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.