State University of New York Brings Sustainability to Konojel
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.
The next week, I was speaking in front of Professor Porras’ class, describing my life at the lake, the work we were doing to fight chronic malnutrition, and highlighting for her students one of so many possible applications of the skills and experience these undergraduates were earning in their studies. It wasn’t long, however, before I was headed back to the lake and my connection with the professor seemed to have run it’s course. I’d finished my studies there in 2007, graduating with a degree in teaching Spanish at the secondary level, and this reconnection in early 2013 felt good, but not necessarily serendipitous.
It wasn’t until the last few days of 2014 that I heard back from New Paltz, and from Professor Porras. Incredibly, she found Konojel on Facebook and wrote of an impending visit to Lake Atitlán, and her interest in finding a worthwhile community service organization with which to connect students from her upcoming course, Human Rights in Guatemala. As luck would have it, she arrived in San Marcos and to Konojel on January 8th, the day of my 31st birthday, and I was thrilled to be able to share such a special moment not just with my Konojel family, but with Luz and Anne, the professor from the Sociology department with whom Luz would be co-teaching their upcoming course.
We spent the next few days dreaming… how could Luz, Anne and their students contribute in a meaningful way to Konojel’s mission? What aspect of our mission, which of our various and interconnected initiatives, made the most sense as fodder for a collaboration between Konojel, a newly certified 501c3 nonprofit, and SUNY New Paltz, a major branch of the New York State public university system? Soon, our blossoming efforts to create employment and become more sustainable as an organization became logical areas of focus, and together the Professors and the Konojel team began to form a plan to construct a high-efficiency wood-oven at the site of our soon-to-open restaurant, Comedor Konojel, a step that would allow the Comedor to generate income and tap into the universal appeal of delicious pizza. The students were to fundraise through bake sales and other grassroots efforts, and here on the ground Konojel was tasked with breaking ground and actually building their restaurant in the church plaza so that SUNY New Paltz would have a place in which to build us the oven.
Starting in late January, we got to work moving that project forward by overseeing the breaking of ground and pushing the process of construction into reality. I was tasked with coordinating with the church administration, working to get the approval and tangible blessings of the young Bishops assigned to several communities, ours included, on this side of the lake. It wasn’t until early May that Padre Benjamin made his first visit to our newly finished restaurant, offered his and the church’s official blessing, and joined me and Manager Maria Mejia to get a better sense of Konojel and our collaboration with SUNY New Paltz. Like so many things in our work, and really in life here in Guatemala in general for me as an expat, I was struck by not just the positive and fortuitous result but the last-minute nature of the arrangement… and the role that pizza played in sealing the deal.
Not long after the Study Abroad group was getting off the boat in town, ready to meet me and get to know the Konojel family, which also means getting to know our community and the many challenges it is facing today. 16 young adults from various departments, distinctly motivated and uniquely informed about the country they were visiting, earnestly set to work finding their place in our work, not just gifting and helping to build the oven which was one stated purpose of their time abroad, but integrating themselves into other parts of our program. The gardeners gardened; the teachers taught; the painters painted and the cooks cooked.
The study abroad group distinguished themselves from the start with their respectful and analytical curiosity for the origins of chronic malnutrition in San Marcos, as well as their willingness to dive in and work hard during our week-long collaboration.
It’s rare in our work to get everyone on the same page, and for everyone on that page to leave an experience satisfied, but that’s exactly what happened during the New Paltz Study Abroad 2015 program. The Konojel leadership, in particular Manager Maria Mejia, was blown away by the work ethic, sensitivity and informed-nature of these young adults. The indigenous leaders from the church and other institutions were impressed by their productivity and dedication, and the young beneficiaries of Konojel were enamored by the time they spent with the SUNY group, and enjoyed quite a bit of special programming throughout the collaboration. And we very much hope that the New Paltz students themselves came away from the experience proud of themselves and their professors. I personally admire them for so many reasons, not the least of which being the tangible and significant contributions they made to our family during their short time with us. The books they brought are already getting worn down as they’ve become stars of the children’s library. The garden they planted in our new restaurant will allow us to use our own fresh herbs in the lunches, pizzas and other treats we’ll sell to begin generating our income. Most importantly, the wood-oven they built and donated is already up and running and figures to be cranking out delicious pizza before too long.
The New Paltz group told us that their trip and the course that preceded it were meant to inspire activism. They saw us at our best, and at times at our worst… at Konojel we’re dealing with some of the most at-risk members of a very impoverished and struggling community… if New Paltz had seen only the good it would call to question the legitimacy of the work Konojel is doing. Instead, they saw us as we really are — fighting against a nasty enemy on a daily basis, hoping to succeed more often than we fail, and striving to positively impact the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors. Thanks to the efforts and the support from the participants of the 2015 SUNY New Paltz Study Abroad program, we are better prepared for that fight than we were 1 month ago, and getting stronger everyday just as we hope for our beneficiaries. The work we did together will not be forgotten anytime soon; not by the Konojel family, not by the indigenous leaders who gave this collaboration their blessing, and hopefully not by the future-leaders who took the time to come and get to know our fight in this magically little corner of the word.
Maltiox chiwa (Thank you all, in Kaq’chikel, the Mayan language of San Marcos La Laguna).