Curtiss had been sent to Seamay to figure out how to bring the village water. It was one of dozens of similar projects the LDS Church had underway or had recently completed around the world. (See accompanying chart).
Curtiss had come at the request of Elder Don R. Clarke, a member of the LDS Church's First Quorum of the Seventy who oversaw the church's ministry in Guatemala, as well as the six other Central American countries south of Mexico.
Villages like Seamay faced significant challenges. In rural areas of Guatemala, clean water was scarce and almost half of all students failed the first grade.
To make matters worse, the coffee industry, once the backbone of Guatemala's economy, had essentially collapsed in the mid-1990s when, due to deregulation and free trade, factory farms in places like Brazil and Vietnam flooded the global market with cheap beans, resulting in the loss of half a million jobs in Guatemala. Seamay had been hit particularly hard.
Elder Clarke felt a special affinity for the village. While Seamay only had a population of 2,100, nearly one third were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On Sundays, two congregations packed into the village's white chapel. And yet, many of the members lived in abject poverty, subsisting off less than $1 a day. Elder Clarke wanted to change this, and the village.
Traveling through Latin America, he had seen well-intentioned charity projects that had done good but accomplished little in the long term. The problem, Elder Clarke believed, was that in each case the work had been completed by outsiders with little input or contribution from the community they were serving. To make a lasting change, the community itself had to feel ownership.
"We were trying to think differently," Elder Clarke recalls. "To see if we could change culturally how the people are. We wanted to try to make a difference so they would never be the same."
Elder Clarke had no interest in a token "feel good" project. Instead, he wanted to take a holistic approach — to change Seamay from the inside out through education, self-sufficiency and improved health programs. "We talked to the local leaders and we said, 'We're here, and we're going to stay and we're not going away,'" Elder Clarke recalls. "Because people come, they drop their projects and then they leave. We weren't going to do that. But we also told the community we would only stay if they did their part."
The local leaders understood Elder Clarke's vision. This wasn't his project, he was saying, because this wasn't his village. It was theirs, and with a little bit of help, they could change it forever. They would begin with water.
Magdalena Cuz could tell this time was different. For more than 10 years, her husband and other community leaders had been trying to figure out a way to bring water to their village, which was really no more than a collection of shacks built on the finca, or coffee plantation. Originally, the 150 families on the plantation had been given a small plot of land to farm, enough wages to get by, and a certain ration of water. It worked this way for generations, but then the coffee market collapsed, more people moved to Seamay looking for work, and there was no longer enough water for everyone.
In 1998, the community leaders, including Magdalena's husband Blas, went to a nearby finca and asked the owner if they could pump water from a spring running through his property. The finca owner asked for a million quetzales, which was far more than the people of Seamay could pay, and so they went to the county government asking for help. But after years of filing paperwork and blueprints, the project had gone nowhere.
And then what could only be described as a miracle happened in the fall of 2009. The finca was sold and the new owner agreed to grant the community of Seamay access to the spring for no cost. At around the same time, Elder Curtiss showed up, representing the LDS Church, with a mandate to help bring running water into every home. The deeply religious people of the village, even those who had no interest in the Mormon Church, saw this as more than a coincidence.
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