Andrew Raphael is the the founder and director of the Konojel Community Center, a project operating in rural Guatemala to address a crisis of poverty and malnutrition. This is his story:
I thought being a New York City school teacher was tough; I never expected to find life in a quiet Mayan village in Guatemala would end up being somehow more challenging, and yet, beautifully, it is. I left Brooklyn in 2011 after several years in the public school system, and found myself soon thereafter settling into a sleepy lakeside community where my indigenous neighbors spoke a language I’d never heard, wore clothes I’d never seen, and dealt with challenges I’d never imagined. My goal was to have no goal…after years of lesson planning, grading tests, night school and city living, I had the dream to settle into a completely foreign community and let life surprise me. Surprise me it did.
From my very first day in San Marcos La Laguna, a village of about 5,000 Kaq’chikel-speaking indigenous people, it was obvious that things were dire. A young mom struck up a conversation with me, and I quickly learned that she was supporting her four children on her minimal salary cleaning a local hostel. Her husband was gone, I still don’t know where, and looking back on that conversation I realize that one of those kids is now herself a 20 year old single mom, another is struggling with drug addiction and toying with the idea of joining a local gang, and the two younger boys are both at-risk of a similar fate. San Marcos is a community with a startling rate of poverty, despite its natural beauty, engaging and humble neighbors, and booming tourist industry. At least half of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, and addiction and unemployment have led to 40% of families living on less than $2 per day per household, according to the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture (MAGA). I’d been living here for over a year before I found myself accepting an offer I couldn’t refuse.
It was late 2012 when I heard of a little program providing lunch to at-risk seniors, young moms and little kids who had been identified as malnourished by local health agencies, and thus were invited to participate in the Konojel Nutrition Center. I realized that I was in a position to keep the center open, as the previous director was unable to continue after founding it the year prior; I felt strongly that I had the duty to try and keep the program running, as I’d come to see many of my neighbors as friends over that past year, and I wanted to do something to help them break the cycle of poverty I witnessed day after day. I didn’t come to San Marcos to help anyone but myself, but I quickly came to see that helping myself would mean helping others.
Looking back I see so many of my strengths, and perhaps more weaknesses, led me down the path I’ve been on since then. I want to be a force for good in this world so badly that I’ve run myself into the ground and ticked off more than a few people; I’ve pushed Konojel to grow and work more holistically, such that our organization is both thriving and stretched way too thin; together with some amazing partners I’ve created new programs that help my neighbors earn a living to feed their own families, access technology to finish their studies, get dental care to relieve some of their daily pain, and other initiatives that have chewed me up and spit me out; I know personally each of the 60+ beneficiaries, their families and their stories, with whom I share lunch Monday to Friday, and more often than I’d ever wish I have to push those stories to the back of my mind in order to do my best for the organization that depends on me every day. I’ve seen the limits of my abilities and tried to push them. And I’ve come to see that the stressed out schoolteacher who left Brooklyn almost seven years ago is not an aberration, it’s who I am no matter where I am.
Konojel has become a point of pride, not just for me but, incredibly, for many people who I admire and respect. We’ve opened a fund-raising restaurant where I’ve taught my co-workers to make many of the foods I miss from back home and use the profits to continue and strengthen our social programs. I’ve learned so much from the San Marcos community, and I’ve had the great honor to surround myself with strong, intelligent women who are kind enough to trust me to do my best for them. Pride may be a sin, and certainly the downfall of many, but I’m proud of the work I’m doing here because it allows me to have a positive impact on the people around me in a way I never felt teaching hundreds of students a week in public schools in New York. Nor is my goal to fix everyone’s life for them, or hand them a better future; during my six years running Konojel we’ve created programs that empower people to raise their own standards of living, through their own efforts and hard work. Ironically, or perhaps not, Konojel has had the same effect on me.
Please join me today, on Giving Tuesday, and help me put an end to their suffering once and for all. If we raise $40,000 today, I can tell the people at Konojel, the people who I consider my family, that I can guarantee that they will have food and opportunities for the next year to come. Please, from the bottom of my heart, help me make this dream come true. Click below to donate!