LDS Church helps as Guatemalans bring water, education to their village

Published: Saturday, July 9 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

"It really was a blessing from God," says Armalindo Pope, the vice mayor of Seamay and the leader of a local evangelical congregation. "Previous efforts had just dragged, but when the LDS Church got involved, everything just moved quick."

Like other villages in the Alta Verapaz, the community of Seamay was tightly knit and highly organized under a tribal system that stretched back to the ancient Maya, with committees that oversaw everything from the hiring of school teachers to the maintenance of the soccer stadium. Shortly after Elder Curtiss arrived in town, the community reassembled its long-dormant water committee, installing Magdalena's husband Blas as its president. A former district president with the LDS Church, he was perfect for the job. He had spent years supervising the six Mormon congregations in the area, expertly mobilizing an inexperienced, and entirely volunteer, clergy into running the day-to-day operations of the church, from cleaning buildings to teaching Sunday School. Now, it would be his job to mobilize the entire community to build a water tank.

The task was daunting. The source of the spring lie high in the mountains, three miles up a narrow, slippery path that cut through thick, nearly impenetrable jungle. To get water to the village, they would first have to build a captation tank, which would essentially function like a small dam, at the source of the spring. They would then run piping down the mountain to a storage tank that hadn't yet been built, and from there, thread PVC piping into each home.

"I had several concerns," says Curtiss, who had built similar systems in the U.S. "I was concerned that the design of the water system was correct. I was concerned that it would actually physically work, that was one concern. The other concern was that the community would actually support it. Sometimes people say they'll back things and then they wear out when you get to the actual physical work."

Building a water tank at the top of a mountain in a jungle with no roads would have been difficult for a well-paid, highly trained crew from the United States. But in this case, the responsibility fell entirely volunteers from the village with no training or experience. They also wouldn't be paid.

Because Curtiss was based in Guatemala City, he couldn't stay in Seamay to oversee the work. When he returned after several weeks, he was pleasantly surprised at what he saw.

Under the leadership of Blas Cuz's water committee, 323 families in the village had volunteered to participate in the project, donating 15 quetzales a month to a fund reserved for maintenance and upkeep. (The LDS Church paid for the materials used to build the actual water system.) Each family also agreed to take responsibility for digging 20 feet of ditch.

Curtiss watched with wonder. As he walked up the trail towards the spring, he could hear the thwack, thwack, thwack of machetes clearing vegetation to build a platform for the storage tank. Other men from the village were carrying up bags of cement and sand and gravel. Boys and girls worked beside their fathers. Women from the village brought drinks for the workers. When all was said and done, the people of Seamay had dug six miles of trenches, up hill, with pick axes and shovels through dirt and rock.

"Not only did they not tire but they did the project two months ahead of schedule," Curtiss says. "It was just amazing how they put their hearts into building the system."

In the meantime, Curtiss and his wife had begun several other initiatives at the request of Elder Clarke. At the Seamay chapel, they had begun teaching classes to the community on hygiene and sanitation. They found that most people in the village had never been taught to wash their hands after using the bathroom or preparing meals.

"We'd hold up these pictures of a mother sitting on a bed with a sick child and we'd say, 'Has this ever happened to your child?' And of course it had," Curtiss recalls. "So we taught lessons on hand washing, where to put garbage, where water comes from, how to purify dirty water."

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