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Kids Helping Kids: The Tuscano Boys Raise Money Every Month for Konojel!

Not many 5-year-olds spend Christmas helping Syrian refugees on the docks of a Greek port, but when you have community activist-minded moms, that’s exactly what you do.

Max and Sebastian Tuscano, young world travelers, started volunteering before they understood the meaning; on the streets of NYC joining an outreach project for homeless, collecting and personally delivering clothing donations for the disadvantaged indigenous communities of the Costa Rican Caribbean coast, visiting elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka, and spending their Christmas holidays on the island of Lesvos, Greece helping 1,000’s of Syrian refugees at the height of the crisis.

“My mom wanted to help moms and kids so we gave our Christmas money to buy backpacks and toys for the refugee kids. Then, we would go with our moms to the docks and give the gifts to the kids. I really like helping other kids,” says Max Tuscano, age 8.

“For me, I wanted to show my kids the true message for the holidays is to GIVE. It’s not what we get, it’s trying to be as generous as possible and helping those in need.”

“The impact of being able to connect directly with other children made a huge impact. When my friend Jennifer Miller connected me with Konojel, I knew this would be a good relationship and one where my kids could have a direct and positive effect on other kids.”

This holiday season, you’ll find Max and Sebastian helping their mom bake cookies and later sell them in their village plaza in Spain as they try to raise money for Konojel.

“We try to raise USD 10 a month to help feed the kids. Sometimes we don’t have enough money from selling things so we do extra chores for our moms to get enough money,” says 8-year-old Sebastian Tuscano.

For the past year, they’ve made their monthly goal as they spread the word of the fantastic work Konojel is doing for the lakeside children of Guatemala.

In the future, the 2-mom Tuscano family hopes to travel to Guatemala and volunteer with the Konojel children directly as they believe the best way to raise committed global citizens is a hands-on approach.

Join the Tuscano boys in supporting Konojel! Donate today!

Walking Across the UK to Feed Kids in Guatemala

Imagine our surprise and delight when monthly supporter, Colin Wilson, contacted us to ask if he could use his walk across the UK to raise funds for Konojel!

One of the amazing things about our tribe of regular supporters is that they understand how vital their regular support of our monthly budget is. Kids don’t eat just once a year, conveniently hungry around the month of a big fundraiser. Nope. Feeding kids is an every day affair. That’s why Colin gives monthly, he’s a dad. He gets that. And that’s also why he decided to use his walk to boost his support of the Konojel Community Center, specifically, the nutrition project.

This isn’t the first big walk that Colin has embarked on for charity. Four years ago he walked across Spain for the first time, raising money for a cause close to his heart. The next year, he did it again. He’s got a habit of doing extreme things for the benefit of others and we couldn’t be more pleased that he’s chosen to support Konojel as he does the northern coast-to-coast walk across the UK.

Colin and his partner Rosie started walking yesterday, but they started raising funds weeks ago. If you’d like to support their walk and Konojel at the same time, visit their Just Giving page and donate. If you can’t do that, then please click the link and share their story on social media. The more views, and donations, the better!

The picture, above, was taken on the west coast, at the sea, where the walk begins. Check out his cool Konojel t-shirts, which he had specially made for the walk!

Visit Colin’s Just Giving Page and Support the Walk & Konojel!

 

 

The Hawks & the Lions: SUNY New Paltz Returns to Guatemala

Since June of 2015 students from SUNY New Paltz have been collaborating with the Konojel Community Center, a Non-Profit organization located in San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala. The students visit Konojel, on the shores of volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan, as the last assignment in their undergraduate Study Abroad program, Cultural Engagement in Guatemala: Art, Activism and Social Justice. Now in their fourth year of collaborating, the teams from Konojel and SUNY New Paltz look forward to the annual visit, and make the most of their time together with hands-on volunteer work that serves to further the Konojel mission of reducing chronic malnutrition through Employment, Education and Nutrition.

New Paltz Professor Luz Porras, a Guatemalan national and Spanish Lecturer in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, doesn’t baby her students. “These young people have spent virtually all of their time at Konojel sweating, scrubbing, painting, hustling,” says Konojel Director Andrew Raphael, himself an alumnae of SUNY New Paltz (class of 2007).

“This is a great example of how to contribute positively and authentically to a grass-roots organization like Konojel, using time on the ground to help us move forward in our work. They come for our organization and the people that depend on us, and put themselves and their own comforts after the needs of this community.”

Planting the Seeds

“I am from Guatemala! That is my country!” Professor Porras pounded the table around which her students sat in Spanish conversation practice on a snowy afternoon in March of 2013. She’d just heard Raphael introduce himself as the Director of a little Nutrition Center in a small Maya village, and Professor Porras wasted no time seeing if he was for real. Raphael was visiting friends at his old university and stumbled into the Conversation Practice through sheer coincidence. 18 months later Professor Porras and Professor Anne Roschelle were at the Konojel main facility, dreaming of ways that they and their first group of students could come down and help Konojel get better at serving their struggling community.

By the following semester the plan was in place, and the students got to work fundraising in a way that can only be defined as grassroots. Each year, like that first group, the New Paltz students have put together funds for Konojel by any means necessary. Selling tamales and empanadas at university events, sitting in the freezing cold for hours at a time selling coffee and baked goods and telling the Konojel story to anyone who would listen. And in June 2015 the first group arrived to Guatemala ready to humble themselves.

First Harvest

That first group set the tone, literally digging in and helping local workers build and paint the shack that would soon open as the first fundraising restaurant in San Marcos, an initiative that would come to employee many of indigenous women and allow Konojel to develop a sustainable revenue stream to supplement donations to their U.S. 501(c)3, the All Together Foundation. They pushed wheelbarrows, sanded an entire building by hand, painted and varnished the exterior and helped build the pizza oven for which the students had worked so hard to raise funds during the academic year. Looking back, everyone was hot, sweaty, covered in dirt and bugs and fulfilled knowing they’d helped make the work of Konojel just a little easier.

The restaurant, one of several Konojel initiatives that include a nutrition program for children, young mothers and the elderly, as well as a computer center, an after-school activities program and a women’s micro-business, was a success thanks to the 2015 group. The initial success quickly revealed how much Konojel needed to do in order to operate a successful business, an awesome challenge that is ongoing even several years later. But it was the crew from SUNY New Paltz, led by Professors Porras and Roschelle, who pushed Konojel to take the first step, and they’ve set an incredible example in the years since by staying alongside the growing NGO, keeping in touch and sending two more groups to help in 2016 and 2017. Another visit in June of 2018 will make it four years in a row.

Showing How It’s Done

The crew from 2016 had the distinctly un-glamorous task of performing a deep clean and maintenance on the Konojel main facility, an ancient building known locally as the Casa Antigua (the old house). A historical site and the first school in the history of San Marcos, the Casa Antigua has been home to Konojel since they opened in September 2011 and the New Paltz students have helped restore and turn it into a destination for visitors and local residents alike. The important but less-than-pleasant work of cleaning and improving this old building was quickly and enthusiastically taken on by the New Paltz Hawks, as they worked alongside local laborers to give the Casa Antigua a major facelift, thus helping Konojel show how much it values having such a great place to call home.

Just in Time

June of 2017, the third straight year that Professor Porras brought her class to San Marcos came at a crisis point for the for Konojel Lions (the Kaq’chikel Maya from San Marcos La Laguna identify the lion as their representative animal); Konojel had to vacate the land on which their restaurant was located, and build a completely new facility in a different part of the tourist zone. Thanks to Guillermo and Luisa Hernandez, of the Hotel Posada Schumann, Konojel was able to procure a small but perfectly located piece of land to rent at an NGO discount, but the race was on to construct a two-story restaurant in the five months before the end of rainy season and the return of the tourists to whom Konojel primarily sells their food. Even two weeks of missed sales would be devastating to the Konojel operating budget.

Into this crisis stepped the 2017 Hawks, wasting no time before literally rolling up their sleeves and spending a week on their knees in a dusty parking lot to help indigenous construction workers prepare the wood and erect the massive beams that now form the bones of the new Konojel fundraising restaurant. Students were on-site at the perfect time for Konojel, as the influx of over a dozen workers to supplement local masons and carpenters put the project ahead of schedule and under-budget. Conversely, it was so early in the construction that the volunteers had little photo-ops; unlike all-too-common examples of “voluntourism” in which activities can prioritize the experience of the volunteer over the actual impact on the community, the New Paltz students struggled through a week of labor and didn’t get to see the finished product, as construction continued for several months afterwards. But the week they spent alongside the Konojel construction team, erecting 10-foot tall wood beams with a rope and their muscles; the hours they spent sanding, varnishing and painting the walls, floors and windows that wouldn’t be installed for weeks after their departure…those efforts were the reason that the Konojel restaurant opened on-time just ahead of tourist season in November of 2017.

2018 and Beyond

In just a few weeks Professor Porras will be back at Konojel with her fourth group of undergrads, ready to put them to work. For the Konojel team, especially Maria Mejia (Director of Programs and Operations) and Laura Sancoy (Site Coordinator and fan favorite), this is their favorite time of year. “Luz is an incredible woman, and we are so grateful for her friendship and the support of her university and the students who come here to help us. They make our jobs easier, and improve the impact of our efforts to help vulnerable people from our community,” says Mejia, with translation from New Paltz grad Raphael.

“It’s an amazing story, this collaboration between my university and the incredible team that I’m privileged to represent” says Raphael on a rainy afternoon a few weeks before the Hawks land in lion country. “We are all so grateful and excited to have the support of SUNY New Paltz..they have made a real difference for us and we consider them a crucial part of our team.”

If Raphael gets his way, this fourth group will not be the last.

 

 

 

The Land That Time Forgot

Sandra Levins, a Konojel partner for the last 2 years, recently wrote about her recent trip to San Marcos, in which she and her team brought donated goods from the Iowa Conference United Church of Christ.

“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.”

Read about Sandra’s visit and experience on her church blog.

PACE Foundation plants seeds of growth at Konojel

 

We had the pleasure of welcoming 16-year-old Robert Subtirelu and his father, Allen, to Guatemala last week. Robert founded the PACE Foundation, based in Long Island, New York, and funds it by boarding dogs with his mother at ComPAWnions, the highest rated boarding service in their area.

In 2014, Robert donated $7,000 to Konojel to start our enrichment programs, planting seeds in San Marcos that have been growing this past year to become the most important piece of our programming. After spending a week together in San Marcos La Laguna, I interviewed Robert to learn a more about this inspiring young man.

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Staff Spotlight - Laura Maria Sancoy, Children's Enrichment Program Director

Staff Spotlight – Laura Maria Sancoy, Children’s Enrichment Program Coordinator

The Konojel Community Center, previously Nutrition Center Konojel, began in September 2011 from humble beginnings. At first, the program focused on providing 65+ meals for the most at-risk demographics of the population—chronically malnourished children, pregnant or nursing mothers, and elderly citizens not being cared for by their adult children. Over the past few years, Konojel has gradually branched out into a number of other initiatives to more holistically support the community of San Marcos La Laguna, here on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Solola, Guatemala. One of these initiatives, the after school Enrichment Program, provides a space after lunch for 20-40 elementary school-aged children to play educational, confidence-building games, do their homework with adult supervision, enjoy being kids, and much more.

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SUNY and Konojel

State University of New York brings sustainability to Konojel

Luz Porras, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, SUNY New Paltz

Luz Porras, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, SUNY New Paltz

I’d been living in San Marcos for close to two years, and running Konojel for about half that time, when I met Professor Luz Porras, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at my alma mater, State University of New York at New Paltz (SUNY New Paltz). While visiting my old stomping grounds one early spring afternoon, a friend in the Study Abroad office invited me to join a conversation practice session being held for a few of the class sections from the Department of Foreign Languages. After listening in for a few minutes, I was asked to introduce myself, and told the students and their professors a bit of my story. As a graduate of SUNY New Paltz, I’d earned my teaching certificate and used it to teach Spanish in at-risk areas of New York City. After explaining that I’d since moved to Guatemala, a faceless voice boomed from the other end of the table, and Professor Porras rose from her seat to learn more about how I’d gone from her department to her home country. So began the connection between Konojel and SUNY New Paltz.

 

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Volunteer Experience — “In Which I Am Proud of My Kid”

Jennifer Miller, who has been traveling the world with 2008 with her 4 children in tow, wrote a beautiful article about the experience her son, Elisha, had while volunteering at Konojel for 6 months.

“The Konojel building looks a lot better, Mom. The work days last week made a big difference. It just feels tidier. The ladies will unlock the kitchen soon and start cooking, they begin early. We feed the kids outside on the patio with long tables and benches. That’s where we do our activities, outside too. From the kitchen out back you can look up at Imelda’s house. I wave at her sometimes. Some of these kids this is their only good meal. Most of them don’t grow well because their nutrition is so bad. They think I’m a giant. That’s the house where the kid who tries to beat me up lives.” He offers that last part as an aside and I interrupt:

“Wait, there’s a kid that tries to beat you up every day??”

He laughs, “Yeah, but he’s, like, this tall,” holding one hand by his waist, “And he’s only teasing, he’s just a little scrapper and he likes to have a try because I’m so big. We laugh every day.” 

“Oh, okay. Just checking.” He chuckles and gives me his give-me-a-break-mom eye roll.

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Konojel — A Volunteer Project to Get Behind

A big part of long-term travel for many people is volunteering. Volunteering, no matter what you do, is all good, right? How can devoting your time and/or money to help people in need not be a good thing? You might be surprised to find out that many volunteering projects end up causing more harm than good.

A few weeks ago in this column, Jennifer Miller shared her disdain for short term mission trips. Some who read this article thought she was calling for an end to all types of volunteer trips, fundraisers, activities, and experiences, which is the furthest thing from the truth.

Today, Jenn is sharing a personal story about a project that she believes will leave a lasting impact on the community that she currently lives in, which is what we believe most people who get involved in this type of work hope to accomplish.

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