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.