“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40
Last month Judy Taylor, Jeff Graham, my husband Jim, and I hired three tuk-tuks and loaded them with five 50# suitcases jam-packed with items donated by members and friends of Zion UCC of Burlington, Iowa. We climbed in and headed down a road that is best described as a dry creek bed, to Konojel Community Center in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala.
A tuk-tuk is a small three-wheeled taxi, similar in size to a riding lawnmower, which holds the driver in the single front seat and two or three passengers on the bench seat in back. I could describe it as a motorized rickshaw. It is the primary source of transportation in San Marcos. That, and by foot.
At Konojel we were joyfully greeted by Andrew, Maria and Laura with hugs and kisses. As we unpacked the suitcases, sorted and stacked the items on shelves in the small office, we found space for eight laptop computers, four toner cartridges, 57 packages of Feminine Hygiene Products, 110 children’s books, 34 cans of Similac, 20 baby bottles, 83 tubes of toothpaste, 114 toothbrushes, 17 dispensers of floss, and floss picks. Each and every item is needed and will be used. We also contributed $720 in cash which will go to Konojel’s ongoing meal program. It costs $300 to feed one person for an entire year, and Konojel has 65 beneficiaries in the meal program.
Afterwards Andrew Raphael, a Jewish transplant from New York City who made his way to Guatemala and founded Konojel in 2011, gave us the grand tour. He explained the solar oven, wood-burning pizza oven, rocket stove, and dehydrator; just four of the methods Konojel uses to improve life in San Marcos. We visited the Women’s Sewing Coop with their three sewing machines and two ladies at work.
Konojel means “All Together” in Katchikal, the Mayan dialect spoken in San Marcos. The Center provides nutritious lunches each weekday to the most at-risk individuals in the village, including children, pregnant or nursing mothers, and neglected elderly citizens who are often overlooked when there is a food shortage at home. Seven out of ten children suffer the effects of chronic malnutrition in this impoverished community of 3500 people, and the food served at Konojel represents a tremendous improvement in their diet. The menu includes fresh vegetables grown in organic gardens, proteins and other components of a balanced diet, including as many vitamins and minerals as possible.
Looking to enable these people to raise their standard of living, Konojel includes programs in children’s education, sustainability, women’s empowerment, nutrition workshops and organic gardening. A large solar oven uses the sun to bake nutritious snacks. A wood-burning oven is used to bake pizzas. The rocket stove is a custom-designed kettle-like stove that uses 90% less firewood and produces measurably less smoke. (Most homes in San Marcos cook with wood. The resulting fumes are unhealthy and firewood is a major household expense.) The food prepared at Konojel is used for the lunch program or to sell at a comedor in the village for income. The ultimate goal is to escape the cycle of poverty through education.
On this day the ladies of Konojel tearfully expressed their gratitude for the gifts we brought. Maria gave me a hand-woven shawl. Laura offered a lovely blouse with ornate stitch-work and a scarf for Judy. Laura, the children’s enrichment program coordinator, is 20-years-old and head of her household. Her mother died just over a year ago. See, we don’t do this for thanks; we do it for these beautiful people. Jesus is in them. And then, like the widow’s mite, they give so much back to express their love and appreciation. My cup runneth over.
When the children came for lunch they were surprised by the wonderful additions to their meager library and immediately selected books to read. Judy and I spent time reading with them, and they sweetly helped with pronunciation of our Spanish.
San Marcos la Laguna on Lake Atitlán is like the land that time forgot. There is a weird combination of the ancient and the modern. Here they fish in dugout canoes made from hollowed tree trunks and scavenge for firewood, but almost everyone has a cell phone. The women dress in traditional clothing and many weave their own fabric on backstrap looms in the early Mayan tradition. The language spoken in the home is Katchikal, but when the children enter school they learn to speak Spanish. Then we gringos came along and out of necessity some, but not all, became trilingual. In my grandson’s school, every lesson is taught three times: in Katchikal, Spanish and then English.
Mother Theresa said that each one of us is merely a small instrument. When you look at the inner workings of electrical things, often you see small and big wires, new and old, cheap and expensive. Until the current passes through there will be no light. That wire is you and me. The current is God.
Let us continue to light up God’s world and change lives.
Sandra Levins is the author of “Either Way: Story of a Gay Kid”, a graphic novel for teens published by American Psychological Association imprint Magination Press. Visit “Sandra Levins, Children’s Writer” on Facebook.