Konojel Young Artist Initiative

This is an interview with two Konojel volunteers, Luke & Emily, who worked with us for 6 months in 2014 and 2015. They started the Young Artist Initiative, giving classes to the children at Konojel in photography and other creative arts.

Tell us about yourself & your journey.

luke-emily-portraitLuke: We’re from Sydney Australia. I came from a background in music, entertainment and event management and was a fashion designer.

Emily: My background was in fashion design. We both wanted more fulfilling lifestyles and had wanted to do volunteer work.

We came to Guatemala because we wanted to learn Spanish and volunteer. A friend recommend Lake Atitlan and San Marcos as good places to stay. We didn’t know anything about San Marcos at all, and we were only supposed to stay for a month. Now, 6 months later, we’re finally leaving with plans to come back in a year or so.

We had been traveling for 6+ months and we really wanted a place to make home for a while, get healthy, put some energy into a project instead of just traveling.

How did you discover Konojel?

Luke: During Spanish lessons with our teacher, Andrew, we learned about Konojel. We had heard it was a good place to practice our Spanish with the kids and connect with the community. After our first class with Andrew, we visited Konojel and it looked and sounded perfect to volunteer with.


What was your role during your time volunteering? Were there any special projects you implemented?

Emily: When we first arrived, there was a couple of women that were doing activities with the kids after lunch. We started out by helping out Ares and Coco, reading books, playing games, brushing their teeth, and really beginning to build relationships with the kids. We did these kind of activities for a month. Once Ares and Coco left, we took over the planning of the activities for the kids.

Luke: One day, Josue asked if he could use my cell phone camera to take photos. He came back with some really well thought out photos, with great framing. I then had the idea to take the kids out 2 at a time to play with my camera and teach them about photography, and for them to have access to a camera to take photos of their lives around the lake. I had come on this trip to test my feet in charity work. I left my job to see if it was something I wanted to do, and Konojel was the first place I was able to test this out.

Emily: I took more of an active role in the after school program with an emphasis on art and art history (different styles and crafts etc.). Neither of us came from teaching backgrounds or working with kids. You don’t have to have that kind of background to support and connect with the kids. Our goal was to create a fun space for the kids to hang out for an hour and do something fun.

When was the moment you realized that you had a really interesting project going?


Luke: I was with Miriam and Carla, two of the young girls at Konojel, they were really friendly with each other when I took them out to do photography. I saw that they were able to capture different parts of their personalities because they were so close to each other. If we can put a camera in people’s hands, we’ll be able to capture stuff that I would never be able to capture AND give the kids the ability to creatively show San Marcos through their eyes.

There was also a moment when I was walking back after taking photos with 3 kids and they were giggling and laughing. I asked them why and they said, “It’s nothing. I’m just really happy.”

I started taking kids out in November. On my birthday in January, I realized, with a bit of funding, we might be able to turn this fun-thing that had no real purpose, other than giving the kids a good time, into a sustainable project where they can actually complete a course and learn a lot about photography, their own creativity, and create an income for the families.

For my 30th birthday, I made a post on Facebook asking my friends and families to send a donation to us. These donations brought in $1800. I was completely shocked. I needed $500 to cover the first round of printing 1000 postcards and enough to buy a simple camera. I guess I realized afterwards that we needed more than $500 to do it. By having more budget, we were able to employ a local creative, named Chente, that had been digging holes instead of doing what he’s trained and passionate about. His role is the manager of the young artist initiative. He’s the project manager. He teaches a 10 week photography curriculum and manages the sales and administration of the business side of things, which are now in 4 different towns. He is also responsible for the new development of creative outlets for the kids.

I reached out to photography groups online around the world asking for a donated camera. Another long-term volunteer at Konojel, Elisha (14 years old) shared my post and a friend of his mother’s, who is a photographer, donated a camera worth about $500. It was almost serendipitous because her friend was coming to San Marcos and was able to bring it with her on her trip, instead of shipping it internationally.


What does the program look like now that you are leaving Guatemala?

Luke: The program will run for 10 weeks with Chente in charge of teaching. He’ll be teaching in Kaqchikel and Spanish to the kids with 4 children at a time. They’ll do an hour of theory and 1.5 hours of hands-on work a week. At the end of each 10 week course, there will be a local exhibition. We hope to get sponsorship from the Photography School in Guatemala City to supply printing materials and some basic framing.

90% of the sales will go directly back into the young artist initiative and the other 10% goes to Konojel to help keep feeding the local kids and women in town.

At the end of the 10-week course, we’re going to have an exhibition of the children’s work. The person that shot the photo gets 65% and the person who’s the subject gets 25%. That’s equivalent to 10+ hours of work for their parents, so it’s a nice income stream when we do the exhibitions! With about 50% of our intended sales, we have enough to keep the project self-sustainable with our local teacher and other expenses for printing.

Short term goals

  • Educating children and helping them to develop a new skill
  • Encouraging self expression through art and story telling
  • Creating income streams that fund ongoing creative endeavors with Konojel
  • Employ a local creatieve and give him an opportunity to teach others in their native language

Medium range goals

  • Employ the same teacher to be the director of the young artists initiative in San Marcos.

Long range goals

  • Have at least one of the kids receive a photography scholarship to continue photography studies.
  • Create a creative arts center in San Marcos for things like photography, art, design, videography.

Postcards are sold in San Marcos, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Panajachel, Guatemala City and Antigua as well as Online.

What did you learn from your time at Konojel?

Luke: You don’t need much more than an idea and passion to be able to make an impact on a community. You don’t need to be a teacher.

I have a ton of support around the world, and people, despite being an entire world away, will at the drop of the hat give help, money, and support for people with a good cause. I was shocked at how easy and successful the fundraising was. I learned a lot about how an indigenous community lives, and the hardships they face, about their real life.

What’d you learn about yourselves?

Luke: That this is something I want to do. I left a job in music and entertainment, feeling empty, and I gave this a shot and realized that I was able to do it and I loved doing it.

Emily: I came into it being concerned that I had no skills to help the kids. I learned that just being there and being a friendly face, and creating a fun environment for them and giving them inspiration is enough.

What was the best thing about spending time at Konojel?

Luke: The relationships that we built with the administration at Konojel as well as the kids. You create different bonds and friendships when there’s a common goal than when you would without that goal or interest. Seeing the growth and change in the kids being stand-offish and difficult to seeing them understand that it’s ok to let their guard down and open up their hearts and let people into their lives. It’s always cool walking down the street and having little kids call your name.

Emily: Having fun with the kids.

What was the hardest thing?

Emily: Saying goodbye.

Luke: I was freaking out that, having done all this work, printed all the postcards, etc., and then potentially having the parents turn around and say “no” to the program in general. Mentally preparing for rejection and failure, which actually never happened. The development of the curriculum was difficult not having experience as a teacher or formal training in photography. Writing a curriculum for 6-12 year olds that, in general, aren’t literate, was difficult.

Emily: It was hard seeing kids dropping out of the program because of reasons like not understanding the program, or having family issues. It’s really hard see kids with such big potential get pulled out of the program for family drama reasons.

How did the experience change you, or the way you see the world?

Luke: It’s like the difference between “saber” and “conocer”. Knowing something exists and experiencing it first hand. There is suffering in the world and they can’t afford to go to school because they have to work at the age of 6 or 10. The physical effects of chronic malnutrition and the stunting of growth. You can know about it, hear about it in the news, donate to charities, but to actual be involved and working with chronically malnourished people is a different experience.

Emily: it really opened my eyes to malnutrition and the lives of people in 3rd world countries. It really hit home and at times is was a bit overwhelming, but other times really good that we did make a tiny tiny bit of difference. To experience this was wild.

Do you have suggestions for growth, or program development?

Luke: A recurring donation platform online. Opening up Konojel to some sort of option where people could present ideas and use Konojel and its infrastructure to implement a project. Finding more ways to create income and projects and growth. Finding ways to successfully manage the new resources and programs without burning out the administrative staff of Konojel.

Emily: I would love to see more skills being taught that they could use in the future. How to be a chef, etc. Creating an alternative, skills-based growth. I noticed more in the last month how poor San Marcos is compared to the other places around the lake. San Marcos is run by expats. If an indigenous person could develop business skills, they could start to do that.