My First Experience in Guatemala as a Volunteer
My experience in Guatemala has taught me that small donations, desire, grassroots commitment, an organization can change and save lives. If you wish to donate and become a part of projects like this go to http://www.plenty.org
Plenty Guatemalan Project 1976-1980
On February 4, 1976, a devastating earthquake hit Guatemala taking at least 23,000 lives. Approximately 76,000 were injured, and many thousands left homeless. Some areas went without electricity and communication for days.
In response, Plenty, the outreach program of the spiritual community the Farm, sent a handful of carpenters to Guatemala armed with only their skills, a backpack full of tools and a desire to help rebuild.
The reconstruction project was quickly underway. However, as they began clearing debris and rubble, a new crisis emerged. They were horrified to find infants, many orphaned, in dire need of medical attention. The team urgently requested more volunteers with medical knowledge to come and provide assistance. The Farm answered that call and soon set up a medical clinic in the Plenty camp, which at that time was no more than one kitchen structure, a few platformed tents surrounded by a coffee plantation and corn field.
The number of infants and children orphaned by the earthquake had reached a critical point and in response for further volunteers in June 1977, myself and five other women went to Guatemala and help set up an orphanage. We became known as the Angel Crew. Our responsibilities involved one-on-one parenting of a single infant, collectively caring for 37 children, and preparing three meals a day for around 90 people consisting of orphans, patients at the clinic, and volunteers involved in the project. Along with the orphans, many locals joined our team, including several teenagers who had been living on the streets of Guatemala, who we helped recover from drug addictions.
At that time the infant mortality rate was around 50%. Some of the infants came to us extremely malnourished and underweight–at an age of eight months, some weighed a mere eight pounds (the weight of most infants at birth!). We fed these babies diluted soy formula through an eyedropper, but in some cases, it was simply too late. The only thing that made the heart-breaking experience of losing a child bearable was that we were able to save others. Some returned home if they had one, and others were adopted. However, many of the children we treated went home only to return to us again in a short time, again malnourished.
Most of the children in Guatemala were given only tortillas to eat, and it became increasingly clear to me that many Guatemalan mothers needed to be educated about how to provide for their children’s basic nutritional needs. Aware of the undernourishment of the people of Itzapa and the high nutritional benefits of soybeans and soy products, we forged a plan to introduce soybeans as a new crop to the local farmers.
Our goal was to supplement the diet of the local villagers with high-quality protein while also providing a source of income to the farmers. Soybeans seemed like a viable solution since the farmers had only small plots of land and soybeans can yield high amounts of protein per acre. In October 1978, the Plenty team, augmented by agriculture expertise, initiated a program to plant and test the different varieties of soy which would grow at the highest elevation ever tested at that time. (of which Cobb, Bosier & Davis proved to yield best).
Suzi teaching a class with her Soy Sisters
(I’m 19 years old, on the far left side, blending in wearing Solola Indian Traje)
The farmers passing by the field kept asking what is this new bean? So we needed to teach the community how to utilize them for desperately needed protein for their children. The first classes were held with the wives of the farmers that were involved in growing the soybeans which had proven to grow well at the 5,860 ft. elevation. I taught them using the same utensils that they used themselves, such as a rock grinding stone and cooking on a wood fire; this way every woman who took the class would be able to use the same methods in her own home. The class size averaged 6-8 neighborhood women along with about 15 children. I would teach the class in Spanish and Maria Sal, a local Indian mother of five who joined our team would translate in Cakchiquel (the local Mayan dialect).
The children loved eating the soyfoods and news traveled fast; at the end of each class I would find myself surrounded by 20-30 children, all waiting eagerly for a sample. Interest among the women grew quickly as well. Word spread throughout the area and the requests for classes became overwhelming. I was soon teaching soy demo classes not only in Iztapa, but in many of the neighboring villages as well. By June 1979 approximately 200 women had been through the course.
Although the soyfoods were very popular and classes were available, many women in Guatemala did not consistently have time to make their own soy products at home. To address this need, Plenty obtained further assistance from C.I.D.A. to build a soy dairy that would operate as a cottage industry. Importantly, the dairy enabled us to produce soyfoods on a large scale, create job opportunities, and make soy products available for purchase to the people of Guatemala. Soy ice cream seemed to be a good product choice to focus on. Its production required less education and ice cream was very popular throughout Guatemala.
Soy Ice Cream School Program
In February 1980 the facility was finished, and the Soy Dairy was inaugurated. Our long-term plan was to turn over full operation of the dairy to the people of San Bartolo so our first task was to choose and train a local to oversee the project. We chose Agustin Xoquic. He had been head of the reconstruction committee in San Bartolo and we had developed a very strong bond with him and his family. We lived in the Mayan community, training Agustin and his wife Elena to oversee the dairy.
Unfortunately, after eight months of training the employees at the Soy factory, the political climate in Guatemala became violent. People we worked with were put on “hit lists,” and since we did not want to jeopardize anyone’s safety we were forced to prematurely leave the soy factory project in the hands of San Bartolo. In September 1980 we left Guatemala. But, the project in the hands of the community.
Since this time, the project has become a model project worldwide. Currently, the soy dairy has operated as a semi self-sufficient business for thirty-eight years. It employs seven members of the Mayan community full-time and perhaps most importantly, continues to supplement the protein intake of the Mayan children. The soy Project produces soymilk, tofu, soy ice cream, tempeh, soy flour, cookies, whey lotion, and shampoo.
With more funding, education and organization of the planet’s resources, there would be Plenty of protein to go around, and malnutrition could be a thing of the past – this is my dream.
by Suzi Jenkins Viavant
Black & White Photos by Jenny Banks, Leigh Kahan,& David Frohman
Colored Photos by Suzanna Frohman