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

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

Curtiss applied the same principle Clarke had introduced with the water project — community ownership and buy-in. Rather than coming in and trying to teach the community themselves, imposing what may have felt like American values, he and his wife selected 16 women as facilitators, who then trained four group leaders, who in turn taught hygiene classes to 20 families each.

Through the hygiene classes, Curtiss and his wife learned that 80 percent of the women in the village couldn't read, and so they began an adult literacy program, stressing that children who read with their mothers were far more likely to graduate from the sixth grade. (In rural areas like Seamay, only 30 percent of children complete the third grade).

"We really did take a holistic approach to this," Curtiss says. "You can't solve a community's problems all with a single project. You can't go in and build a school and leave town. We started with a water project and we started with hygiene classes with the women and we built from there."

Determined to see his full vision for the community come to fruition, Elder Clarke invited several U.S.-based charities to come to Seamay. Each shared his central philosophy — they would help the community, but only if the community wanted it, and only if they were willing to act as full partners.

The San Mateo Foundation of Colorado agreed to pay for a new school if the people of Seamay would build it. Mentors International, a Utah-based microcredit agency, sent loan officers to help villagers start new businesses, like chicken farms, which required those with savings to invest what they could. Choice Humanitarian helped organize the volunteers building the school, and supervise the construction. And a California-based charity called Socorro Maya brought high efficiency stoves to the village, selling them at a subsidized cost with the help of the LDS Church. The stoves cut down on firewood consumption by one third, meaning families didn't have to go out as often to gather wood to cook, or boil water.

"It's a wonderful thing to see the change that's occurred here," Curtiss says. "And the best part is that they don't think that someone came in and did this for them. With each of these projects, they did it themselves. They made all of this happen. And that builds so much dignity and hope."

More than one year later, Magdalena Cuz stands in her front yard, hanging laundry. It is a hot spring day, and in the mountains little columns of smoke rise from fields being cleared for planting. From the valley below, Magdalena can hear the steady ping, ping, ping of a hammer. Three workers wearing yellow hard hats are working on the new school, which has been under construction for several months. They have already built the first floor and are now laying cinderblock for the classrooms upstairs. Within a year, the school should be finished. It will have smooth concrete floors, computers and well-trained teachers, just like she dreamed long ago.

It's hard for her to believe how much has changed in the last year. "Our lives were consumed by wood and water," she says. "We used to drink dirty water. We'd go without washing our clothes. I was once sick for a year from drinking dirty water."

"My husband used to go out all the time to gather wood. He had to pull the kids out of school to help him. Now he only has to get wood once a week."

She looks at the new stove in her house, which her family paid for with assistance from the LDS Church. It is made of concrete and cinderblock and has a chimney that pumps smoke outside. Before, when she cooked over open fires, her eyes burned and her head ached from taking in all the smoke. She can't believe how much less wood this stove uses, or how much time she and her husband have now that they're not constantly worrying about water and wood.

Now for the first time in her husband's life, he is thinking about more than just survival. Thanks to what he's learned helping build the school, he's training to be a mason, a job that will earn him enough money to buy the new school uniforms his kids want.

"It's hard not to love these people," John Curtiss says. "They're good people. They carry their lives out in a very quiet sort of way. They're not loud, boisterous people. They talk quietly, they deal quietly and they just work their hearts out."

Elder Curtiss left Seamay a few months ago, as his mission ended, and a new one began. (He is now serving as an executive secretary to the new area president, who replaced Elder Clarke after his release.) But Curtiss promises to come back. He once worried that in his absence things might fall apart. Now he realizes he never had anything to worry about.

"If we could leave here with the people recognizing that the church has been involved, but accepting this as their own effort and understanding that they can do this kind of thing as a community, that they can change their own lives if they just get a little boost from some place, then I would consider this a successful effort."

Coming Monday

How the LDS Church is helping stop deforestation in Guatemala.

EMAIL: jhyde@desnews.com

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