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.

Tell us about yourself and your journey.

I grew up in New York learning Romanian with my family and didn’t know English until 1st grade. I’m now going into my senior year, and plan on continuing my education in university. I wasn’t a good student until the 8th grade, when my American History teacher opened my eyes to different ways of thinking. Until then, I had been spoon fed information and only had to regurgitate it. He told the truth of American History, not just the positive, and encouraged me to think outside of the box.

The summer after having this teacher, I traveled to Vietnam, and traveled up the coast. While in Hanoi, I was wearing a shirt with a dragon on it, and the children were astounded. They thought it was some mystical creature that they had never seen on a shirt. While talking talking with them, I looked around and saw that they didn’t have any schools.

Robert relaxes in the shade after playing soccer with the children at Konojel

Robert relaxes in the shade after playing soccer with the children at Konojel

 

“Throughout American history, everyone wanted to do better than their parents. The kids in these villages in Vietnam couldn’t. They had to do what their parents did, and they had no room to escape poverty.”

 

I returned from my trip,  I decided to open a foundation to fund schools in Vietnam. During this process, I realized that every penny that I gave would go into the pockets of local officials and the government, and wouldn’t have made a difference in the lives of the kids I met. I had already started fundraising and wanted to make a difference.

I then decided to try and donate my money to a school in Angola. However, ebola broke out and giving money to education wouldn’t be useful because of the medical help that they needed.

So, how did you hear about Konojel?

One of Andrew Raphael’s friends, Scott, came to visit Guatemala in 2014. My dad, Allen, is a barber, and Scott came in to get a haircut after his trip. Scott was telling him about Konojel and my father gave the information to me. I reached out to you guys and things started from there.

What kind of things did you do while visiting Konojel?

I got plugged in with the kids after their lunch and saw the enrichment program that I helped fund. I got to connect with people like Laura and Maria. I saw that they were perfect people to do work like this because they’re so immersed in the community. I knew I was putting my effort into a good place. Using my basic Spanish to help a young girl with her math homework is something that I’ll never forget.

What was the best thing about spending time at Konojel?

Robert receives a hand made bag from Laura, the Konojel Enrichment Coordinator

Robert receives a hand made bag from Laura, the Konojel Enrichment Coordinator

The celebration that we had on Friday at Konojel was the best thing about my time in Guatemala. All aspects of the community were there — the young ones who can barely feed themselves to those who have been eating for 80+ years. All of them coming together for one event was a microcosm of the community. It’s special to see that everyone was enjoying the same plate of food so much. A simple thing like eating chicken is a huge event for them, which was really nice to see. It’s something that people bonded over and hearing the native Katchikel language really opened my mind.

Another great thing about my experience was playing a math Jenga game with the children. It was really cool how you can take a simple game and make it into something exciting and educational.

Time slows down when you’re at Konojel. It helps to really think about yourself from an outside perspective and realize your own mortality. It was an experience that not only helped the community but helped me because I’ve always been one of those people that constantly tries to improve myself. It’s hard for me not to dream big, and seeing the impact on a small community enforced my passion for what I do.

What was the hardest thing?

Leaving was the hardest thing. While I know that I was going home to raise more money and continue supporting Konojel, it’s still hard to leave the kids behind because I saw the environment they were growing up in, heard stories of their hard lives and food being ripped out of their hands to hep fulfill their parents addictions. It was hard to see because where I grew up and the opportunities I have had, in a way makes me feel angry that not everyone is able to do the same thing. My parents instilled this mindset in me in a young age, as they grew up in communism and did not have free speech.

“Seeing the lack of opportunity makes me want to help but also makes me want to improve on myself so I can help a bigger way in the future — cause a bigger ripple.”

Robert and Stephen Sper in the mountains above San Marcos

Robert and Stephen Sper in the mountains above San Marcos

Do you have suggestions for growth, or program development?

I think we’ve created a stable base to work off of at Konojel to continue education and enrichment for kids and women to get better jobs. We’ve reached a point with the enrichment program where we’re helping with homework and allowing them to grow. The next step is to send the kids onto high school and internships so that they can come back to San Marcos and improve the community themselves. Konojel is putting the power into their hands and not into ours.

The Escuela Caracol school does the same. They teach the importance of the local culture and encourages the students to pursue a different method and different way of thinking about problems, while at the same time teaching kids a variety of skills through excitement and the ability to just enjoy something which is adaptable to everything in life.

“With the money I’ve raised, I believe I can change a village. In the future, with a university education, I believe I will have the ability to change cities or even nations.”

Robert and the PACE Foundation will continue to support Konojel in 2016 in a few ways

  1. Funding 3 educational scholarships for community members in San Marcos La Laguna, continuing our goal of using education to help out indigenous neighbors raise their standard of living.
  2. Continue to support the Mayan Fund at the Escuela Caracol
  3. Further funding to support our 2 Enrichment Coordinators that works with the children at Konojel