By Andrea Phillips
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
A cloud of smoke rises from an open fire on the dirt floor of a clapboard shanty. Ash hangs from the rafters like stalactites from a cave. The dense smog from the fire clouds your nostrils, throat, and lungs as your eyes slowly adjust to the darkness inside the compact room. The only light comes from the fire’s blaze and beams of light penetrating through the cracks in the board walls. Welcome to the rural Guatemalan kitchen.
More than being unsightly and uncomfortable, the soot-drenched, smoke-filled kitchen, which is the center of activity for many rural Guatemalan families, is the source of myriad health problems for everyone in the home, and consequently, to everyone in these rural villages. The problem is the fire in the kitchen, which causes burns, respiratory ailments, eye maladies, and a host of other physical troubles.
Three years ago, after learning about the desperate conditions of the kitchens in rural Guatemala, the JBU Students In Free Enterprises (SIFE) team decided to get involved in a project that would transform these villages, one kitchen at a time.
SIRE, led by JBU business division chair Dr. Joe Walenciak ’81, partnered with Helps International to clean up the kitchens in a rural Guatemalan village called Santa Cruz in Baja Verapaz. Home by home, the team of JBU students and Helps International staff replaced the open indoor fire pits with safe, clean and efficient concrete and cinder block stoves.
The stove project was started in the late 1980s by Don O’Neal, an engineer and retired manufacturing executive who was volunteering with Helps International, an organization that partners with individuals and local and national governments to improve drinking water quality, medical care, education, house, and agricultural and economic development in underdeveloped areas of the world.
O’Neal saw numbers of Guatemalan children who were horribly burned after falling into the open fires in their homes. He also noticed that many people had chronic respiratory problems caused by ash and smoke from the indoor fires. (World Health Organization reported that these respiratory problems are the leading cause of death in Guatemalan children under the age of five.) When O’Neal went into the homes to measure the carbon monoxide (CO) levels, he discovered homes with CO levels as high as 160 parts per million (ppm). In the United States, OSHA calls for immediate evacuation of a building when CO levels reach 100 ppm.
In response to the great need for change, O’Neal developed a simple concrete stove that would provide heat for cooking indoors and be safe for those in the home. O’Neal’s stoves named ONIL stoves by Guatemalan women, are upright concrete forms, with a cavity to contain fire, a flat cooking surface on top, and a pipe to channel the fire’s smoke out of the house. Simply directing the smoke outside prevents the buildup of soot on the walls and ceiling and reduces CO levels in homes to less than 5 ppm. The cooktops are high enough that small children cannot easily reach them, and the concrete sides remain cool to the touch, so children rarely get burned.
In addition to the health benefits, the ONIL stoves have also solved other problems for the Guatemalan families, namely deforestation and slow economic development. Where families keep open fires, they are required to collect large amounts of wood each day to keep the fires burning. As a result, the forests around rural Guatemalan villages have been devastated, sending villagers further and further away to collect wood. Families must sometimes travel two hours each way on foot, carrying their wood ration all the way home. Such difficult and repetitive labor brings its own physical problems. In contrast, the ONIL stoves use less than a third of the wood consumed by an open fire, so the amount of wood the average family needs to gather has dropped dramatically. The amount of wood that fueled an open fire for one day can be used for up to two weeks in a stove. Not only has deforestation slowed, but people have also gained valuable time—sometimes up to two days per week—to begin new social and economic activities. Whereas women before would spend hours walking, gathering, and returning, many are now able to make wall hangings, rugs, and blankets for their families and for sale.
Such are the dramatic, life-changing results that a small, inexpensive, concrete structure can bring to a family and a community. These results are only a part of the overall transformation that Walenciak, the JBU SIFE team, and their partners hoped to instigate in Santa Cruz Baja Verapaz.
Touching Santa Cruz
Four hours from Guatemala City, atop a mountain at the end of a long dirt road, you find Santa Cruz tucked away from many aspects of modernization. The community has only one flush toilet, and that one is saved for use by visiting missionaries. Refrigeration is a luxury found only in a few stores that sell ice cream bars, drinks, and snacks. Women daily prepare fresh meals of rice, handmade tortillas, and bean paste, with an occasional serving of chicken or pork. The drinking water is unclean. There are no doctors or dentists. Large extended families live together in small houses with few beds, so children often sleep on pallets on the floor.
Walenciak first visited the village while on sabbatical in 2003. He described the many immediate needs of the impoverished, underdeveloped village in e-mails to JBU students and SIFE members Many and Bryson Moore ’03 ’03. Moved by his desire to help, the Moores flew to Guatemala to visit Santa Cruz, assess the needs, and determine how SIFE could help.
“When I first heard from D. Walenciak, I did not know what I could do to help, but I knew that I desperately wanted to be part of the solution,” Mandy Moore says. “My life was forever changed by that visit. It is difficult to even find the words to describe it.”
Many was especially stunned by the inadequate education of the children, the 50 percent child mortality rate, and the lack of hope for anything more than mere survival.
“I remember leaving the village with a broken heart and asking Bryson why God allowed me to be born in the United States. I was overwhelmed with the idea that by the time I was thirteen years old, I could be giving birth to my first child and be unable to read or write,” Many recalls. “I just kept asking God, ‘Why was I born to a middle-class family in Oklahoma?’”
During their trip, the Moores also visited a group working with street children in Guatemala City and a group of indigenous women striving to operate a business in San Antonio Agua Calientes. “I was overwhelmed by the images, the stories of injustice, and the poverty in Guatemala,” Many says.
The Moores listened to the people tell their stories, they recognized the people’s needs, and they documented the situation through video and photographs. Armed with these images, the Moores returned to JBU to mobilize the student population in an effort to make a difference in Santa Cruz and other areas of Guatemala.
Working with Walenciak and JBU SIFE, the Moores organized a spring break mission trip to Santa Cruz in 2004. Mandy’s father, a physician, volunteered to treat people in a free clinic. The others on the trip – SIFE members, other JBU students, and friends – assisted in the clinic, made improvements to the school, distributed donated supplies, taught classes in first aid and trash management, and simply played with the children. In addition to meeting physical needs, the group intended to build relationships and establish trust among the people that would be important to future work.
Treating more than 400 people in the clinic, the JBU group was surprised to see how many people were treated for respiratory infections. Upon making a few house calls, they saw firsthand the dangerous open fires in the homes and the build-up of smoke and soot that was causing so many health problems. SIFE began making its partnership with Helps International shortly thereafter, placing ONIL stoves in as many homes as possible.
During the first stove installation project over spring break in 2005, JBU SIFE installed more than forty stoves in Santa Cruz homes with the help of five ladies from the community who had been trained only weeks before to install stoves and train others to use them.
“You should have seen the empowerment of these ladies who went from house to house to train and install,” Walenciak described. “They felt value and worth, and one day when we were ready to stop, they were asking, ‘Can’t we do just one more?’ We saw the emergence of true leadership in Santa Cruz, and it was exciting! The stove project is one of the most significant ways I have seen that we can improve the lives of the poor, rural residents of Guatemala.”
JBU SIFE provided the stove, which cost about $100 each. Residents were charged a smaller fee to purchase the stoves in the belief that the investment by the family fosters a sense of pride and responsibility for the stove. The money paid is directed back into a community fund, managed by the community leaders, to address community needs.
“It was easy to get students involved,” Moore says, indicating that the work she initiated has been continued through other student mission trips and visits from JBU faculty, staff, and friends. “Many of the students that went the first time are still involved today. My goal was to pass that passion to other students who would then lead the program after I graduated. Those students definitely took the initiative to the next level and far surpassed any expectations we ever had.”
In two years since that initial spring break mission trip, Walenciak and the JBU students have more fully developed a program they call “ADVANCE Guatemala.” ADVANCE is an acronym that represents the priorities for the work done in Santa Cruz: Address the pressing needs of the people; Develop the fragile economy; Validate the culture locally and beyond; Activate the minds of the people; Nourish discouraged hearts and depressed spirits; Cultivate local ownership; Exit the process, but not the relationship.
Simply, those involved in ADVANCE are committed to meeting the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of the people in such a way that the people themselves become able to improve their own lives and community independent of outside help. Giving the people in rural Guatemala a sense of self-worth is a vital part of the process.
“When you show someone you care about them, they begin to care about themselves,” Walenciak described. “These are the marginalized groups, seen as second class citizens, uneducated farm workers. They’re seen as expendable. What we do validates them as people of worth.”
Walenciak tells the story of Aurelio, a Santa Cruz man who had a nosebleed for four days. Although he was disoriented, weak, and unable to walk because of his condition, the hospital would not see him because he was “just campesino.”
Learning about his condition by phone from Guatemala City, Walenciak was able to pull the right strings and pay the right people to get Aurelio to a doctor.
“He would have died,” Walenciak said. “Does [Aurelio] feel a little better about himself? Most of the world would never have missed him. Just one less ‘campesino.’ But he is a friend. Aurelio was not expendable to any of us.”
Not only did Aurelio recover, but with the help of SIFE, Aurelio opened a bicycle shop in Santa Cruz, and he takes great pride in his business.
Aurelio is not the only person to have expanded his commercial horizons with the help of SIFE. JBU SIFE has also been instrumental in helping a group of indigenous women develop a profitable business in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, another rural Guatemalan village. The women, who once only sold their women goods to the local community as little more than peddlers, are now recognized by the government as a company, Artesanias Ixel. They sell their handmade items not only to tourists, but also to buyers on eBay. The growth of their business has provided more financial security for the women’s families, opportunities for education, ways to preserve their culture and traditions, and an example to foster basic rights for the indigenous people, particularly women.
Expanding the Impact
Changing an entire community is not an easy task, and it’s not a task that can be accomplished by a few students working over spring break and a few weeks in the summer, Walenciak admits. Recognizing the need for additional support for Santa Cruz, Walenciak invited two other university teams to assist in the ADVANCE Guatemala project.
“We realize that our biggest problem is having hands and feet on the ground in Santa Cruz to do the work,” Walenciak said. “If we’re protetive of our project, if the work only happens when JBU is there, then we’re serving ourselves and not them.”
In 2003, while teaching at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, a university in Guatemala where Walenciak spent his sabbatical from JBU, Walenciak described to officials there how the work of SIFE could impact people and communities. The university was so excited about what they heard that officials immediately began the process of forming a SIFE team on their campus, launching SIFE in Guatemala, even through the SIFE home office had no plans to expand into Central America at that time.
Walenciak also spoke with colleagues at Roberts Wesleyan College (RWC) in New York about JBU’s plans to work in Santa Cruz. Not only was the RWC SIFE team interested in joining the project, but the school’s nursing program also became interested in sending nurses and nursing students to help operate temporary medical clinics in Santa Cruz.
JBU, RWC, and Marroquin teams each travel to Santa Cruz to continue the work of ADVANCE, sometimes working alone, sometimes working together. Even as they overlap, each group contributes in different ways to the effort: RWC conducts medical clinics and tends to focus on business development, for example, while JBU installs stoves and tends to focus on community development. The goal for all the teams, however, is to develop the Santa Cruz community so that they no longer need outside assistance from any group.
“We’re setting up a system so that the work can go on even when there’s no team there,” Walenciak said. “We don’t want them to be permanently dependent on handouts. This is that whole ‘teach a man to fish’ thing.”
Returns trips to Santa Cruz have proven that residents are responding well to the help they have received. The stoves themselves are holding up well under much use, and the stove owners are even finding ways to innovate and improve the design of the stoves.
In the absence of the indoor fires, residents have cleaned their houses, removing the layers of soot and grime, taking pride in their homes. The quality of life for these families is better, with cleaner air in their homes, more time to invest in development, up to half their income saved, and a great interest in taking care of themselves and their community.
“I have been impressed with SIFE’s work in Guatemala, because we are starting trying to improve the people’s whole lives and not just bits and pieces,” said Matt Fraser ’05, who participated in the Guatemala project for two years. “our goals are long term and span from community development to spiritual development.”
Giving and Receiving
As of October 2006, SIFE has installed approximately 400 stoves in Santa Cruz and neighboring villages. It’s estimated that implementation of the stoves saves 42,000 trees each year, saves 189,000 man-hours per year, reduces indoor air pollution by 99 percent, and reduces greenhouse gases by 30 percent.
SIFE has provided medical and dental assistance to many people who would not have had it otherwise. They have improved the condition of schools and playgrounds, have assisted and started small businesses, and have conducted educational and evangelistic programs.
For all that JBU volunteers have given for the people of Guatemala, they have received something back. Several things, actually.
“This [outreach to Santa Cruz] provided me with the opportunity to use all of those [Head, Heart, Hand] aspects for Christian service,” Many Moore said. “A project like this teaches students that they can have a positive impact on the world. Something as simple as a stove can give a family or community more pride in itself and revolutionize the way they live, breath, provide nourishment for their family.’
Both Moore and Walenciak describe an immense responsibility they felt for using their gifts and talents to serve not only the people of Guatemala, but also the people around them on a daily basis. At the same time, they say, there is a great sense of joy that comes in doing the important work of serving others.
“Working to help Santa Cruz clarifies my priorities and gives me purpose,” Walenciak said. “I want people to know that they can make a difference, to see the needs around them, to be unafraid of stepping up to address the needs. It just takes someone to stand in the gap to connect the resources with need. I can do that. It’s not about me or what I’ve done. It’s a privilege to be a part of that moment when a life is change.”
That privilege of being part of changing a life is something Walenciak believes students can get from serving, whether in Guatemala, the United States, or elsewhere.
“I want them to get excited about touching people’s lives and seeing lives changed,” he said. “To know the joy of being relevant—that never gets old.”