and at the Family Support Center.

Safe Stove Building Project
As described on the Pop Wuj site, the Safe Stove Project was developed in order to combat the serious issues facing households who rely on an indoor open fire for their cooking needs.  These problems include deforestation due to increased consumption of firewood, severe respiratory problems attributable to heavy smoke and poor ventilation in one-room homes, back pain due to cooking over an open fire on the floor, and frequent accidental burns.
Travis and machete
The stove is built over three separate phases. During the construction period, I became addicted to the machete and discovered the variety of different ways it can be used – from carving and shaping stone and bricks, through to cutting concrete blocks into smaller pieces. It does require concentration though, as if you get too eager and hack away, you won’t shape the brick to the required standard. Or, if you are trying to cut a block into two equal pieces – cut too hard or fast and you risk shattering the block. Patience and persistence were some skills that were refined during the building, as I had to resist the temptation to hack away, or to try and cut the block in one motion, “Kung Fu” style. 

Stage 1
When you complete the stove, it is a feeling of immense achievement and reward. By volunteering a small amount of your time, you have helped to construct a safe stove for a family – one which will greatly improve their daily living.

A Completed Stove

The best part? My response to it all.  As we walked out of the house, the lady told us all “Muchas Gracias.”  My reply, without even thinking about it, as a big smile showed on my face, was “De Nada.” It was never about the thanks or gratitude – it was about providing a safe stove for a family, making a difference, one step (or stove) at a time.

Family Support Center
El Centro de Apoyo Familiar, or Family Support Center, serves the families of single working mothers in a rural community just south of Xela at the foot of the Santa Maria volcano. The Center is located in Llanos del Pinal, a short bus ride from Xela. In addition to the wonderful staff, the Family Support Center relies heavily on the presence of volunteers to help the children - who range in age from toddler to high school - complete their homework, and of course to play with them during free periods.

Helping to fill the piñata

The children welcome you with open arms each time you visit, always eager to play, ask for help with homework, or to get you to draw with them. One day, the craze was the snail Turbo from the movie Turbo – so lot of drawing and coloring in of Turbo was required. My first attempt at drawing the snail failed and I was given an already completed color copy to replicate. Luckily, attempt two passed and one of the children ran off delighted to color it in.

Regular activities are also run at the Center, including an Olympics, a water activity, and a birthday and end of school year celebration. All provided unique experiences which will be mentioned in future blog posts. The Olympics report can be read here.  Of course, the main reason to visit is for the smiles of the children, and the joy and entertainment that the interactions provide.

Water Games
For me, Pop Wuj has been a perfect blend between Spanish studies and community involvement. I was sad to say goodbye at the end of my nine weeks.  Check out Pop Wuj's website for more information about the school and to register for classes!
Hiking Volcan Candelaria

Monday, December 9, 2013

Safe Stoves: Interviewing and Building in November and December 2013

Text and Photos by Danny and Julie Rhoton.  

Danny and Julie are students in the Social Work Spanish Program at Pop Wuj.  

For the last 3 weeks at Pop Wuj, we’ve been completing the construction of some safe and efficient stoves for Mayan families, who we hope will be able to enjoy the holidays a little more this year.  Christmas, after all, should be about families and stuffing oneself with tamales.  It should not involve smoke inhalation and lung disease!  My husband and I enjoy things like remodeling and building, so it has been a rewarding project, as we take “before” pics of indoor fire pits in the dirt, and “after” shots of smiling faces with a stove fit for cooking for a large family.

Before picture

Before picture of another kitchen
Once we had finished the stoves, it was time to interview 10-15 more families who hope they will be next.  Once or twice a week we travel to a village where I get to practice my Spanish by interviewing the mother of the home, with the help of Roney and Carmelina who translate when needed. We are mainly there to take photos of the condition of the home and family, to see how in need they really are, and to let them know how the project works.  We ask questions like “Why do you want a stove?” which is actually a little humorous on occasion, like the day we were standing in a cloud of smoke, choking, eyes watering, and wondering how people live like this!  No wonder respiratory problems are the number one cause of death in children in Guatemala.

Stage 2

Danny and Julie working on Stage 3

That day we all laughed, but sometimes the conditions are no laughing matter.  There was the day we had just arrived at a “home” and our group leader asked me to take a “before” photo of the kitchen.  I aimed the camera in the general direction he pointed, thinking surely this isn’t a kitchen… where?  It looked more like a metal chicken coop/storage shed, with no roof, just plastic, and a small fire pit hidden in the clutter. My husband’s contractor instincts took over.  He was talking about building them a whole new house to put the stove in.   One reason they mentioned for needing a new stove was because they have no money to buy wood, and the husband often spends 8 hours in a day hiking in the mountains to find scarce wood.  One of these stoves, they had heard, meant they would use 70% less wood!  And, maybe then they could stop burning plastic so their kids could have better health.

A completed stove and its proud owners
After our first week of interviews, we had a Thanksgiving turkey with other students and teachers here at Pop Wuj.  We thought about our wood stove back home, which we used to heat the home.  (A heated home in the winter, what is that?) We thought about our beautifully remodeled kitchen with… yes, counter space for preparing food.  I wondered how it would be to sit in the dirt and make tortillas in my lap, while trying to keep the babies from falling in the fire.  We wondered how we can take so many things for granted, how anyone could not appreciate the luxury in which we all live in the USA and other developed countries.  We ate our turkey this year with more awareness of our blessings than ever before, and it was tasty too.  And, we felt a little guilty for how much we ate, and that our meal did not include rice and beans. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Las Olimpiadas! Olympics at the Family Support Center

Text and Photos by Travis McMullen, Pop Wuj Student

Laughter filled the air. Language was no longer an issue – it’s a universal code. Even though our Spanish may be limited, or difficult to converse and understand at times, the simple sound of laughter let us all know that the Olympics were a major success and a day of much joy for all of the children at the Family Support Center.

Quite a few students from the Pop Wuj Spanish School came out to enjoy the day, so four teams were able to be pitted against each other in the race for the gold: Blue, Red, Yellow, Green.
Breaking up into teams

Explanation of the rules
The morning was split into several activities, with the winning team being awarded one point. It was a tight competition and after many different challenges, the final score was:

Blue – 3
Yellow – 2
Green – 2
Red – 0

The activities themselves were a lot of fun, requiring a mixture of team work, communication, and above all, a sense of fun. The activities included:
  • Sack race
  • Catching water balloons in a sack
  • Throwing water balloons to a partner, taking a step back each catch
  • A water balloon fight, firing squad style
  • A relay race
The relay race proved to be a lot of fun and quickly bought out the adventurous nature of the kids – many of them trying to cheat by not running around the poles, which were the student volunteers from the school. This quickly led to the volunteers grabbing and picking up the kids, spinning them around so they were placed behind them, so they could continue on the race. 

One of the craftier kids took a few wider steps just before they got to me, outsmarting me! Suddenly, they were gone, gaining valuable ground before I had the chance to grab them and spin them around! Luckily, the ground gained didn’t result in any major shift in the results of the race. 

Relay Race

The most entertaining activities were definitely the catch game with the water balloons, with a few rounds being played out.  The other volunteers and I were able to partake in the event and it became extremely competitive. Many different strategies were employed to ensure they had the perfect unbreakable water balloon, such as carefully inspecting the balloons before deciding, through to covering them in dirt to try and add an extra layer or two of protection. 

Slowly but surely, the amount of competitors decreased as the distance increased. New strategies were employed, such as moving from using your hands to catch the balloons, to using your shirt. Some of the balloons were perfectly protected – even though the kids might not be able to throw the distance, they could throw the balloon as far as they could and have it roll the rest of the way. Even after a few goes, the balloons were more than capable of continuing to roll along and not break. 

As the playing field decreased to the last remaining handful, I got cocky and made an error. The catch was a perfect ten – the feet moved a few feet while the right hand reached out, catching the balloon perfectly in the centre. I threw the balloon up in the air in celebration of what I had just accomplished. However, tragedy struck and I failed to catch the water balloon, watching in horror, almost from a third person perspective, as it slipped through my hands and landed on the ground below, breaking, water pouring out. We were eliminated. The other children cried out in laughter as we were eliminated, while I look across with a mixture of sorrow and mischief at my partner, who was just standing there, arms raised, the question being heard without it being asked.

These kinds of random, entertaining events filled the morning, as both kids and volunteers alike reveled in the act of playing games, having special moments, and enjoying the uniqueness of the Pop Wuj Family Support Center Olympics.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Happy Halloween!

Although Halloween is not a widely-celebrated holiday in Guatemala, the children and youth of the Family Support Center love our annual joint celebration of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

Jenny and Gabi, working on the apple crisp.

Adding the crisp to the apple crisp.

On the morning of October 31st, fourteen of the older kids came to Xela for a cooking activity.  We split them youth into two groups.  One group made apple crisp and designed their jack-o-'lantern while the second group made pumpkin cake and also worked on their jack-o-'lantern.  We baked our desserts and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Jacqueline, shredding pumpkin.
Mixing the pumpkin cake batter

The kids traveled back to Llanos and joined their younger compañeros for fiambre.  Heavy on vegetables, cheese, and lunch meat, fiambre is the traditional meal on the Day of the Dead in Guatemala.

Some problems with a jack-o-'lantern
The children finished lunch and began their preparations for the Halloween party.  With the help of Carmen Maria, the kids (and volunteers) dressed up as vampires, witches, scarecrows, pirates, and cats. 

Las Gatitas:  Ingrid, Evelyn, Amy, and Brenda

Witches: Ilcy and Lety

Scarecrows: Melissa and Jonathan

We lit the candles in the jack-o-'lanterns, turned off the lights, and invited folks to tell scary stories.  We finished the party with fried plantains, pumpkin cake, and apple crisp.

Vampires: Anibal, Ismael, and Marcelo


Oscar, the lion

Unfortunately we didn't have time to fly the kites that the kiddos made during the week.  October and November is kite-flying season in Guatemala and the kids have been hard at work, creating their own kites for the contest.  Kite flying had to be postponed until the following week.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Elotada 2013 - Crazy for Corn!

On September 12, Pop Wuj students, teachers, coordinators, and directors visited the community of Chirijkiak to celebrate with an Elotada, also known as the corn harvest.  Elote means corn on the cob in Spanish. 

Pop Wuj has worked with this community for over 18 years, providing scholarships to students, participating in reforestation projects during the rainy season, and in previous years also building latrines and safe stoves. 

At the Elotada, Pop Wuj students were introduced to family members of the scholarship recipients (becados), learned about the community, and then began the feast on elotes.

Everyone from Pop Wuj was given at least two or three!  We dressed the elotes ourselves with a range of toppings including lime, salt, mustard, ketchup, mayonaise and hot sauce.  All dressed, an elote transforms into an elote loco, ‘crazy corn’.

Full of corn, and grinning from ear to ear, the Pop Wuj group returned back to Xela for the afternoon.

Gina, looking very impressed at Caroline's elote loco
Fredy halfway through his third elote!
Aleya with one of the becadas from Chirijkiak
Carmen and Roney
Amy, Carmelina and Lesley having a good laugh at.... they still won't tell us at what!
Doña Aniceta, one of the mothers of the becados

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pop Wuj Nutrition Meetings in August and September

On August 8 and September 14 Pop Wuj held nutrition meetings in the communities of Llanos del Pinal, Buena Vista, and La Victoria.  
  • August ended our third and final month of expansion, and in addition to our continuing participants, we had approximately ten infants entering the program, and two new graduates as well.  
  • September was not an official expansion month, but we had five new entrants.

According to statistics from the Guatemalan government, in 2012, 48% of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, and within the indigenous population, the percentage increases to 80%.

The Nutrition Program, with the funding support from the Pop Wuj Spanish School, individual donations, and in large part from Timmy Global Health, provides well needed supplements such as Nutributter and Pumply'Nut to infants and children between the ages of six and twenty-four months to assist in growth and development during this critical period.  

Enjoying Nutributter!

At each monthly clinic, Pop Wuj students from the Medical Spanish Program and the Social Work Spanish Program prepare a short educational presentation for the mothers in the program.
  • The August Nutrition Meeting included a presentation on healthy eating behavior for babies: what to do if your baby is sick, as well as the type and quantity of food and drinks your baby should be eating at various age groups.
  • The September Nutrition Meeting offered a presentation on family planning - types of contraception available, a quick comparison of the uses and risks of each, as well as a discussion on the optimal time period to wait in between pregnancies, for both the mother and her baby.

 Jeff, Joanne, Liz, and Anna (left to right) offering an educational session on infants' diets
Left to Right: Ali, Myriah and Jenny sharing a presentation on family planning and contraceptive methods
Dr. Carmen Rosa, Tina, and Jeff discuss the Nutrition Program

After our presentation to the moms, volunteers from the Pop Wuj Medical and Social Work Spanish Programs measured the height, weight and head circumference of each baby.  While seemingly easy during our nutrition program training, this proved to be the most difficult part!

Baby Ashley being very cooperative

Medical Spanish Program students, Anna, Jack and Ariela measuring height

Medical Spanish Program students Theresa and Pascual carefully prepping one of our participants to be weighed
After being measured and weighted, mom and baby moved on to visit one of our local doctors on site, an evaluation of the infant’s progress was made, and depending on the outcome, Nutributter or Pumply'Nut was given.  In addition to the supplements for the babies, we offered children multi-vitamins for siblings, prenatal vitamins for the mothers and Incaparina, a fortified soy and corn-based protein powder, to be shared by the whole family.

Post and Photo Credit:  Caroline Yung

Two of Doña Luisa's children at the meeting in Buena Vista

Three generations of participants in the Pop Wuj Nutrition Program (going right to left) Grandma, daughters, and each of their respective babies)

Amy describing information on an upcoming surgical mission by Dr. Ryan Brown

After a long and fun morning - ready to head back to Xela!