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The After-Graduation Series: Building schools out of trash-filled bottles in Guatemala

One of the first people I met while living in Guatemala, Juan Manuel (also known as Juan Ma), is now the national director in Guatemala for a non-profit called Hug It Forward. I know Juan Ma through a variety of outlets, all of which represent his resourcefulness to make a living wage in Antigua—he was my first landlord, one of his hand-painted wooden angels-turned-superheroes was siliconed to the dashboard of my car, and we often frequented the bar he worked at in town. Juan Ma is from Guatemala City, but has lived in Antigua for quite some time. Now, he’s found a perfect fit of a job where he coordinates building schools (which are greatly needed) out of trash-filled bottles (of which there is an abundance in Guatemala).

As an organization, Hug It Forward has helped to build a total of fourteen schools since starting in October of 2009. What’s even more unique about Hug It Forward is that it’s the communities themselves who are in charge of collecting trash to build a school for their community. In doing so, community members learn a bit about how to keep the space around them clean. Since there’s very little education about how to properly dispose of trash in Guatemalan schools (and in Guatemalan society in general), this is extremely important and for many it’s the first time they’ve seen their towns without trash lining the streets, fields, or natural areas. According to Juan Ma, it takes ninety empty chip bags to fill a single plastic soda bottle and, on average, two to three months to collect and fill enough bottles to build a school.

Juan Ma is excited to be a part of a project that “Guatemalans can feel proud of.” Many non-profits within Guatemala are run by foreigners focusing on what they are doing for the Guatemalan people, which hasn’t always provided the Guatemalan people with something they can feel proud of. Hug It Forward is an exception to the status-quo of Guatemalan-based non-profits as it helps to organize communities to build schools in order to have the education they need to succeed. Focusing on what the community needs and providing them with the necessary tools as well as connecting people is what Hug It Forward is all about.

Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.

Posted on: February 14, 2012, 6:00 am Category: The "After" Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

4 Responses

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  1. Laura Stephenson said

    Hi Laurie!

    So lovely to see you’ve come across my blog. The best Spanish school that I attended while in Guatemala was at Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ), based in Quetzaltenango (referred to as Xela/pronounced Shay-la). They, like many of the Spanish schools in Guatemala are one-on-one and set-up where you live with a home-stay family, but the difference is they attract very talented teachers and pay them decent salaries.

    My experience working on an organic farm in Guatemala overall was not great–mostly because labor is so incredibly cheap that it seems to cost more to train interns than hire full-time (or more) workers. However, the farm that I worked on a bit was Caoba Farms in Antigua. There are incredible people that work there and it might be a perfect fit for volunteering and studying Spanish at the same time. Depending on where you want to go in Guatemala, there’s probably a small organic farm that you could find to work on–my advice to you is to simply go and find them and figure it out once you get there. It also might be worthwhile to see if Guatemala’s WWOOF website (a database of farms that you can intern at) has been updated (it had not when I was there, and only had 2 farms listed).

    Thanks so much,

  2. Laurie Skwerer said

    Hi Laura,

    I have enjoyed reading your wonderful blog! I found it searching for organic farming in Guatemala. My daughter & I want volunteer on an organic farm & study Spanish at the same time. I was hoping you might be able to advise us on how to make this happen. We also want to be sure to go to a really good language school. What school did you attend?

    It is such a small world. While we are currently living in DC we are from Raleigh. My son Sean is still a student at UNC & my other son David graduated in 2010 from UNC. Maybe you know them?

    I would greatly appreciate any help & advise you may offer. Thank you! Happy Memorial Day!

    Best regards,

    Laurie Skwerer

  3. Laura Stephenson said

    Hi Peter!

    Here’s the email for Alex’s farm (Caoba)– So glad to hear from you! Please let me know if you’d like me to track down more contact info.


  4. Laura – I was the professor at Sierra Nevada College that mentored Alex. I am trying to introduce Alex and you to Ben Powell, a social entrepreneur and founder of Agora Partners. Please contact me with Alex.

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