Guest Blogger – Genny Tevlin

 

My time at Project Somos is coming to an end, this is my fifth week volunteering here and it has gone by at an alarmingly fast rate. I can’t quite believe that a week from now I will be leaving this place and not seeing these familiar faces everyday. My experience has been an exceptional one, full of fun, learning and lots of laughing. Within these mothers and children I have found great friends withstanding, even, the barriers of my poor Spanish.

Ana and her girls

Ana and her girls

In my last blog post I described the work I have been doing teaching the mothers. Here I will go into a bit of detail of my time with the kids of Somos. A lot of my day is spent with the children. There are nine kids in the Somos home varying from the ages of 2-9. When I’m around I like to try and give the mothers a break by engaging as many kids as possible in activities. Often, when the mothers are busy or in a meeting I will put on  bouncy pop music. The kids immediately become entranced by the shiny pop tunes and we will usually begin a “dance party.” Lately I’ve been playing the new Taylor Swift album, the kids are beginning to learn the words to some of the catchiest lyrics to her hit songs. They give me requests of songs to put on and I take turns holding their hands and jumping around with them. This is an especially effective activity with some of the littlest kiddies who don’t often smile when separated from their mothers.

Dancing with the kids!

Dancing with the kids!

I have also had some time to designate to the older boys, teaching them a bit of English. They are very eager to learn, and when I can keep their attention it is a great learning environment. Although of course being boys of 9 and 7 it is difficult for them to sit still for a period of time. Therefore, I try and keep it light, teaching them English songs such as “the hokey pokey,” and playing bingo with different english categories. When I can tell the boys are getting restless I will suggest we change activities and we will run around for a while playing soccer or frisbee.

Playground fun

Playground fun

Overall my time at Project Somos has been an experience I won’t forget. I have had so much fun getting to know the moms and listening (to what I can understand) of their stories. Moreover, playing with the adorable children and dancing to Taylor Swift has also been a task I have been happy to fulfill. I think that what Greg and Heather are accomplishing is so important, and completely admirable. I hope they continue succeeding in the creation of their vision and that some day I will be able to come back to volunteer again.

~ Genny

 

Five to Three… Really?

 

Before coming to live in Guatemala almost four years ago, I had travelled to various countries like India, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia.  I felt I had a strong sense of what poverty looked like, sounded like and smelled like.  I didn’t consider myself naïve to the true despair of the abyss of extreme poverty. I thought I saw it close up and personal.  Well, I can tell you, I was naïve and I am being schooled about the reality of poverty.

shackPoverty is an insidious legacy that sucks the very life out of innocent human beings from generation to generation.  It is almost impossible to climb out of extreme poverty and if we have any notion that people chose this road or have much opportunity to escape its reach once in its grip, we are uninformed or deluding ourselves.  I had also thought every mother wants a better, healthier life, more stable life and an education for her children.  Well, I was wrong again.

Consider centuries of oppression with a slave-like existence, without education, (meaning some training in critical and creative thinking), without good nutrition, and living a life under extreme life and death type stress. This seems to have impaired the ability to chose a better road for oneself and one’s children even if you are on the edge of a life-consuming abyss.

Project Somos currently has three mothers with nine children living on the property. Antolin and Nico screen potential family candidates to come and participate in what is being offered here – a safe place to live, nutritious food, capacity building for the mother, education for the children, and vocational training so that the mothers can support their families when they leave Somos.  Sounds ideal and you would think there would be a waiting list to live here? Wrong again.

We receive referrals from community leaders and neighbours of mothers and children who are in extreme need and would benefit from what Somos offers.  Antolin and Nico go to where they are living, which is usually a shack with no electricity, no plumbing, with a dirt floor. One of the mothers was living with her four children in an animal pen.  The severity of their situations is more than sobering.

shack 2I will not go into the details of each case, but I will tell you, we have offered 8 abandoned or widowed mothers with children an opportunity to come under the roof of Somos and five rejected the offer and only three have accepted.  How is this possible?  It is shocking for us –mothers with five or more kids choosing to stay in extreme poverty.  I can only offer my perspective, as I am not a trained sociologist or psychologist.

As we know, in our somewhat comfortable lives, fear of change is not uncommon, and so it seems this driving emotional state is not isolated by social or economic position.  What we have no experience with or cannot imagine, often makes us fearful and not want to take any risk.  But wouldn’t the well-being of your children overcome this fear?  Apparently not.  In some of the cases, the children said they didn’t want to come to Somos and the mothers followed their children’s lead.  Bewildering.

This five to three situation has left us shaking our heads, realizing how much we don’t understand about the harsh conditioning of extreme poverty.  We continue to look for widowed and abandoned mothers with children who are willing to take the risk of jumping into the unknown for the benefit of their kids.  We are not discouraged, but sobered and trust the right families will find their way to Somos.

Greg

 

Guest Blogger – Gabi Dubland

 

I have now been at Project Somos for 3 weeks. This trip marks my third visit to Guatemala. The first visit for Christmas with my family in 2011. My second in 2013 for 4 months. Now for three months.

With my family Christmas 2011, building the Gathering Place

With my family Christmas 2011, building the Gathering Place

Every trip has been completely different. But I think I can safely say, that this is my favourite thus far. In two short years, so much has changed. The biggest change… there are FAMILIES! And children!! So cool to see this vision and dream coming true!!

One of my favourite things so far has been bringing a ‘slackline’ from Canada to teach the kids. And mamas too! A slackline is like a tightrope, but thicker and slack. Back home in Vernon I will often go out with friends to the beach (in the summer) and slackline for an afternoon. It is a joy to bring this to the kids and teach them what fun it is! And they sure love and enjoy it! The mamas too!

Showing them how it is done!

Showing them how it is done!

Lending a helping hand across the slackline

Lending a helping hand across the slackline

Another exciting thing is my parents, Rod & Heidi (Heather Alicia’s sister) came down for a quick visit for Heather’s birthday. It was really exciting for me to be able to show them the changes in the last few years and for them to meet the families. It’ll be sad to say goodbye to them this weekend.

As a volunteer here at Somos, I’ve been given different tasks and jobs. Lately I’ve been helping with the preschool and helping the kids play and learn. Such a joy to see them learning and enjoying!

The girls love reading!

The girls love reading!

They love preschool!

They love preschool!

I’m so excited to see where the next couple months will take me! There is such incredible things happening here at Project Somos and I’m so blessed to be a part of it.

~ Gabi Dubland

 

 

Guest Blogger – Genny Tevlin

 

I have now been volunteering at Project Somos for over a week, and I have learned volumes.  Greg and Heather´s vision to enable the family unit to survive through endured hardship is inspiring, and even more so considering what a great success they have had in realizing their vision.

Genny & Antoneita

Genny & Antoneita

I have been occupying myself with several different tasks in my time at Project Somos. One endeavour is working with the mothers as a teacher. Antonieta is a young mother of two. She never had the opportunity to learn how to read or write. Before coming to Project Somos she lived most her life as an orphan working in conditions that could only be described as slavery. The transition from her poor living conditions prior to Project Somos and now, are monumental; shedding light on the restrictions of being illiterate. Antonieta was becoming frustrated relying on the other mothers and children in the house assisting her with simple tasks such as when to take something out of the oven, or to dial the phone. When I began teaching her she was very eager, and every day she makes a visible effort, telling me that she studies every night. It is amazing to me, the progress I have witnessed.  Learning is truly not something that comes easy to her and I suspect that she may have a learning disability. However, with her hard work she has gone from not being able to recognize any number to now being fairly accurate at recognizing and writing the numbers from 1-10. This week we are working on the teen numbers and the months of the year. Again she is struggling but I suspect that she will grasp this task just as she did last week.
Moreover, I have been working with the remaining two mothers Marta and Ana. I am teaching them conversational english and they both are ever so zealous to learn. Every day they both come with their pens and notebooks ready to learn. This morning Marta came up to me, reading some words she had written on her arm in an effort to memorize some of the most common english verbs. Both mothers have young children to look after every day, and (they have said), they are basically constantly washing their babies clothes for the young ones have not yet mastered the art of potty training. Marta expressed to me that she enjoys these classes we have every day because it is an hour to focus on herself and skills she wishes to develop, in a world that generally centers around her children. Learning skills like english at Project Somos is a great opportunity for these women who could not imagine such an opportunity in their lives before arriving at Somos.

-Genny Tevlin

 

Sibling Love

Sibling Love

Carlos and his poncho

Carlos and his poncho

Marta with the twins on the slackline

Marta with the twins on the slackline

 

Tis the Season

 

On this, the Eve of Christmas, and on behalf of all the mamas and children living here at Project Somos, we wish you and yours all the best tomorrow and in 2015. Our families are brimming over with gratitude for all that YOU have done for them since arriving at Project Somos. They are all safe, eating healthy food, learning many new things and looking ahead to the future with more hope than they have ever experienced before. THANK YOU.

Here are a few photos for you to enjoy at this time.

All the best and with a heart full of gratitude,

Heather Alicia

Welcome to my party, come on in!

Welcome to my party, come on in!

Decorating our Norfolk Pine in the centre of the Village

Decorating our Norfolk Pine in the centre of the Village

Making paper chains to decorate their family home.

Making paper chains to decorate their family home.

One of our elves making stilts and hobby horses for the kids.

One of our elves making stilts and hobby horses for the kids.

Our Winter Solstice Mayan ceremony.

Our Winter Solstice Mayan ceremony.

Winter solstice light ceremony.

Winter solstice light ceremony.

A blanket gifted to Heather and Greg for Christmas from the wooers.

A blanket gifted to Heather and Greg for Christmas from the wooers.

The kids are THRILLED with their hobby horses and stilts!

The kids are THRILLED with their hobby horses and stilts!

 

Guest Blogger-Ken Spencer Internet for Project Somos

 

We city folks do email or Google something without a second thought.  But imagine trying to run a charity like Project Somos – off in the Guatemalan countryside – without a reliable connection to the Internet. Raising money internationally requires blogging, keeping a Facebook page up to date, connecting with prospective donors – and you have to keep in frequent touch with staff, accountants and Board members in another country. It really hit me when we were on the site last year that Greg and Heather had to have a good Internet connection. Taking half an hour to download an email wasn’t working for them. So I took on the task of getting them a reliable, medium-speed Internet connection.

There were three options. Greg investigated the first: upgrading the cell service to provide decent speeds. (I told him he had to become best friends with a VP of the cell company.) Alex Corbett, who works at Rogers in Vancouver, helped us figure out where the bottleneck was and which questions Greg should ask.  We learned that reception at Somos was OK, but there was a problem with the back haul, the connection between the local cell tower back to a major town where high speed Internet is available. The back haul is shared by everybody, so when school is out the speed slows almost to a stop. Greg endured many phone calls and meetings, and eventually concluded that improving Somos’ cell service would cost $20,000. Not really an option.

The second option, installing a satellite link, was rejected early: all I could find was service at $400 per month.  Not really an option.  The Hughes website said a cheaper service was coming to the US, so I tried to find out if the footprint would cover Guatemala, but even a big company like Hughes didn’t answer multiple emails from me.

So that left us with the third choice, installing a microwave link to a town within line of sight.  Patzun, 5 Km away, was definitely visible from Project Somos.  But where in Patzun could we could get DSL and put up an antenna with line of sight to Project Somos? Back to Greg. After a few false starts and much frustration, he got permission to put an antenna on the Patzun fire hall and install a router in their office. In return, we would give them free Internet.  An affordable option.

Meanwhile, I was studying the design of a microwave system that would get the Internet to the staff house, the Community Hall and a future administration building.

Having taken a course in microwave systems design 47 years ago, I thought no problem, I’ll take a stab at it. So with the help of some material I found on the Internet, I designed a system using routers, amplifiers, radios, converters, thick heavy cables, etc. I wanted to have somebody check it, so I sent it to Alex. He politely replied that what I had designed would work, but I should look at some of the new technology, and gave me a link to an antenna that had everything built in. Just plug your LAN cable into the antenna and it was ready to plug into your computer, all for $69.

Then Jordon Randall, IT Manager at Science World, helped me design the network. We wanted it reliable, so no rebooting would have to be done, and secure, so visitors couldn’t hack into staff computers. So I ordered all commercial grade equipment and Jordon set it up. Commercial grade routers and switches allow you so many options that it takes a long time to learn what all the settings should be, but Jordon did it.

I wanted the whole system thoroughly tested before I went to Guatemala, as there was no way to get extra bits and pieces once I was there. So initially I set up two antennas in my office and got everything working. Then I tested it across our and the neighbors’ front lawns.  Finally, we set the link up from our Vancouver house across the bay to a friend’s house in West Vancouver and tested it over a month in all kinds of weather. It worked perfectly.

During this process, I realized that the Patzun main antenna could also be seen from the local community school in Chivarabal, so I asked Greg and Heather if we should put in an antenna and switch at the school and buy them a computer. They agreed, so I bought the switch, antenna and a ChromeBased computer that has little local storage, does email, documents and browsing, all over the Internet.

This afterthought had benefits we never thought of when we decided to do it. To quote Greg: “This will be a legacy that will benefit many students here and eventually the whole community of Chivarabal. It has put Project Somos in a very good light in the general community and particularly with the school, mayor and village council. This is huge, as we are always aware we have to keep current in our assistance of the local community.”

unknown-2Last steps. Judy and I went to Project Somos, and Greg and I spend six days installing the system. I won’t go through all the trials and tribulations of doing something for the first time. The photos show the 28-foot antenna at the staff house. It was set in concrete – so when we had a problem, scaffolding had to be built to get at it. We cut the pole down to 15 feet, where it worked just as well. At the fire hall, the antenna had to be fastened to an existing pole. The firefighters felt the pole wasn’t strong enough to take much weight, so intrepid Greg climbed a 19-foot ladder that was held up by four firefighters with ropes and not leaning against anything! The third photo shows me attaching connectors to Tough Cable, a cable that can withstand any weather condition. It should be called Impossible Cable, as it took about half an hour to attach each connector and many times I had to cut it off and start over again when a wire didn’t connect properly.unknown-1

The last day was hectic. We lost connection, and had to go back to Patzun – 45 minutes on a pothole-infested road – and make a change to the router. We were still not getting reliable speeds at the Staff House which was when we discovered that even the sturdy staff house antenna moved enough in the wind to degrade the signal, and will have to have guy wires attached. Heads in Vancouver and Guatemala puzzled quite a while over that.  At the end, though, it looks like we met our goal of establishing medium-speed Internet at Project Somos and the school – an international team effort.

Ken Spencerunknown

Wireless PTmP without IPsunknown

 

Our Growing Community

 

On September 29th, we welcomed our third mama and her two children to the Village.

When Antolin and Nico came to us mid-September sharing the story of Antonieta and her two children, we reminded them that our intention is to serve widowed and abandoned women with a minimum of three children. Our hope is that we can reach as many children as  possible. Our two family homes have four bedrooms each and have the space for two families.

The appalling "facilities" which Antonieta and family used

The appalling “facilities” which Antonieta and family used

With complete determination, Antolin and Nico persevered, telling us just how dire Antonieta’s situation was. She was living in a broken down shack with no running water or electricity. She and her two children (5 and 14 months) were sleeping on the ground during the rainy season and using the most appalling “facility” for their “bathroom”.

They reminded us that Ana, Marta and their seven children were only using three of the four bedrooms in the house. They suggested that we talk to Ana and Marta and see how they felt about the idea of bringing a third family into their home.

We have weekly meetings where we discuss how the week went, what’s coming up, share parenting challenges, etc. Each week both Marta and Ana start by sharing their gratitude to Project Somos for the safe, warm house, the healthy food, assistance with parenting, learning new skills, etc. They regularly ask how they will ever repay us.

With this in mind, we met with Ana and Marta and shared the story of Antonieta. Without hesitation, they said they really wanted to reach out to Antonieta. They both stated how well they know and understand Antonieta’s situation and how, just a short time ago, it was them living in dire situations.

We met with the Board of Directors, started sharing the urgency of Antonieta’s situation and everyone stepped it up. Within a week, we had a group willing to sponsor Antonieta and family on a monthly basis. I put out a plea on Facebook and within two hours had $800 to cover the initial expenses that we would need to cover. Antonieta and her children had the clothes on their backs and only one change. We hit the “Mega Paca” (big second hand clothing store) and bought clothing for everyone.

Nico and Antolin arrive with Antonieta and kids

Nico and Antolin arrive with Antonieta and kids

Marta and Ana prepared the fourth bedroom over the weekend and on Monday morning Nico and Antolin went and picked Antonieta up. They arrived at the “finca”, Antolin carrying all their belongings in his one hand.  Antonieta had come for a tour of the Project the week before so she knew where she was coming. Ana and Marta’s children took Antonieta’s hands as she arrived. The mamas embraced her and warmly welcomed them into their home.

It has now been two months and although it isn’t always rosy in the house, the three mamas and their combined nine children are doing well. Everyone is getting healthier and learning lots. Antonieta, an orphan at nine, spent much of her childhood as a slave living at an aunt’s home. She never learned to read or write. She is very excited to now be learning how to read, to write, to weave, to cook, to needle-felt, etc. The other day she wept sharing her gratitude to be learning so much. belongings

Warmly welcomed by the other children

Warmly welcomed by the other children

 

Ana warmly welcomes Antonieta.

Ana warmly welcomes Antonieta.

 

Tears of gratitude

Tears of gratitude

Heather Alicia

p.s. Project Somos has the space to welcome two more families as soon as possible. We have someone who has stepped up, saying she will recruit a group to “adopt” our fourth family. Would you consider doing the same to help us welcome a fifth family in need? If so, please drop us a line.

 

 

Healing Through Play

 

playIt may seem a little frivolous to focus on play when prior to coming here, the main focus of our mamas and their kids, had been on survival. Play seems a bit indulgent and quite unnecessary when you don’t have enough food to eat or proper shelter.

Poverty takes it toll on people. Children and women are vulnerable and can suffer great trauma when their day to day survival is at stake. Poverty is not an isolated problem. It often comes hand in hand with illness, violence, trauma and fear. The day to day uncertainty does not allow a mama to be fully present with her children. She may set high expectations on them to help care for younger siblings, earn money or to stay at home alone in charge of the family home or shelter.

As our nine residents get more and more comfortable here at Project Somos the stories unfold. When children are in a safe environment, they may begin to act out and some of past difficulties can present themselves through behaviours and fears. We have witnessed this with the children. And we are being proactive.

Attachment Play by Aletha J. Solter, PHD

Attachment Play by Aletha J. Solter, PHD

I just finished reading the book “Attachment Play” by Aletha J. Solter, PHD. The book shows how you can use play to solve behavioural problems, past traumas and fears with play, laughter and connection. It delves into the different types of play that parents can draw on to engage with their children. There are nine forms of attachment play that Solter describes in her book; non-directive child-centred play, symbolic play, contingency play, nonsense play, separation games, power-reversal games, regression games, activities with body contact and cooperative games and activities.

She draws on much research for attachment play and shares many examples she has used or those that her clients have used. We encourage the mamas to spend time playing with their children every single day. They have shared how it is making a difference in their parenting.

Yesterday I was invited by one of the kids to join in their game of the equivalent of our “kick the can”. The mamas have been playing this with the kids in the playground before dinner a number of evenings and it is such a joy to witness. I was honoured to be asked to join in and had a blast running, hiding and laughing along with the two mamas and all the kids!

-Heather Alicia

 

Guest Blogger-Emily Evans

 
Emily at Project Somos

Emily at Project Somos

It has been nearly 4 month since my trip to Guatemala, and I haven’t forgotten a moment of it. It’s truly remarkable what Founders, Greg Kemp and Heather Knox have done, what they have accomplished, and their vision has motivated me to become more in-touch with the importance of grassroots organizations such as Project Somos.

I spent only 10 days in Guatemala with my school group, and only 6 of those days at the Village itself, but I have no doubt that it is the most important and inspiring trip I have ever taken. Seeing the poverty that many families have to live in, and the amazing work that the Project is doing for those families, really solidified what I want to do with my future career and demonstrated the difference that a glimour of hope can have to families (especially children) with nowhere else to turn.

I owe so much of my experience to the children, watching them become confident and comfortable in their new home. Alberto’s story particularly took a toll on me personally, as we played on children’s day, I saw the silly child-like grin on his face, and found it hard to believe that only a few weeks ago he had been working in the fields instead of swinging, slaving in a thread factory instead of playing soccer – it broke my heart that he is not the only one.

ImageNot only did I feel like I became part of the community, but working on building the library (using earthbag construction) with my schoolmates created bonds that cannot be put into words. Together we created (or at least helped create) something useful, something that will be adored by children throughout the Village and beyond, and there is no greater feeling than that.

Check out this video I put together about our time in Guatemala.

-          Emily Evans, Strathcona Tweedsmuir School, on the project April 2014

 

Migration for a Better Life

 
Migration

Migration

There is a crisis in the Americas.  It is publicized in the media, but looks different from our viewpoint in Guatemala than it does north of the Mexican border. There is an exodus of people from Central America to the United States and it is increasing.  I am not a social scientist, nor an expert in international development, but I have some thoughts I would like to share.

As quoted in a recent article in the Washington Post:

“Since October, 52,000 unaccompanied minors and 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended along the Mexican border — a much higher proportion than normal.”

Washington Post article

Although the crime rate has dropped here, there are still 15 murders a day, mainly in Guatemala City.  Familial violence is common and the poverty rate is 50% of the population and there is no improvement in sight.  The education system has been all but abandoned by the government and the population knows corruption is rampant. With all this facing the young people of this small nation, wouldn’t you flee such a harsh and hopeless landscape despite the dangerous passage?

The key to stopping the hemorrhage of immigrants to the United States is to assist Central America rise out of the past decades of the devastating war and ongoing corruption.  Begin at the top to stop the systemic corruption and also initiate grass roots programs to improve education and employment opportunities.  Guatemala does not need military aid it needs a functional school system to offer opportunities to its youth.

Guatemala’s social, economic and cultural development was interrupted in 1954 by disastrous political interference and now there needs to be some social and economic intervention to repair the damage caused 60 years ago. No cement wall on a border will cure what ails the immigration crisis in the US.  It will take intelligent diplomacy that is motivated by humanitarianism, not greed or protectionism. It would be much more cost effective to help Guatemala than apprehending and processing all the illegals (367,000 in 2013) that have to be deported from the US every year.

Mig

Mig

Everyday we see the real life consequences of failed policies in a population of millions struggling just to survive.  Uneducated and underemployed, they are still resilient, looking for a better life for their families.  Ready to learn, adapt and move forward, they will do what is necessary to find that better life.  If not given a humanitarian hand up by their government and the international community, they will continue to migrate north in hope, and perhaps in delusion, to make a better life for their families.

Greg

PS – for an insight into the incredibly dangerous journey of migrants to the US, watch the excellent documentary, Which Way Home.