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.
One of the goals of the Enrichment Program is to provide rural indigenous Mayan children, especially girls, with access to quality academic support, particularly in Math, Science, and Technology. Laura Maria Sancoy, a young, indigenous woman who has become the core of the Enrichment Program, has recently transitioned from her role as Program Assistant to Program Coordinator.
The Konojel Enrichment Program is a collaboration with a few of our partners.
- The JUSTA Collective, a holistic network in Guatemala that supports in finances, staffing, administration and training for numerous Konojel initiatives. Check out their fair-trade, sustainable styles that support grassroots organizations in Guatemala.
- The PACE Foundation, a New York City based non-profit run by Robert Subtirelu that focuses on providing educational opportunities to at-risk youth in the Americas.
I came to Guatemala five months ago to work with the JUSTA Collective, which works in various villages around the lake. I immediately connected with Konojel, a partner of JUSTA since 2012. Two of the staff that JUSTA helped bring to Konojel were Laura and Jackie. When I first met Laura five months ago, she was training under a passionate and experienced education specialist from the United States, Jackie Mauer. Laura always knew she wanted to teach children, and the chance to work as an Assistant Coordinator for Konojel provided the first opportunity to step into such a role.
Laura, at 18 years old, has “stepped into my father’s role in the family.” With her father no longer supporting the family, Laura financially supports and cares for her infirm mother as well as her younger siblings. Laura has been asked to grow up fast, and, like many of the children she works with, take on responsibilities far beyond her years. However, Laura has translated hardships into motivation for her job. “Konojel works with those most at-risk; many of these kids have difficulties with their families—maybe only a dad or only a mom—and also in school. The little ones don’t even understand Spanish,” she says, “but that’s why this job a gift; to do something that matters in my community.”
Laura has insight into the lives of her students beyond the classroom, many of which come from single-parent homes without enough food on the table. “Sometimes the children will be difficult to work with or act out. I remember their frustrations are typically because of something at home. They are not choosing this.” Laura points to other frustrations in the children she works with, including the language struggles indigenous kids face in school. “School is the only time they speak Spanish. In the house, in the streets, with their friends, it’s always Kaq’chikel,” she recalls. The public school in San Marcos La Laguna gives instruction exclusively in Spanish, despite the overwhelming majority of students coming from monolingual Kaq’chikel-speaking homes. Laura is one of the first generations to be proficient in both Spanish and Kaq’chikel, a skill that makes her especially qualified to effectively communicate with these kids.
As I interview Laura, group after group of students with brothers and sisters in tow rush from school to arrive at Konojel early. Most students stop by to chat and giggle; they just enjoy being around her. She asks each one about their days, families, friends, and school, lighting up with every interaction. It is obvious how much Laura loves these kids. “I treat these kids as if they were my children. What would I want for their futures? How can I give them love each day?” The results of this approach are evident: she reminds each of these students they matter.
Recently, Laura hired her own assistant, Sonia, and is training her for the same assistant position she herself held a mere three months ago. Sonia, like Laura, has the equivalent of a middle-school education with the hopes of continuing onto high school. Laura is mentoring and now empowering another woman of similar circumstance in her community. “I learned. Now, I want to teach Sonia all I can so she can succeed.” Laura is currently saving for high school, a free luxury in many parts of the developed world. To attain a high school diploma, indigenous women of San Marcos La Laguna face a lengthy application process, tuition fees, and high transportation costs to cover the five miles they must travel by boat or bus to reach the nearest high school. Despite these obstacles, Laura is adamant about pursuing higher education. Hopefully, she will go onto high school or a full-time job in a school and Sonia will take her place, training a new assistant to follow in their footsteps.
The long-term vision of Konojel reaches far beyond handing out a daily lunch plate.
“We want to create dignified and accessible employment opportunities for indigenous women and mothers in this community. Then, fewer of their children will need to participate in the lunch program,” said Andrew Raphael, Director of Operations.
With Konojel building new businesses, such as the women’s cooperative Sabor del Sol and a new restaurant, Comedor Konojel, they are taking steps to make this vision a reality.
From a daily lunch program with three kitchen employees, Konojel is becoming a multi-faceted organization that employs female educators, kitchen staff, administrators, gardeners, and restaurant employees. For many of these women, this is their first time working outside of the household or, in Laura’s case, assuming a leadership role in her community. The women involved in Konojel are not being told what to do, but rather choosing how to do it. Konojel is helping women find a voice in their community.
As I sit at the Enrichment Program, Laura delegates volunteer tasks to foreigners, laughs with children during their meal, then introduces a Kaq’chikel-speaking nutrition expert from the community as a guest lecturer. She speaks on the side with Sonia about the presentation and stays after hours to review notes with her. The Laura I met three months ago was learning email and becoming familiar with her first teaching role. The Laura I know today files her attendance lists on Google Drive, commands the attention of 40 children, has selected and is training her own assistant, and really loves her job. Seeds are being planted at Konojel and legacies of empowered women, like Laura and Sonia, are just the beginning.
You can help Konojel continue to make an impact in the lives of women like Laura in San Marcos by clicking the button below and donating or volunteering.