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

Published: Saturday, July 9 2011 11:45 p.m. MDT

John Curtiss, a humanitarian missionary for the LDS Church, supervises the construction of a new school in Seamay, Guatemala.

Alan Gibby, Deseret News

SEAMAY, Guatemala — It is still dark when the woman rises from her bed, slips her callused feet into her flimsy pink flip flops, and begins the long walk for water. Already, the damp air smells of cooking fires, and before long, the blue sheen of wood smoke will rise above this small mountain village in Guatemala.

It is a quiet place where she lives, even during the day, but now, at 5 in the morning, everything is still. She walks past the pig in her yard, tethered to a banana tree and sleeping, and down the winding path that leads from her hilltop home to the mist-shrouded valley below. Her walk to the river will take several hours.

Her name is Magdelana Cuz and she is 46 years old. She has spent her entire life here in the Alta Verapaz. Her neck is bowed from years of carrying water atop her head; her hands bent and gnarled from grinding corn on a rough stone slab. It is a testament to the harshness of life here. And yet there is a radiant beauty that emanates from her dark eyes, a suggestion that even here, in this hard land, there is hope.

Magdalena makes this trip nearly every morning during the dry season. When it rains, and there is more water here, she goes to the tap in the center of the village, hoping to fill her blue plastic jar with what she needs for cooking and laundry, and of course, drinking. But she often arrives to find a long line already waiting, even in the middle of the night. Sometimes it gets so bad that the neighbors steal water from each other. Magdalena can't believe that she has done this herself, but she has 11 children, and there are few things more powerful than thirst.

In the moonlight, she leaves the rutted dirt road for a steep rocky path that cuts through the jungle. By this time, her husband has already been up for hours as well, gathering wood, and is likely nearing home. Their children are probably stirring from bed.

As she nears the sound of the water gurgling from the rocks, she prays for a better life. She imagines not having to make this walk. She imagines her husband not having to hike for miles for firewood. And she imagines her children studying past the third grade, in a school with cement floors, a library and maybe even computers.

She can't imagine that any of this will actually happen — it seems a distant dream too good to be true — but within a year all of it will, improbably, begin to become a reality.

Seamay sits in the highlands of northeastern Guatemala, wedged between the Polochic Valley, a humid patchwork of farmland that stretches all the way to the Caribbean, and The Peten — a vast, jungly no man's land of sweeping rain forests and ancient Mayan temples.

John Curtiss still remembers the first time he visited Seamay. A 64-year-old American from Wisconsin, he had driven up from Guatemala City on assignment with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and had spent his first few days exploring the town. It was easy to fall for the place. The village lay nestled between several vine-covered peaks, with terraced farms of corn and beans dotting the steep slopes. A sprawling coffee plantation, once the economic center of the village, sat abandoned and empty, its white hacienda looming ghost-like against the backdrop of the deep green mountains.

As Curtiss drove through town, he could see the villagers in their bright Mayan clothing watching him curiously. They were accustomed to Mormon missionaries, but they had never seen a missionary like him. Outside of the black badge he wore on his chest, he bore little resemblance to the teenage boys who walked the streets in their starched white shirts, carrying Bibles and Books of Mormon. Curtiss hadn't come to Guatemala to baptize; he had come to provide humanitarian service.

Throughout the world, there were dozens of missionaries from the LDS Church just like him. Typically retired couples who volunteered to serve for 18 months at their own expense, they trained doctors, built schools, dug wells and helped the unemployed find work from Haiti to the Dominican Republic to the Congo.

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.

"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."

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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