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Introducing Ingrid Paredes as Konojel’s New Executive Director

 

Introducing Ingrid Paredes

It is with deep gratitude for the long term commitment of Andrew Raphael and enthusiastic optimism for the future that we announce the acceptance of the role of Executive Director of Konojel by Ingrid Parades.

Andrew’s legacy of hard work, grassroots level efforts, and strong advocacy for the marginalized within the community of San Marcos la Laguna is shared, and will be carried on, by Ingrid Parades. Ingrid has been working with the Konojel Restaurant in San Marcos and is excited to step into the role of Executive Director in August. She and Andrew have been working together for several months to ensure a smooth transition and an uninterrupted experience for the population served by Konojel. We are excited to welcome Ingrid and are confident that she will bring her professional experience and her heart for the community to bear on the challenges faced by the role of Executive Director, on the ground in San Marcos.

Ingrid Paredes, born and raised in Guatemala, is a passionate professional with a background of almost 9 years working in the field of development projects with many communities of Sololá and El Quiché areas of Guatemala. She has a degree in chemical engineering from Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and developed this profession for six years after graduating. In 2007, she decided to change her professional path and dedicate her work to rural development; since then, she has worked for many projects in the areas of education, food sovereignty, environmental sanitation, productive processes and cooperatives.  These experience have given her great satisfaction and trajectory working in cross cultural environments.  

She strongly believes in giving opportunities to local women as an important step in closing the bridge of inequity and discrimination in our society.  Also for her, education with principles for the early childhood is the first step to make lasting changes in society. That’s why she identifies with Konojel’s vision for the enrichment and the job training programs.

Ingrid is also an YTT200 certified yoga teacher who has shared her practice in many towns around Lake Atitlán, as with the local team of women in Konojel

Simple Ways to Support Konojel: Donate Your Checked Baggage Allowance


The work that Konojel Community Center does within the village of San Marcos la Laguna goes far beyond the nutrition program that was the root of the efforts when we began. The mandate has expanded to include educational support, a computer center, and women’s job training and empowerment. All of these programs represent a huge step forward for the residents of the village, but they are a drop in the bucket where needs are concerned.

Konojel isn’t the only organization working to alleviate suffering or address the root causes of poverty in the area. We’re proud to work alongside other excellent NGOs and their dedicated staff and to accept the help of volunteers as well. Not all of the volunteers that support our work are schools, like SUNY New Paltz or Indiana University School of Dentistry. And not all of the volunteers are folks who dedicated months or years to the effort. Sometimes it’s as simple as a group of mothers who decide to dedicate their checked baggage space to filling the tangible needs that arise unexpectedly.

Konojel Meets More Needs Than Just Nutritional and Educational Ones…

This spring there was a tragedy in the village, in the form of the death of a young mother, not yet thirty years old, of complications from diabetes. She left four young children, one too young to benefit from the nutrition program. Sadly, this kind of death is all too common in Guatemala, where most of the indigenous do not have access to adequate healthcare and treatment for chronic conditions is exceedingly difficult to access.

The leader of this group, a some-time resident of San Marcos, contacted Andrew and Maria just days after the death of this young mother to ask if there were any needs that the women could meet on their way down. As mothers, the story of the baby who had not only lost it’s mother, but his most reliable food source as well, stuck a cord and the women sprung into action, determining to raise a year’s worth of formula for the child. By leveraging their social media networks, these nine women filled three suitcases full of Similac. But they had a combined checked baggage allowance of 6 more bags. So they asked what else the community needed but had a hard time accessing, and over the three weeks before their trip they provided the following:

The cloth diapers and cloth feminine hygiene supplies went to support the new women’s health and birthing center being established in the village.

The medicines and bandages are being shared with the community through Konojel as needs arise. Having a stockpile of children’s pain and fever reducers allows parents who cannot afford medicine for their children during a particularly difficult flu season to get them through Konojel.

The prenatal and children’s chewable vitamins will support the nutritional efforts within the community and are being distributed to pregnant mothers and the young children who need it most.

Quality Differences Matter

But can’t supplies be purchased in Guatemala? You might be asking. Great question, and we always support purchasing goods in the country whenever possible so that money isn’t wasted in transport and funds are spent into businesses within the community where the cash will do the most good.

The problem with purchasing medical supplies, medicines, and formula or baby diapers and feminine hygiene products in Guatemala is quality. Often pharmaceutical and corporate brands produce lower quality products, packaged under the same labels, that can be sold less expensively in developing countries. Disposable diapers and feminine hygiene products, in particular, are very low quality in Guatemala. And then, of course, there is the issue of the trash produced by disposable products in a village (a country) without adequate waste management or recycling.

In this case, having a large supply of high quality healthcare and nutritional support items allows Konojel to serve the community and support other NGOs with the goods they need to do their work the most at risk people in the village.

One of the jobs that the SUNY New Paltz crew accomplished this year was building secure and critter proof shelving at the Konojel facility to house the formula and medical supplies. We’re now much better equipped to store and distribute the donations as needs arise.

Coming to San Marcos? Maybe You Can Help!


There are lots of ways to contribute to the work that Konojel is doing in San Marcos. If you’re planning a trip down and you know you’ll have a luggage allowance that you’re not going to use, perhaps you could contact the directors and ask if there is a need that you could fill that suitcase with. It’s amazing the difference something like high quality pre-natal vitamins makes.

We’re very grateful to Gayle, Stacey, Dacia, Gayle, Jen, Rebecca, Elizabeth, Kristin, and Sarah for making a tangible difference in the health and quality of life for women and children in San Marcos. Mal’tiox… thank you, in Kachiq’kel.

If you’d like to join them in bringing down needed supplies, please be sure to contact us and ask what is needed. It’s important to make sure we’re filling real needs, as identified by Maria and the ladies, not just filling shelves with more stuff.

Feel free to shoot us an email info@konojel.org

Konojel Restaurant: How buying lunch is feeding the hungry

 

Among the first things you notice when you start up the path from the embarcadero in San Marcos are the restaurants.

Passing through the hallway of murals and beneath the flowered canopy that shades the path the options begin to present themselves, from tiny juice bars and snack vendors to the old standbys. There are restaurants that have long been staples of the village, Happy Pizza, Fe, Shambala, Giordinos, Paco Real, and Circles are all places with a host of happy memories for residents and visitors alike, but there is only one restaurant that is feeding more than paying patrons, and only one that is changing the village of San Marcos from the inside out.

Comedor Konojel is at the top of the path, right before the first turn to the right, across from Circles cafe and hostel. You can’t miss the big green letters or the cheerful handprints of children that greet you. The walk up window, almost food truck style, is often filled with faces waiting to grab lunch or a slice of pizza to go. And the handmade wooden tables inside are almost never empty.

Comedor Konojel has become one of the most popular restaurants in town.

Of course there are the obvious reasons why:

  • The food is fantastic and vegetarian
  • The prices are phenomenal
  • The atmosphere is local and fun

But there are bigger things going on in this two story wooden structure than just feeding the folks passing through.

Last fall, the restaurant transformed from a tiny walk up window snack shop to a full blown restaurant with donations from the Rotary Club of South Ulster, New York, which provided a generous grant toward the construction of the facilities. Funding as much of  the construction of the restaurant as possible through private donors was important to the director, Andrew Raphael.

The land was generously donated by Guillermo Hernandez, the manager of Posada Schumann, and long term supporter of Konojel Community Center. The result of this international, yet community, effort is the opportunity to eat your lunch and provide one too!

Comedor Konojel is the restaurant outreach of Konojel Community Center, including the nutrition center in barrio 1 that feeds 60 of the most malnourished residents of San Marcos, every day, the computer center that is open to all of the residents of San Marcos, and the women’s cooperative, which creates handmade goods from recycled fabrics, solar baked cookies, and dehydrated snack products.

And the restaurant is staffed with local women who have graduated from the job training program at Konojel, under the watchful eye of Maria Mejia, the Operations Director of Konojel.

The women who work at Comedor Konojel are proud of the work they do, in serving great food in a homey atmosphere, providing for their own families, and feeding the most at risk members of the local community. This year, during high season, the profits from Comedor Konojel have significantly contributed to the budget of the food program at Konojel.

Konojel Community Center is proud of our restaurant.

To us, it proves that business and humanitarian work need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, the most effective and efficient option for creating change and defeating malnutrition is often to provide sustainable, dignified work for women and use the profits to lift the community members who need it most.

Konojel isn’t just about feeding kids. It’s about creating grassroots level change, driven by locals, created by locals, for the benefit of the whole community. The restaurant is one example of how we do that.

Eat at Konojel while you’re in San Marcos.

Read the cards on the table about our mission. Talk to the women cooking and serving your food. Buy a bag or a cookie from the women’s coop store within the restaurant, and feel good about investing in more than your lunch as you invest in the community.

 

Photo Credits: Stacy Kirkus

Konojel’s Director: Andrew Raphael

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:

Andrew Raphael getting work done at the Konojel Restaurant. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

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.

Andrew taking orders at the Konojel Restaurant, which is 100% non-profit, a way to raise funds for his community center. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

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!

 

 

Konojel Success Story: Elena

At the Konojel Community Center in Guatemala, a young woman sits on a straw mat reading Curious George with her 7 year old son Derek. Elena has been a part of Konojel for four years. At 25, she found herself struggling to provide enough nutrition to keep Derek’s hair from falling out. Elena’s struggles, and her success in providing for herself and her son over the past 5 years, is among the clearest success stories Konojel can share.

As a girl  born and raised in a small Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Elena was never afforded the chances that many people take for granted. The San Marcos indigenous community suffers from high rates of extreme poverty and chronic malnutrition; more than 50% of children are malnourished according to the Secretariat for Food Security (SESAN), and many families live on less than $2 US per day per household according to the ministry of Agriculture (MAGA). At the age of 11 Elena had to leave school to help her household. For years she collected firewood in the mountainside, loading wood on to her shoulders to light the fires that made the tortillas; the main staple of her diet. Hers is a typical story of a Mayan woman: born into poverty, with little formal education, and almost no disposable income for food. It wasn’t a life, it was survival.

This is the reality that so many of the women in San Marcos La Laguna face. Many suffer from malnutrition because they can’t afford a nutritious and nourishing diet, subsisting mostly on tortillas. They bear children who are also malnourished because the poor health during pregnancy directly impacts the development of the baby. And the cycle continues.

Konojel opened its doors in 2011 to address this exact problem in the community. Their goal is to provide the most at-risk people with food, immediately addressing chronic malnutrition. Once they are healthy and energized, they provide jobs and opportunities to empower the women of the community; the ultimate goal is to help them raise their own standards of living through education and job training.

Derek was exhibiting the telltale signs of malnutrition: at just 3 years old, his hair was falling out and he was well under the weight and height of someone his age. Everyday, Elena and Derek walked up to the Konojel Community Center for Derek’s healthy lunch. One day, a job opened up in the Konojel kitchen and Maria Mejia, the Director of Operations, thought Elena would benefit from the chance to learn a new skill. While she didn’t have any experience in preparing bulk lunches, she proved herself to be a trustworthy and loving person, and quickly learned the tools to be a professional cook in a small restaurant. When Elena finished her residency as a Konojel cook, Maria recommended her for a position at Hostal Del Lago, a local business nearby. As of November 2017 Elena celebrated her three year work anniversary there.

To this day, Elena and her sisters complete their school assignments at the Konojel Computer Center; her sister Griselda recently completed a year long English course run by Konojel. Derek’s hair has grown back and his speech is getting better. He still comes to the community center several days a week to read with his cousins, who themselves are recovering their health as beneficiaries of the Nutrition Program.

Elena’s son, Derek, and his cousins having fun at the Konojel Community Center’s Children Enrichment Program. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

Elena was finally given the resources to pull herself out of the cycle of poverty. Through her fearlessness and desire to learn, she is now armed with skills, working and thriving in the community. Most importantly, her son Derek will have a chance. Maybe he will be the town’s first doctor or engineer.

Konojel helps so many women in the community like Elena, all of whom are friends and neighbors of the staff. In order to continue providing these opportunities and meals to the hardworking, kind, and courageous women of the community, they need your support. They tell the story of Elena to show you that this is working; Konojel, along with all of you, can legitimately change the course of the lives of the people of San Marcos La Laguna. It’s not complicated: help them spread the word, connect them with donors in your network, or even make a donation yourself. We know there’s so many people in the world today that need help, and although we can’t help them all, we can make a genuine difference in the lives of women and children like Elena and Derek. Click below to donate and join the #konojel1128 movement!

Konojel: Our Story

Adela, one of the children beneficiaries of the Konojel lunch program. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

In a rural Mayan village, set on the edge of Lake Atitlan, a vibrant, yet disenfranchised community of indigenous Guatemalans struggle to overcome an epidemic of poverty and malnutrition. But with the help of a small community center, Konojel, their futures are looking brighter.

Malnutrition and poverty play out as a vicious cycle amongst the community- one cannot be overcome without addressing the other. The Konojel Community Center, an NGO operating in San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala, provides an opportunity for recovery by providing jobs, opportunities, and meals to those who are struggling the most.

When you take a closer look, you see that Konojel is more than just a non-profit, it’s a group of people

Konojel’s Director of Operations, Maria Mejia, hires and helps to train women in the community to work at the Konojel Community Center. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

who genuinely love each other. Run by two North Americans, Andrew Raphael and Ivy Challis, along with an indigenous woman, Maria Mejia, it’s a collaboration of cultures, viewpoints, and backgrounds. When you walk through the doors of Konojel, you immediately sense that it is a family. “We know every single person who comes through these doors, not just their names but what kind of conditions they come from, where they live,
and what their needs are. We didn’t just come to this town, set up a community center, and provide these services; we lived here, we got to know the people and they told us what they needed.” according to Executive Director, Andrew. “They trust us because we show up for them everyday, that’s been the key to the success of Konojel.”

Konojel’s primary goal is to feed the most malnourished people in the town, which is no easy feat considering that, according to USAID, 70% of the indigenous population suffers from malnutrition. “We give food to the most at-risk people in San Marcos which include new mothers, pregnant women, the elderly, and elementary school kids. However, our goal isn’t to feed the whole town, it’s to empower women and give them opportunities to work and pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty so that their families don’t depend on our meal program.”

Andrew and Ivy are both ex New Yorkers who traveled to Guatemala to escape the frenetic city life, little did they know that their life’s purpose awaited them in a developing country. “I had spent many years in New York trying to ‘make it’ as a small business owner, but the work left me drained, dissatisfied and disillusioned. Working at Konojel has given my life meaning, and there is not enough I could do for the people of San Marcos that could show my gratitude for that.” says Ivy.

Konojel’s Directors, Andrew Raphael and Ivy Challis, at the Konojel Restaurant, a non-profit restaurant that is raising money for their community project to fight poverty and malnutrition in San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

Andrew, Ivy and Maria believe that Konojel is making a real difference in the lives of the people that benefit from their services. Even though they’re up against some scary statistics, they tackle the problem one person at a time. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. We cater to the individuals by providing programs for them that are designed to fit their needs. We have a children’s education program, a computer center, a workshop for sewing, and many other approaches to help strengthen and stabilize each person so they have the tools to thrive.” However, Konojel relies heavily on the generosity of donors to provide these services. Today, on Giving Tuesday, they’re working to raise $40,000, a year’s worth of their operating budget. They are sharing their story today in the hope of inspiring others to come forward to provide the people of San Marcos with support they both need and deserve. “It would be a dream to raise $40,000 today, to be able to tell the beneficiaries that we can guarantee that they’ll have healthy meals and opportunities for another year. There’s nothing I’d want more.” says Andrew. If you’d like to be a part of the Konojel1128 fundraiser, please click below to donate today!

“Gaining Sustainability in Guatemala”

Our friend and colleague, Zachary Towne-Smith, has been working with Konojel for the last 2 years, helping to guide the development of our programs and of the Sabor del Sol women’s cooperative. His blog post outlines some of the ways that Konojel engages with the local community to identify community issues and come up with viable and creative solutions to those problems.

http://erilivinglab.tumblr.com/post/103142530096/gaining-sustainability-in-guatemala-by-zachary