Computer lab for Backyard School

In May of this year, which seems so long ago, I contacted Iris Santander, a community leader and founder of the Backyard School in Guatemala.  I met Iris in 2015, and I saw firsthand all of the amazing work she was doing in her community.

The reason I contacted Iris in May is that I was made aware of a pending donation of several laptops.  I thought perhaps the Backyard School could take advantage of those computers, bringing technology to their bustling classrooms.  (Iris provides services to over 350 children and mothers in her community, and the addition of computers could provide content and training to children and adults alike!)

Iris was so excited to hear the news and shared with me the irony of a conversation she had with a neighbor the night before, about her dream to have a computer lab!  Her dream was realized thanks to a generous donation from the Wisconsin Challenge Academy.

From their website:  The Wisconsin Challenge Academy is an alternative education program designed to reclaim the lives of at-risk youth and produce graduates with the values, skills, education and self-discipline necessary to succeed as adults.

It was through my affiliation with the Challenge Academy (as the computer programmer behind some of the databases they use to organize data to run their program) that I met JT Griffis, the person responsible for the academy’s I.T. needs.  Mr. Griffis explained to me that when the technology that the cadets and staff use has outlasted its life expectancy, he seeks to replace the devices and then donate the items taken out of inventory.  The recipient of the devices has to be a Wisconsin-based nonprofit.  Fortunately, with our 501c3 status, Guatemala Service Projects meets that criteria!

I traveled to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, home of the Wisconsin Challenge Academy in June of this year.  I was able to attend pre-commencement activities for the then-current class of cadets and formally accept the donation of 30 Dell laptop computers!  What a treat for me!

With laptops in hand, the 2019 Backyard School computer lab was mostly funded!  All that remained was a printer, a RACHEL server and some training for the teachers.  (For those unfamiliar with previous technology projects we’ve implemented, a “RACHEL” is a Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning.  It is pre-loaded with web content, educational apps and can be customized with configurable content.  A RACHEL acts like an application server for all devices wirelessly connected to it, and does not require an internet connection!  We had provided one to the elementary school in Canton Rio Camanibal also.)

Laptop donations in two totes, with power cords in a 3rd!

One problem I had not fully considered was how to get all 30 laptops to Guatemala!  Well, I had considered it… I just assumed that I would be able to load them all in a few carry-on bags and zip right through!  Nada.  No way.  ‘Fraid not.

When I found out that I would risk confiscation or very steep import fees, I had to explore alternatives.  As I discovered, the import of computers is limited to one per person and is supposed to be the property of the person transporting it.  To do it that way, I would have had to arrange a service trip with 30 participants who were willing to each “declare” one!  Since I had never been part of a group that large, I figured it would have to take two or three trips to get all the laptops there.  🙁

Thankfully, Iris is resourceful and has connections!  As it turned out, her nephew is in the transportation business and was part of a team that was driving a truck from Houston, TX to Guatemala City.  When I found out about that pending trip, her nephew Elmer was scheduled to depart Houston in a week!  All I had to do was entrust him to transport the equipment, ship the laptops to Texas, and send extra money so that Elmer could pay the border fees between US and Mexico and again between Mexico and Guatemala.  To make the decision to accept Elmer’s offer was easy.  Getting the computers ready to ship was not so easy!

John arranged all 30 computers around our kitchen counters, dining room table, TV trays, benches, overturned boxes… anything we could find for a work surface.  We had to install Windows and Microsoft Office updates, Java, Acrobat Reader, and the Spanish language pack (among other country and language-specific format configurations) on all 30 units.  If you have ever “babysat” a computer that is receiving a ton of updates, you know that several hours could pass — waiting for installations, configurations, and reboots!  After about ten hours, all 30 were done.  We went from one to another, kicking off one process and then tending to another one.  In the wee hours of one morning we finished, and they were packed and shipped via the postal service right before closing time the next day.  Whew!

Between the fees to ship the items to Houston, the border fees that we anticipated, and then an additional amount that was extorted at the Mexico/Guatemala border, the transaction ended up eating up more of our budget than we planned, but the laptops eventually got all the way to Iris — undamaged no less!

All in all, I’m very happy with the arrangement.  All 30 laptops got to Iris in one trip!  That is something I could not have pulled off without Elmer’s help, so I thank him very much!

With the laptops in Guatemala, it seemed a shame to wait until 2019 to begin using them.  So, despite that the computer lab for the Backyard School was supposed to be a 2019 project, we decided to go ahead and complete the project ahead of time.  Thinking that fate allowed Elmer to facilitate transport, we worked a little harder at fundraising and were able to provide the printer that Iris picked out, purchase the RACHEL Server, and arrange for Romeo Rodriguez at Mundo Posible to provide training on the RACHEL.  All of those events took place this month, and the training was received yesterday!

Iris assembled a group of people to receive the training, and they will play a role in teaching the mothers and children of the community!  Iris commented afterwards that the training was very good and that she never thought that something like (the RACHEL server) existed.  Romeo also commented to me that the training went well, the trainees were enthusiastic and engaged, and that the computers worked nicely — without any need for updates or additional configurations.  All modules were tested and are operational!

Both Iris and Romeo shared these lovely photos with me.  Enjoy, and join me in congratulating the Backyard School on their new computer lab!!!

2 thoughts on “Computer lab for Backyard School

  1. Hi Jennifer! This looks like an amazing opportunity for these kids. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Guatemala through November 2020 and am working with a comm unity who has expressed interest in a project exactly like this for their high achool students. Is this an opportunity that may present itself again through the Wisconsin Challenge Academy, or a one-time thing?

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