Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Moving Day at the Family Support Center

Text and photos by Emily Rempel

This has been a VERY exciting couple of weeks for our Family Support Center. After a long and difficult search for a new location, we signed the papers last Monday for our new space and were ready to start making it our own. On Tuesday a group of volunteers from Pop Wuj and Pathways, an organization serving adults with developmental disabilities, headed out to the old FSC site in Llanos del Pinal. There we were met by a big group of FSC mothers and several of their children. 

Our first task was loading all of the furniture and the piles upon piles of other FSC materials up into the big moving truck. With many hands, and many trips, we loaded up the benches, cabinets, tables, and chairs. Luckily we had some Tetris experts on our team who were able to find a way to fit all of the awkward, bulky furniture into the truck.

Jeremy, Ashley, and Santos search for any remaining free spaces

On top of the furniture, we piled chairs, sacks of books, pots and pans, and a myriad of other odds and ends that all help the FSC run. By the end of it, the truck was just about overflowing. 
Then, once we got to our new FSC site, we had to unload it all! 

With the first truckload emptied, one group headed back to the old FSC site to pack up one more load, including a stove and a great big swing set. 

The swing set proved an interesting challenge to get into the new Center and the process was truly an impressive feat of strength and geometry.

In the end, just about all of the furniture got moved without a hitch, with the exception of one damaged cabinet. That, we can blame on the age-old problem of "too much cabinet -- not enough doorway." 

Moving our shelving units was a team effort 
By the time 5 p.m. came around, we were done! A special thanks goes out to all of our little helpers...

Emmanuel inspecting the inside of our recycling bin, making sure everything looked up to spec
One of Brenda and Ingrid's little cousins carrying our shelving unit (while teacher Santos helps just a tiny bit)
On Thursday we held a special benefit dinner for our Family Support Center, featuring some top-notch burritos (which, as co-chef, I say with absolutely no bias) and a margarita bar. At the dinner, we talked to the students a bit about what the Family Support Center is, what it offers to the community, and why it's so important. All proceeds from the night are going to be put towards our Family Support Center. 

We can't say enough how incredibly excited we are to be starting this new chapter in the life of our FSC, for it to be able to continue providing its vital services to families in Llanos del Pinal. Thanks for following this journey with us, for reading about our work, and for supporting our projects. 

Interested in helping us with this transition to a new site? Donations through Foundation Todos Juntos make a tremendous difference!

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.