Celebrating One Year!

 

This month we celebrate one year since our preschool program began! I can’t believe a whole year has whipped by so quickly!

Last January we hired Maria Alicia Choc (Ali) and she began teaching the children in our Community Hall on January 15th. Seven weeks later, we moved everyone over to our just completed “learning centre”.

For the last twelve months our children have been attending preschool Monday to Friday from 8am to noon. The school is a place of beauty, peace and love. It is a place where children are encouraged to play and discover. It is a place where they feel safe and are enthusiastically engaged.

Our learning centre-home to the preschool and our growing library collection

Our learning centre-home to the preschool and our growing library collection

In 2015, Ali had as many as 16 children in attendance. Every day, a mama is asked to help in the preschool. Having a parent there gives Ali extra help, allows the child to share with their parent and it gives the parent an opportunity to observe positive, non-violent parenting and interaction with the children. It’s a win-win for all!

Preschool parent meeting

Preschool parent meeting

Last Tuesday we held our first official meeting to launch our second year of programming. We have two new families with preschool-aged children about to begin preschool here. These are children of our workers who live in the local community of Chivarabal. It was exciting to gather and discuss the upcoming year in our special preschool.

IMG_6432I can’t say enough good about our learning centre and our preschool. It is very dear to my heart. I am SO grateful to each of the donors who have helped make this a reality. I had so much fun designing and then decorating the building and was thrilled when we were able to find such an amazing teacher to work with our children. I have watched each child bloom under her loving guidance and attention.

Antolin's Mayan class on Tuesday mornings

Antolin’s Mayan class on Tuesday mornings

Something extra special that has been happening for a few months now; every Tuesday, Antolin (our foreman and a Mayan Spiritual Guide) shares teachings about the Mayan tradition with the children. And on Thursdays, Greg is now doing a little music class with the kids! It’s so nice for the children to have positive male role models in their lives and they excitedly anticipate their time with these good men.

We are all excited to embark on this next year in a our special program. Once again, THANK YOU to each one of you who helped make this a reality for these precious children!

-Heather Alicia

 

The Holidays at Project Somos

 
Toy making time with our workers!

Toy making time with our workers!

It has been a busy couple of weeks for us at Project Somos.
We held our Santa workshop where for two days, our workers made beautiful wooden toys for the kids! (their kids and the Somos kids) This year we made wagons and wooden block sets (like Jenga).

Solstice Celebration

Solstice Celebration

We had our second annual solstice celebration. It was a beautiful evening which was full of peace and wonder. You’d never know there were over 20 kids in the room. It was soooo quiet.

 
We celebrated two birthdays; Juanita turned three and Natalia turned six. Baking happened with the mamas of the girls; a big double layered banana cake and chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles. Greg and I also had a special birthday party celebration at our house for the three “big” girls. They all got dressed up in the red/pink velvet dresses I’d picked up at the second hand store and we had dinner by candlelight together. Pure magic.

We had a potluck dinner with our families and all the staff (and their families) that work directly with the mamas. We had a hilarious gift exchange with the adults and the kids got their presents made by the workers! The meal was delicious and the kids were flying high, til way past bedtime!

A baking mama

A baking mama

We had an afternoon party with our workers and all their families which included a gift exchange, presents for the kids, a piñata, refreshments and a Christmas movie. A good time was had by all!

On Christmas Eve morning Greg and I gathered with all the mamas and kids and we had a pancake breakfast together before everyone headed to town to go visit with their respective families for the next two days.

All but one family left. Claudia and her four year old daughter, Mariana spent Christmas Eve and Christmas with Greg and I. Claudia’s family has basically, rejected her. Our therapist gave Claudia a couple of options for the holidays and in the end, she chose to spend that time with us. What an honour.

The wagons are a huge hit!

The wagons are a huge hit!

I had fun preparing a special stocking full of goodies for the two of them. We ate and visited and got to know each other better. Claudia is our newest mama and we hadn’t had much opportunity to just “be” together yet.

And now as the new year approaches, we are looking ahead to 2016. It’s going to be another packed year. Our hope is that it is a healing time for each of our mamas and their children and that they find happiness and peace in their lives, and that they can look ahead to a bright and hopeful future, thanks to the support of all of you.

-Heather Alicia

Birthday party for the big girls!

Birthday party for the big girls!

Pi?ata time with our workers and their families!

Pi?ata time with our workers and their families!

Christmas Eve with Claudia and her daughter. As is tradition, I gave her a photo album of photos I've taken.

Christmas Eve with Claudia and her daughter. As is tradition, I gave her a photo album of photos I’ve taken.

 

 

Facing the Challenges

 

Excerpted from my speech at our Grand Fiesta on Thursday, October 29th.

Grand Fiesta 2015-giving my speech

Grand Fiesta 2015-giving my speech

Eighteen months ago we welcomed our first two families. Since then we have helped five women and fifteen children.

We have learned some valuable lessons in this short time period;

Without the ability to envision something better, people cannot change their course.

When people are treated with indifference long enough, they start to believe they have no value.

We have learned that women that search for help are more likely to stick with programs that offer them support.

When you have always had next to nothing, it’s hard to understand the value of something that is offered to you.

We have learned that the length of their stay will vary, for each woman. This will depend on her level of literacy, how much education she has had and what she is working towards.

We have learned that just because you want to help someone does not mean they want to be helped.

We have opened our doors to other women and their children. Some women have stayed for part of the probation period and left. Other women have refused our offer.

Every time a woman leaves or refuses our offer, we feel sad, confused and disappointed. Mostly for the children who have no say in the choice made by their mothers. Children, whose life’s courses went from hopeful to complete uncertainty. We have shed tears for these children who deserve so much more. We know how difficult the path can be for children in Guatemala. Boys are vulnerable to gangs. They are likely to end up working long difficult days of hard labour in the fields. Girls are likely to repeat the same cycle as their mother-they’ll marry young, have many children and often end up as a single mom trying to support her children on her own.

We could easily end up on the floor in a puddle of discouragement. We’ve come close. But when we look around and see just how bad it is for people, how can we indulge in such a thing? It’s not easy living in Guatemala. We miss our friends and family. We often crave Thai food in Yaletown, walking with our dog, Tika on the beach, or coffee on Main street. Our days are long, and often hard and challenging.

We have dealt with so much since we first welcomed families:

-malnourishment

-lice and scabies outbreaks

-inappropriate touching

-a women recovering from a gang rape

-lying

-child abuse

-a pregnancy and a birth

-stealing

-illiterate mamas

We have heard heartbreaking stories from the women and children about their past. Just to name a few…

-domestic violence

-miscarriage induced by violence

-spousal suicide

-familial alcoholism

-abandonment

– pleas for support that were never answered

-a desperate mama who tried to give her children up at an orphanage

-death of an 8 month old son

-surviving on nothing more than tortillas and salt

Despite our difficult days, our toughest day is someone else’s easiest day in Guatemala. And we always need to hold that perspective.

The best cure for the blues!

The best cure for the blues!

When I’m at my lowest I’ve learned the way to overcome it is to spend time with our mamas and kids. I play with the kids. I love them to bits. I have a conversation with the mamas. I look at the beautiful work they have produced under my guidance. I ask them how they’re doing. I ask them to tell me something about life before.

How can I stay down for long when I know that they now look to the future with hope and excitement?

-Heather Alicia

Excerpted from my speech at our Grand Fiesta on Thursday, October 29th. More of my Fiesta Speech found here.

 

Are there Christmas Trees in Guatemala?

 

I bet you didn’t know this…

Tecpán is the Christmas Tree capital of Guatemala! Yup.

Every weekend during the month of December Guatemalans, seeking to fill their homes with the scent of pine, drive along the Central American highway to one of four different “Pinavete Fincas” to pick up their tree!

We’re talking big, beautiful and expensive Christmas trees. Each tree sells for a minimum of $100!

Here’s something else you likely don’t know. Tecpán is located at 7000 feet and is full of beautiful pine forests that resemble many of British Columbia’s woods. Temperatures between December and February generally drop to about 6 degrees celsius at night. In the day they can rise to as high as 25C!

Christmas Tree Farm

Christmas Trees in Tecpan!

One Sunday, last December, after being in Guatemala City, I counted 65 SUVs driving back toward the city with a tree atop their vehicle (in just one hour)! That inspired us to reach out and find the business people that were running these enterprises in Tecpán. As is usually the way, it was Mynor of the “Tecpan Coffee Shop” (yes, his shop has an English name) who did the introduction. Salvador is the owner of the Chichavac Finca which sells the trees.

Ready to Roll!

Ready to Roll!

On Sunday, for the first time, we went and set up “shop”. We set up a beautiful table displaying the lovely Christmas baubles the mamas have been needle-felting since the end of June. Salvador had warned us that most Guatemalans don’t value handmade products like Canadians and Americans do, but we knew it was worth a shot. We didn’t sell out. We didn’t walk away with a huge wad of quetzales but we did have fun and we did learn alot.

boothIt was a good opportunity for Clara, our mama in charge of the felties, to be out there in the “public” sharing her wares and talking about felting. We found out that tree sales were super busy the weekend prior. Weirdly, I had thought it would be the quieter weekend. I can’t really imagine how trees purchased so early, will last for four weeks. I guess people want to get their money’s worth out of their tree!

We will go again next weekend. We’ll try Saturday this time and see how sales go.

Our Beautiful Nativity Scene

Our Beautiful Nativity Scene

-Heather Alicia

 

Guest Blogger – Ken Spencer: Internet 2.0 for Project Somos

 

Last year I took on the task of putting in an Internet connection to the Project Somos site in the highlands of Guatemala. When I finished, the Internet worked way better than what Greg and Heather had had before and they were very happy. They were happy, but I wasn’t, for two reasons: at the best of times, it did not work as fast as it should; and second, at times it would hardly work at all. It was frustrating to try to figure out what to change while sitting in Vancouver unable to touch the equipment. Then, in May, something happened and the performance really deteriorated, going to half speed and sometimes not working all day. I instructed Greg to change the polarization of the antenna and it worked better, but clearly action was required.

I declared that the original system was merely the beta test and now we would design the real system. Heather decided to call it Internet 2.0, so a new project was launched over the summer, with the goal to head down in November to install it. To an engineer, it was frustrating not to be able to go on site with instruments and figure out exactly what was wrong and then fix the problem. Without that option available, it seemed best to just massively overdesign the system. More powerful equipment and a higher tower would be cheaper than another set of flights down there. We went ahead and designed the overkill upgrade. It was decided to:

  • Put in a link as far as the Children’s Village with Rocket Dishes that had 16 times as much power as the old link
  • Put up a 30’ tower in the Children’s Village
  • Move the antenna on the Community Hall from the side of the building onto a 10’ pole on the roof
  • Put an antenna on the tower at the Children’s Village that would distribute the signal to the Staff House, Community Hall and School (this meant the link to those buildings would be shorter and clearer of obstacles than receiving the signal from all the way across the canyon)

Once started, the four worst words in doing an upgrade came into play: “While we’re at it.” We decided to extend the Wi-Fi coverage from the Community Hall to the area around it, which would include the guest houses. Also, the antenna we would erect in the Children’s Village would cover the whole area, so the Learning Centre and Music Centre will have Internet when they need it.

I believe in setting low expectations and then exceeding them as it reduces the stress, so I asked Greg not to tell anybody we were hoping to make the Internet faster. Imagine my surprise when he announced in front of the whole audience at the Somos Fiesta that I was coming to put in a faster Internet. The theme was “Day of the Dead” – at that point, I didn’t know whether I wished I was dead or I should put Greg into that state.

In consultation with the same people that helped last year, Jordon Randall (IT Manager), Andy Wright and Alex Corbett (radio engineers), all the equipment was ordered. Jordon spent many hours helping me configure it and again I tested everything in Point Roberts on the lawn and then took it home, set everything up in my lab, with an antenna on the roof and one in West Vancouver, and thoroughly tested it all.

I found out Jordon was going to be halfway to Guatemala the week before I was going, so decided that he should come with us to:

  • reduce my stress. If something wasn’t working, he would figure it out
  • reduce the amount of time Greg would have to help me, as he is a busy guy
  • give someone else the glory of climbing the tower to install the antenna, as I am past the macho stage.

satellite climbboxesOn Monday, November 19th, Judy, Jordon and I arrived on site. Judy opted out of the geeky fun and went to work with Heather and the Mamas. Jordon and I unpacked everything and set up the first dish in the Children’s Village, and got it lit up in a laddertemporary configuration.

ladderladderTuesday we went to Patzún, on the other side of the canyon. The old antenna was atop a 20’ pole and since we have a 12’ ladder, Greg merrily used bailing wire to fasten a second ladder to the first one. Jordon and I looked askance at this arrangement, quickly pretending that it would take both of us to take the readings to align the antenna. Greg would have to go up, remove the old antenna, mount the new one and align it. He agreed and spritely danced up the ladders. Jordon and I avoided watching by studying the computer readings carefully. We were getting fabulous results. We did quite a bit of clean-up of the installation at the firehall so it would be robust and not easily damaged. As we headed back, we stopped for a traditional Guatemalan lunch: Texas BBQ.

We spent Wednesday and Thursday remounting the other antennas and mounting all the brains of the installation in the new Systems Building in the Children’s Village (its main purpose will be to house the equipment for the solar electrical system). We did a lot of testing and the results were fantastic, getting speeds the same as we got on the other side of the canyon, which means that the system goes as fast as the Internet connection from the telephone company. One little glitch still to figure out, is that a couple of times it faded for 10 minutes and we could not find any reason for it. To get us off the hook, Jordon and I suggested it might be all the volcanic activity in the area.  Alex and Andy pooh-poohed that idea, from Vancouver (“highly unlikely”), so we are still on the hook. We have three mini-PCs monitoring what is happening at various places in the system, so I plan to study it more once I get home

Friday morning, we went to the school and realigned their antenna and checked the existing computers donated by Paul Geyer and us. School is out for a couple of months so we took the laptops to upgrade with Windows 10, Office 2016 and other changes so they will be the same as the six new ones that Paul is donating.

Feeling good about all we accomplished, Heather, Greg, Judy, Jordon and I headed to Lake Atitlan for the weekend to have some fun (but for me, at least, not as much fun as doing geeky work).

I’m already planning phase 3, but not ready to promise it to anyone yet, although I am sure Greg will soon announce it as a done deal, putting the pressure back on me.

 

Guest Blogger – Judy Gale

 

“Mama!” “Mama!” The twins in turn cry out tearfully, running towards us.

These are adventuresome two-year-olds who roam freely through the Project Somos Village, who will clamber up and down a teeter totter without stopping if you let them, and one of whom would have launched himself off down the mini zipline if he hadn’t been caught. But their mother – the one consistent in their young lives – and I had stepped briefly out of view, and that momentarily panicked the twins.

Once more, I’m reminded of the rightness of Heather and Greg’s determination to keep families together in a country where hundreds of thousands of children have been orphaned because their widowed or abandoned mothers, mired in poverty, couldn’t afford to keep them – or worse, have had them removed to orphanages.

Bringing in mothers as well as their children – orphan prevention – is a much more complex enterprise than an orphanage. The mothers carry their own emotional baggage, and histories often involving violence. Most have had no positive parenting models to copy.

JudyArrival

Judy greets the new mama and children

While I was at Project Somos, a new mother and her three children arrived. Her palms were painfully cracked; she had been hand-washing laundry in order not to be separated from her children, but it wasn’t enough to pay rent. Natalia is bright and immediately got into the teamwork routine of a Somos home.

She sings and plays with her children. We hope she’ll inspire other mamas to simply have fun with their little ones. I can’t get out of my mind the picture of two other mothers weeping, each relating how – before she came to the Village – she could think of nothing except getting something to eat. Nothing but that.

In this safe and encouraging environment, the mamas start to reveal their potential. Clara is assuming leadership roles and is almost ready to move out with her children, on her own two feet. Quiet Paula declares that she doesn’t want to depend on anyone else again, so she wants to learn to read. She comes beaming from her first lesson with Somos preschool teacher Ali.

JudyArrival2

Welcome to Project Somos!

When we leave for home, the goodbyes are long. Clara says our coming back again has shown we have confidence in Project Somos and in the mothers. They thank us and all the donors for helping them and the people of their country. Their gratitude is something the mamas express often; it’s hard for them to understand why people so far away should care about them. It’s easy for me to reassure her there are hundreds of us. The hard thing is leaving.

Judy Gale

 

 

Keeping Families Together

 

We prevent children from becoming orphans by keeping families together.

Two years ago we were building a village for orphans. For six years we had been focused on this vision. We had completed the first two homes. We were ready to hire the foster mothers. We were close to opening our doors.

Prior to this, we had visited many projects in many different places. We felt strongly that we were paying attention to an essential need. Orphans needed homes and we were responding.

family2Suddenly we were approached by local Guatemalan leaders asking us to help families in dire need. We met Luisa. Luisa had six children. Two of her children had been taken from her and put in an orphanage because she didn’t have the resources to care for them.

We offered Luisa the first spot in the Village. She turned us down.

That was our turning point. It suddenly made sense. We saw how bad it could be for women and for their children We studied the statistics. At least 80% of the world’s orphans still have a living parent. Parents in desperate situations often leave their children at orphanages in hopes that they may have a better life. Children are taken from their mothers when the women can’t provide for their children. And then they are called orphans. And they move into orphanages.

I recently discovered the work of JK Rowling in her Foundation called Lumos. This video, so eloquently, says it all.

Children Need Families Not Orphanages

It’s encouraging to see other people getting this too.

The stories and the statistics about children who have grown up in institutions are heartbreaking.

A child does not need an institution, she/he needs a family.

There is a movement to have a world without orphans and we are on board. By focusing on keeping families together we would resolve many other problems.

Children that have grown up in institutions are greatest targets for human trafficking and gangs. Children that don’t have healthy attachment, become society’s most difficult citizens. Mental illness, suicide and prostitution are common.

Our decision to bring in families run by single widowed or abandoned women makes so much sense to us now.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

-Heather Alicia

p.s. The above was extracted from the presentation I gave at our Grand Fiesta on October 29th.

 

A Trusting Canadian Schooled in a Strange Land

 

TecpanI was raised in the northern culture of the USA and Canada where I was taught to trust people until they give you reason not to trust them. In my short life, while living in the USA and Canada, this cultural guidance seemed to work fairly well. I have been fooled a few times, but not so many times as to discard the first trust attitude entirely or become cynical.

Since my arrival in Guatemala, almost five years ago, I have come to question the cross cultural application of trusting first until given reason not to. I was given some cultural advice by an American businessman who has lived in Guatemala for almost 40 years. He counselled that extending unconditional trust first in Guatemala would not bring a good result. Initially, I intellectually understood this principle, but hadn’t had any gut wrenching experiences to change my attitude – yet.

Over the course of the years here, I have observed that embedded in the culture here, is an ease and liberal use of lying. Although I admit this may be a cultural generalization and perhaps is isolated to our geographical area. Unfortunately, after asking more than a few Guatemalans about this disturbing cultural phenomenon, they confirmed my observation. It can be a tool in many people’s back pocket, ready to use if necessary.

After a few minor incidents of catching people in “white lies”, we had some major “events” of serious behaviours being denied despite being cornered with convincing evidence to the contrary. These serious breaches of trust were not by strangers, but by people who had received our trust over years. Subsequently, upon these revelations of the breach of trust it was discovered that this had happened before and had not been detected. Ouch.

Not to take such a betrayal of trust personally is difficult. It was very disturbing to see an investment of personal confidence and trust discarded by covert reckless behaviours. Even more disturbing was to see the denial of those disturbing behaviours by escalating lies. I must add, in the end each person in each separate “event” did come clean.

Upon reflection of the various “events” over the past years, I have come to see my part in it. “Expectation is a painful death” said Rumi, and how true that is. To expect someone to always be truthful in a culture that sees lying a survival tool, is naïve and a setup for that painful disappointment. To decondition myself from trusting until given a reason not to was not easy and it is still in process. I realized how deeply my trusting conditioning is and I realized how equally deep the conditioning in this culture is as well. I cannot change this culture, so I must change myself and my expectations.

He that deceives me once; shame fall him; if he deceives me twice, shame fall me. -James Kelly, Scottish Proverbs (1720).

-Greg

 

Grand Fiesta – October 29, 2015

 

SOMOS_DayOfTheDead_Poster_4SOMOS_DayOfTheDead_Poster_4 w border

Join us for Project Somos’ Grand Fiesta on October 29, 2015 at The Imperial!

Early Bird (’til Oct 9th): $65

Regular Price: $75

At the Door: $85

VIP (includes exclusive cocktail party at 6:30pm, live entertainment, reserved front row seating, VIP draw and mini meal): $100

Our LIVE AUCTION items are up!  Check them out!

And back by popular demand, here is a list of our Fund-A-Need for this year.

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Check out the Sponsorship Package here!

Grand Fiesta at the Imperial Theatre
 
 

Not for Everyone…

 

Greg has written about it before. There are women that accept our invitation to come to Project Somos and there are others who don’t. It is impossible for us to truly understand how their decision is made. We never evangelize or push. The women always have an opportunity to talk in private with the women already living here. They can ask as many questions as they like.

Arrival!

Arrival!

Two weeks ago we welcomed two more families to Project Somos. The families brought us to capacity. For the time being. Remember-we still have five more homes to build, and will then have more spaces to fill with time.

Camila and Fernanda arrived just before lunch. They were accompanied by Lucy. Lucy is the wife of the mayor of Santa Cruz de Balanya. Lucy has been working with us and identifying families living in dire situations. Our four mamas and children warmly greeted the families when they arrived.

The mamas had already made lunch; organic black beans grown right here on the finca. It’s always good to start with something familiar as there is nothing more likely to turn the families off than an extreme change to their usual food.

These two mamas had already been on a tour of the Project just a few weeks earlier. During that time we confirmed they were eligible and we gathered financial support from two “teams” of sponsoring groups. [MANY thanks to those who have stepped up to help support our families!]

A full playground

A full playground

After lunch the children played in the playground. We gathered under our new shade structure on the edge of the playground. We all visited and got to know each other. It was a sweet and beautiful afternoon.

The next morning I went down to the Village to introduce the mamas and kids to our preschool teacher, Ali. The kids nervously entered the preschool to attend their first day of “school”. I took some time to talk to both mamas. Fernanda said she hadn’t adapted and wanted to leave. I listened and talked to her. And then Ali did. We both explained that to adapt, it usually takes more than one night. Marelyne (our therapist) arrived a couple of hours later and met with Fernanda right away. A short time later I received a call saying that Fernanda definitely wanted to leave.

She was gone by lunch time. She didn’t even say a word to the other mamas, who were left feeling a little perplexed.

Camila has now been here for nearly two weeks. She’s still finding her way. Her little family is used to living on their own. It’s much busier and louder here. Her daughter is not settling in quickly and Camila is worried. We have explained that this is normal and that we’ve already witnessed it with the other children. At this point, I am not sure she will stay but our hope is that she will. She is our eldest mama (42) and has a peaceful maturity to her that we think will be a great asset to the other mamas.

I can tell you something I do know…there is rarely a dull moment around here!

Stay tuned as things unfold…

-Heather Alicia