Our Right Arm in Guatemala, Diego Xirum

Today Guatemala Service Projects is celebrating its 3rd anniversary of incorporation and status as a 501(c)3 charitable organization.  We’ve accomplished quite a bit in three years, and we couldn’t be more proud!

At our last meeting of the board, Trent and Jen and I were reflecting on all that we’ve done and the expansive list of projects planned for 2020.  We also took that opportunity to  delight in the fact that GSP was the recent recipient of a very generous donation that covered so many of our planned fundraising needs.  Respecting the desire for anonymity, we simply say THANK YOU from the bottom of our hearts.  Just yesterday we received another generous donation, and I know he wishes to remain anonymous as well.  (You both know who you are and we are so thankful you know who we are!)

Having a big, long list of planned projects, and having funds to propel them — the only thing left is to put the plans into action!

Sometimes we can do that from afar.  Modern technology is facilitating so much communication.  It keeps us informed and connected to our project partners or beneficiary contacts.

But, sometimes there is more coordination required.  Sometimes in-country purchases need to be made, or tradespeople or contractors need to be selected, or communication within an indigenous community needs to be facilitated.  It helps to have a person in Guatemala that can act like an extension of our Board, someone in tune with our projects with a desire to help the people of Guatemala that matches ours.

We have such a person, and I’m extremely delighted to share that we have finally made him an officially recognized member of our staff, giving him credit due.  Since we’re an all-volunteer staff, we joked with him that it really only meant he got his picture on our website and he will get his very own GUATSP t-shirt.  But, in reality, we hope that his continued service with our organization and the reputation he earns in the communities where we work will open doors for him such that this is a springboard.    He deserves so much praise and acknowledgement!  His name is Diego Xirúm, and he is our “right arm” in Guatemala!  Please allow me to share some of the ways that he helps us.

Diego speaks three languages fluently.  He lives in Chichicastenango and his native tongue is the Mayan K’iche’ language.  He learned Spanish in school, and after graduating from University in Guatemala, obtained a second degree (and learned English!) in the United States.

We first met Diego during our inaugural project in August of 2017 — the donation of a library and tablet computer lab at the elementary school in Canton Rio Camanibal, a village belonging to the municipality of Chichicastenango.  The school had hired him to facilitate communication between the parents of the community (some of which only spoke K’iche’), the staff and students at the school, and the members of our travel group.  I remember being impressed with him immediately.  He was so personable and made everyone feel comfortable.   He and my son Scott joked that they were brothers!  When our time in Canton Rio Camanibal came to an end, he extended an offer to be of service for any other projects in the future.

At the time, I did not know if or when our paths would cross again; I only knew that I was hopeful they would!  In fact, not much time had passed at all… I contracted Diego to provide the K’iche’ translation and sound recordings for two books I wrote as fundraisers for our projects.  Each of the two books is written in four languages:  English, Spanish, K’iche’ and Kaqchikel — the latter two being Mayan languages.  The first book was Guatemalan Picture Dictionary.  It is meant to give a person a very basic introduction to any of the four languages with words and phrases.  Diego provided the K’iche’ translations and created audio files so that a person could hear how the words were pronounced.  The second book, Peter Perdido Finds His Way, incorporates native Guatemalan animals as primary characters, each one that possesses a different character trait that helps Peter (a lost penguin) find his way and complete his mission.  Peter visits Rio Camanibal in the story, as well as all the other places that Guatemala Service Projects visited on our first service trip.

When my family returned to Guatemala in August 2018 to carry out our 2018 projects, we met with Diego for dinner in Panajachel.  He was excited to tell us all about an idea to fuel educational growth and support to his community by sponsoring the education of civic-minded youth with exemplary study habits… educating the best of the best and fostering the idea that once an education was obtained that the student would participate such as to uplift the community as a whole.  Following that discussion, I was moved to sponsor one of the students he had identified.  I met with her, in fact, on the trip we took two months ago.  She is a delightful teen with a bright future.  She will be studying accounting during her 10th grade year which starts in January 2020.  Unfortunately, Rony, another student Diego identified, a young man that would have begun his first year at university to study architecture, was not able to attend because economic resources did not become available.  Architecture is an expensive major in Guatemala, and it also would have meant that he would have had to locate to another city because the university that is closer to his home did not provide coursework in architecture.  Instead, he is now working another job to contribute to his family’s finances.  We’re hoping that this is just a “gap year” for him and that he is able to study and prosper with future financial help.

If you would like to sponsor Rony (in whole or in part) or see the few other students that are also hoping for assistance, please visit our scholarship page.  You can see short bios for the students and read about their dreams for the future.  All are so deserving and, as bright students, would surely take advantage of the opportunity provided.

Diego and I with members of the Chujupen Potable Water committee

Another project Diego was advocating for during that pleasant dinner meeting was the Chujupen Potable Water Project.  This projects extends potable water to all members of the community.  The harsh reality is that not all villages in Guatemala have access to clean water.  As a result, many people suffer daily with the results of a contaminated water supply.  But, Diego is currently serving as the secretary of the committee that hopes to rid Chujupen, Guatemala of that problem!  You can read all about it at the link provided!  I had the pleasure of meeting with some key members of the committee during our last trip to Guatemala.  Diego explained to me that, in his community, committees are formed to address and manage various needs.  Often, members of the community serve on a committee on a rotating basis, for a two year period, as an example.  It is one way that the community works together, sharing the burden and working as a group to solve problems.

As an outsider (in our case, an NGO like GSP) we have to delicately approach relations with a community we will support.  For example, during our August 2019 trip, we visited the villages of Panimache Quinto Alto and Panimache Quinto Bajo.  These are two K’iche’ speaking communities half way between Panajachel and Chichicastenango.  Prior, they had not received much acknowledgement or support from the outside world, but what they had received made them question the motives of people coming in.

At first, PQA and PQB wanted to know why we wanted to come, if we expected something in return, if we were going to insist that they change their “best practices” in order to receive what we were offering.  Were we just there to drop off shoes, take photos that made us feel good about ourselves and then leave, never to return?  No!!!  Of course not… but we needed the calming reassurance of someone like Diego to bridge the cultural gap and act as a liaison.  Even though Diego did not live in their village, they were able to trust him because he understands their way of life, their culture.

They let Diego in.  Diego was invited to each home, and took the opportunity to document the names, ages, shoe size and position in the family of every person in every home in both Panimache villages.  That was a monumental task, but one that greatly guided our shoe collection initiative and one that greatly validated Diego’s purpose for acting as our liaison.  Diego, then, was able to convince them that Guatemala Service Projects had no ulterior motive, that we would respect their culture and wishes, and that we would work to provide what it was they requested — in a way that took advantage of the resources and relationships they already had.

Diego explaining the vitamins program

For example, along with the shoes we transported in August, we also took a large supply of prenatal and children’s multivitamins as well as arranged for the delivery, donation and training for the first round of low-emission cook stoves.  (Our goal is to provide a stove for every family in the two villages!)  The vitamins donation provided an opportunity for us to change a pre-conceived plan… “We” thought that it made sense to have the teachers dispense the vitamins as part of a morning routine.  Since our budget for the 2020 year included a daily multivitamin for all 6 and 7 year old children (we hope to expand it to also include 8 and 9 year old kids in 2021) it made sense to us to entrust the teachers with giving the vitamins in the respective classrooms.  In addition to making sure all kids were receiving, it would be an extra incentive for the parents to send their children to school on a daily basis.  However, Diego delicately explained how the town committee for Panimache Quinto Bajo said that they wanted to put the dispensing of vitamins under control of the Health Committee, as this fell under the realm of the committee’s responsibility, they thought.

The GSP Board with committee members from Panimache Quinto Alto

I relaxed.  I smiled.  I cast aside my intention to debate the merits of my assumed plan.  In the long run, the community NEEDS to feel in control.  They WANT to be heard.  They desire to be the INSTRUMENTS OF CHANGE in their own community.  I am very confident that the Panimache communities will take great and full advantage of the support we’re providing.  We could not do it without Diego.  The biggest takeaway from our visit to PQA and PQB was that it is important to work with our beneficiaries and not for them.  Our respect for each other is mutual, and the greatest moment of that day was hearing the president of the committee (from the 2nd village) tell us that we are welcome to Panimache Quinto Bajo any time.  And this time, I felt like he was welcoming our return above and beyond the return of ongoing support.   Kudos to Diego for laying the solid foundation and educating us on effective relationship-building in a Mayan community!  🙂

Next year, we have more projects planned that utilize Diego’s superior project management.  We (with Diego) are working with another community leader, Jose Miguel Yllescas Juarez, to deliver a minimum of 30 water filters in the community of Santiago Atitlan.   Jose Miguel will be identifying the families that could take advantage of a personal water filter, gather them for training during our March visit, and provide a Tz’utujil  (another Mayan language) translator to work with Diego.  Once we provide for the purchase and delivery of the water filters to Santiago Atitlan, Diego will come with us to provide training and set-up for the recipients.  It will be a learning experience for me, as I have never worked with water filters that use sand as a filter mechanism.  (The ones we’ve donated in the past have either had a hollow fiber filter or a clay pot.)  Here again, we have the added benefit of Diego’s experience.  Diego is the Guatemala Operations Manager for TivaWater, a US-based water filter manufacturer.  He is an expert on the product and has compiled feedback from families showing how effective the filters are and how access to the filters has eliminated the need for waterborne illness-related medical care.

That’s quite a long list of the many ways that Diego is an awesome addition to the staff of GSP.  Wanna hear something exciting?  There’s MORE…. but it’s a secret…. until late in the 1st week of November.  I’ll give you a hint… it involves the number ten.  Keep an eye out!




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