It Takes a Community to Raise a Village
Guatemala City is where the airplanes land, and it’s about an hour and a half of bumpy, scenic road through patchwork farmland before you arrive at the Project Somos gates.
Somos sits just outside Tecpan, a small little village of 900 that is the outer community to the ‘finca’ (farm), as Heather and Greg refer to the village they’ve built. At 7,000 feet, when you arrive at Somos you are surrounded by steep ravines and volcanoes, and the sky seems within reach.
Heather brings Martyn and I to the doors of our home for the next week, and tells us we will be the last to occupy it as guests before the next two families that will fill it arrive. It’s a simple, stunning house, painted in a bright burnt orange, with interior walls in happy colours of pale sunny yellow and sky blue.
Before our bags drop, the doorway is filled with smiling faces as the three mamas and their 9 children immediately come over to say hello. We are introduced to everyone, and Tita, the head mama it seems, looks Martyn in the eyes and gives her thanks for our coming to their home. Through Heather’s interpretations of her Spanish, Tita tells Martyn how grateful she is we have come, as “there is nothing to admire here”, referring not to the beautiful village Heather and Greg have created but to herself and her family’s history. It brings tears to the eyes and Martyn is quick to have Heather interpret his response, which is that we are the thankful ones, are honoured to be there, and from what we have heard, there is much to admire. The adults stand with shiny eyes as 9 year old Omar, the oldest of the kids and a sharp whip of a lad, breaks the emotional moment lightly as he spots the guitar on the table and strums the air as he turns to Martyn with questions in his eyes. Martyn laughs and pulls out his Loudon, and sings a quick improv to the open mouthed crowd of kids gathering around him. As he has the grinning Omar pull the final chord, we truly feel we’ve arrived.
In our week that seems much too short, we learn even more about the incredible work being done here. We walk every inch of the grounds, and learn of how the land was first purchased, how it was mapped out, how the water system was developed, how the land has been farmed, the local workers they employ, the local materials they use, and all the moments they’ve had to troubleshoot and come up with an alternative solution as these things were dreamed up and made reality. It is astonishing to think that none of this existed just 4 years ago…
Currently, there is one occupied home — three mamas and 9 children live within it’s walls, functioning as one large family with communal meals and sharing of all the things that come with daily living. In this way, it’s reflective of the local culture of living amongst your family and having a built in support system and community in place, and it works well here. The second home that we occupied will soon be filled as well, with two new families, and with plans for a third family in the near future. Part of Let Yourself’s funding to Somos will aid them move the families in, as the ‘hidden’ costs of an arriving family are great — doctors visits, initial clothing, food, shots, etc — and have hindered their ability to move as quickly as they would have liked with filling this second home.
The houses are built of recycled materials — earth bags and ecobricks — and bamboo makes up the support structure of the ceiling and roof. As Greg explains, bamboo is a readily available material here in Guatemala, and ideal to use not only because it’s cheaper than wood and sustains the elements, but because it helps to cut it down as that creates more rapid regrowth. The showers and sinks run off of recycled rainwater from a cistern Greg has developed, warmed by solar panels.
There is an organic farm filled with corn, kale, and an assortment of very brightly coloured vegetables that feeds the families and workers. It’s been an interesting task for Greg, as he’s taught the local workers to use organic compost materials vs their usual chemical filled versions. In fact, this year’s corn crop lays drying in the sun — over 1,000 pounds to be used for tortillas — and Greg explains that the local community had a rough crop this year, and that the workers have realised that organic farming leads to better results. (They will end up sharing part of their crop with Tecpan, without charge.)
There is a playground for the kids — the only one for 50 miles — that Greg & Heather open up to the local community once a week for the local schoolchildren to come play on.
There is a pre-school for the ‘littles’ being built, and a teacher was hired the week we were there in fact. The teacher will come and work with the kids in their home while the school is finished, and eventually shift into the proper building once ready.
Heather and Greg live up the hill, in another beautifully coloured home built by local workers, overlooking their village. It’s a short walk through the cornfields to their home, and is a space for some peace and quiet, as well as non-stop phone meetings and planning sessions with their Board, their major donors and their team of workers.
Just past their home on the hill is the community centre that stands overlooking yet another beautiful view of volcanoes and ravines. Painted a lovely turquoise blue, it stands with it’s patio doors open, looking welcoming, and will house community meals, holiday events, and this week, a certain musician will host a concert there — a first concert ever for the mamas and their children. The centre is also used as a place to feed the volunteers during their ‘building/volunteer’ season.
In fact, the temporary volunteer dormitory stands just next to the centre — a plastic tented frame over some wooden bunk beds is all that stands at the moment. Heather and Greg provide mattresses for the bunks when volunteers are on site, and they use the bathrooms in the community centre.
Greg explains what importance their volunteer program holds — groups of people come having raised $500 CAD each, along with raising their airfare and a daily rate for room and board, which is part of Somos’ social enterprise (this employs local women and their mamas who participate as part of their training- cleaning, making beds, cooking, etc.). The volunteered time and raised funds is what builds whatever project is being worked on. It’s a continual source of support for them, in every way, as volunteers spread the word about Somos through their fundraising, and arrive with high spirits and energy. Part of the money raised by Let Yourself and it’s beautiful donors will be going towards building a proper dormitory for the volunteers, which we’re pleased to hear. It’s a vital part of their continued growth, and in that sense, will be a gift that keeps on giving as it houses group after group of volunteers working on new projects, and new homes for more families.
Greg continues the tour with drawings made to map out the future — 5 more homes to be built, a library within the school, and an admin building near the entrance gate for doctor’s visits, and additional volunteer space. Martyn and I admire the plans, and remark that there’s space for a music room next to the school, and immediately start making mental plans for organising a volunteer trip in 2016..
The trip ends much too quickly, with many games of hide & seek, duck, duck, goose, traffic lights and more interspersed among the tours of the land and the interview with Heather & Greg. We are more in love with the Project than we were when we arrived, and remark to ourselves how lucky we are to receive this moment when it’s the hundreds of you, who have come to shows, purchased “Kiss the World”, and donated in buckets and online, that deserve it.
If there is one moment out of them all that we wish we could truly share with you, it is the one when we told Heather & Greg that LYT & it’s incredible supporters had raised $32,000 CAD (£16,000+) for them. Their shock and joy is something that would warm your heart for the rest of your lives. If you donated in any way, if you supported this beautiful project — from the bottom of our hearts, thank you. You have no idea the lives you’ve touched. As Greg caught his breath from the news, he said this to us — “They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community to raise a village.”