Q&A: Opening up education and opportunities in Guatemala

Today marks the first day of the voting in the World Challenge, and Long Way Home is completely game. As one of 12 finalists in the competition held by BBC and Newsweek, the Guatemala-based nonprofit is best known for working to open education and employment opportunities in the impovershed area of Comalapa, where 65 percent of the community survives on less than $2 a day. To accomplish this task, the organization is building a new school out of recycled waste material to provide the next generation of children new training to rise to new heights. Mightycause talked to Genevieve Crocker, Long Way Home’s operations manager, to capture some of what the organization has been doing and how it has operated in Guatemala, the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Mightycause: What made you decide to focus your efforts on San Juan Comalapa?

Genevieve: Matt Paneitz, Long Way Home’s founder, came to Comalapa in 2003 to coordinate a youth development project for the U.S. Peace Corps. Once he completed his volunteer service, a local organization approached him requesting help to create a community park. Matt raffled off his 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Classic and used the funds to start Long Way Home. His organization transformed five under-utilized acres into Parque Chimiyá, a recreational area with a soccer field, basketball court, community kitchen, playground and recycling center. As word spread about Matt and Long Way Home, more community members asked for assistance. In partnership with 600 volunteers from 20 different countries, and through the generosity of 1,000+ donors, the Long Way Home team has built stoves, water harvesting systems and latrines for families in the region. In 2008, they began their most ambitious project to date, the construction of a 17-building primary and vocational school campus. In addition to traditional curriculum, Tecnico Maya will offer programs in environmental conservation, skilled trades, small business administration and alternative construction.

What do made Long Way Home stand out to become a finalists for the BBC World Challenge?

Long Way Home has taken an holistic approach to addressing the multiple challenges faced by Comalapan residents: inadequate waste management infrastructure, limited educational opportunities, cultural degradation resulting from out-migration, high rates of unemployment, ecological contamination…the list is lengthy. Rather than arrive with “the solution,” LWH has worked closely with residents over several years to implement projects that are innovative, sustainable and practical. The process of constructing the school is already creating jobs, re-purposing garbage and exposing the community to appropriate, low-impact building techniques. I believe that our project caught the attention of the judges because, rather than offering one tool to address one problem, LWH is offering systemic change that increases the capacity of the entire community to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What are the biggest barriers to eco-friendly living in Guatemala?

Although Comalapa is an agricultural community that has interacted intimately with the land for generations, globalization has introduced foreign materials without providing the means to mitigate their environmental impact. The current practice of burning trash or dumping it into water ways has serious implications for the health of the people and the land.

How does your organization uniquely address these challenges?

Long Way Home has begun to provide a value for waste, turning something that has traditionally been a societal burden into a resource with potential. By allowing people who bring trash bottles free entrance to Parque Chimiyá, and by building with dirt, trash and tires, we are demonstrating alternatives to the traditional waste disposal procedures. Through our environmental outreach, we are helping people to understand the impact that new waste management practices can have on their overall well-being.

You write that Long Way Home uses a low-cost development strategy. How do you guys do this?

Because LWH uses mostly locally sourced waste materials and on-site dirt in construction, materials costs are reduced. This allows LWH to spend 80% of our funds on labor, keeping more money in the community. Once open, the school will seek privately contracted construction projects to provide practical experience for students, income for the school and promote awareness of alternative construction. The school’s organic gardens will provide food for the students and teachers and surplus can be sold in the local market to generate more income. A tree and plant nursery will provide horticultural training for students and another income stream for the school. Our graduates will be equipped to be entrepreneurial environmental stewards and lead their community to a safer, brighter, healthier, greener future.

What advice would you give to other organizations raising money?

My first piece of advice is to have patience. Fundraising is about networking and building strong relationships takes time. Second, line up those proverbial ducks. If a funder is interested in supporting your work, have materials ready that are accurate, relevant and engaging. Cater to both the donor who likes hard facts and the donor who is motivated by compelling stories. Your marketing package should be easily tailored to the audience; when in doubt, include all elements but make sure each is concise and easy to understand. Third and finally (though the subject could fill multiple books), think about the resources every member of your team can bring to the table, regardless of their job title. If your staff is fully invested in your organizational mission, they are probably willing to engage their personal network in supporting your work. This is not to suggest you should expect your staff hit up their friends and neighbors for money, but simply getting the word out to as many people as possible can positively impact your bottom line in a variety of ways.

Support Long Way Home on Mightycause or vote for the organization in the World Challenge.

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