We drove in the clouds, winding along roads pockmarked from recent mudslides. The afternoon skies disappeared in a blanket of thick gray mist as we . Getting to Santiago before dark was essential, we were told, because it’s impossible to see the roads at night. As the mist cleared, we saw our destination – a village of around 150,000 that rests at the base of a volcano. Earthquakes are common, though few are strong enough to do damage. What did do damage to Santiago’s neighboring village, Panabaj, in 2005 was Hurricane Stanley. The storm filled the cone of the volcano, and the internal pressure caused a large section of the top to break way, literally covering the town in mud and rock. Entire neighborhoods disappeared, along with a school, hospital and police station. The village has been slowly rebuilding, though many areas are considered unfit for habitation. The Guatemalan government received substantial support from the US and other countries, but aid to those impacted has been minimal. Only recently has a neighborhood of permanent housing been designed and built. Children who lost their families during the mudslide now live with relatives or in orphanages in other parts of the country. Driving past the cinderblock rubble is a haunting reminder of how quickly life can change – forever.
The region around Santiago is best known for coffee. It grows plentifully, and is in high demand. People in the village and in rural areas grow the beans in the hopes of making enough money to feed their families. On a good day, they could make $5. Yes, that’s $5. Like most of Guatemala, the poverty rate is high, education is minimal, and opportunities for entrepreneurship are uncommon. 15 years ago, Pastor Diego, a local Baptist pastor, prayed for the children of the Santiago – he prayed for their future, prayed for their opportunity. And he had a vision of a school. 12 years later, his prayer was answered when someone introduced him to Orphan Outreach (based in Dallas,TX). The team at OO evaluated the opportunity to have a school in the building attached to the church. And Pastor Deigo heard his ‘yes!’
The school now teaches students in grades pre-K through 5th, and in January will have their first 6th grade class. It is a private school overlooking the main street of Santiago. Currently 160 attend the school, learning all the basics about education – and about God. Sponsorships allow some of the poorest children to attend the school.
Today GuateTeam packed up the brushes and paints we had purchased in Guatemala City and did a find job of painting classrooms. The setting was beautiful in its own way – large open windows looking out onto cinderblock houses with rusted metal roofs that created a design Miro would be proud of. Most people walk or ride in “buses’ that area little more than a pick-up truck with high railing in the bed to allow people to stand. And tuk-tuks are small commuter cabs that get people up and down the steep narrow roads. From our transportation to the clothing we wear, we are certainly not from Santiago. Of all the Guateamalan villages I’ve ever met, Santiago boasts the largest traditional Maya populadtion. Both women and men wear ropa tipical, or traditional clothing, covered in intricate embroidery. The men’s gaucho paints. belts, and cowboy hats transform the village into the set of a western movie. The brightly colored clothing set against the gray and rust and black make a beautiful picture.
The team split into four small groups – three painting teams for the classrooms, and one team to transform fleece into small hats for the kids. My little group including Tricia, Roberto, and Gloria threw open the windows of our second and third floor classrooms to breathe in the life happening on Santiago’s main street. The sun streamed in as we painted the walls pina and danced to Robbie Seay Band. Downstairs, Courtney and Terry found friends who loved to cut fabric – and 100 “orphan hats” as we’ve come to call them were made and donated to Pastor Diego.
We then ministered to the community children – sharing Bible stories, singing, reciting memory verses, and doing object lessons that help the kids remember what they have learned. The children were attentive and tolerated our karaoke-versions of “Get Up, Get Down” and “Oh Happy Day.” And they loved the treats of fruit punch, pretzels, animal crackers, and Silly Bandz they each received – along with a much more important treat of a new toothbrush and toothpaste.
Today we’ll deliver more treats – of humanitarian aid – to Pastor Diego and his partner Tomas who is ministering in Cerre de Oro, an impoverished hillside village. I pray the aid we provide is more than socks or underwear, pencils or school supplies. I pray the small gifts so many of you donated will be received with love. I pray for happy tears. And I pray for the children of Santiago, Cerro de Oro, and Panabaj – I pray for a future that’s bright with Christ, and free to grow and try and stumble and succeed.
I find myself not wanting to depart just yet, but rather wanting to linger and observe life a little longer. I’d like to sit and drink a cafe de leche and talk to locals about their lives, their wants, their needs, and what keeps them in Santiago.
Maybe I want to be local – for just a while.