Just three months ago in early February, the world was a very different place when members of the Rotary Club of Chemainus made their annual humanitarian trip to San Antonio Palopo, Guatemala for the seventh consecutive year.
It was the sixth trip for Tom Andrews, the third for Ken Stanton, the second for Richard Calverley and Denise Stanton and the first for Helen Fowler.
The group departed Jan. 31 and it took practically 24 hours to get there. The team flew into Guatemala City and then took a private van to San Antonio Palopo, a hillside village along Lake Atitlan.
It’s a beautiful spot that continues to captivate the returnees and was awe-inspiring for newcomer Fowler. Lake Atitlan is formed by surrounding volcanoes and has no rivers to the oceans but levels in the lake change from year to year, as the Rotarians have discovered.
Panajachel is the major market centre where supplies were bought and the team visited on weekends. Other Vancouver Island Rotary clubs have projects at San Lucas Toliman, a beautiful boat ride away from San Antonio Palopo.
This was all happening in a mainly pre-COVID world, thus the trip proceeded before the extent of the virus started to hit in North and Central America.
“We weren’t aware of anything when we were there,” said Andrews. “No one was even talking about it.”
Since then in Guatemala, “what I’ve heard is the government has put in restrictions on travel between towns,” he added. “It’s impacted people in terms of food supply and jobs, that type of thing.
“It’s tough for some of the poorest people. I think the price of food has gone up and they can’t work.”
The emphasis of the Chemainus Rotary involvement on the tour was on stoves, nutrition, construction and furnishing young children with 28 pairs of shoes.
“They need shoes in order to go to school,” Andrews noted.
“We got the two houses constructed, we supported the nutrition program and we purchased 60 stoves.”
There was no time to waste once the Rotarians got there, knowing exactly what needed to be done from past connections.
“It’s good we keep going there,” said Andrews. “We hit the ground running when we get there.”
On the first day, the site for a new house for Francisco and Josefa and their eight children was cleared and foundation walls started.
To receive a home, members of the family must help with the project. And they’re more than willing to pitch in and do exactly that. It helps having Ken Stanton along to spearhead the movement since construction has been his lifelong profession.
Construction in Guatemala is a lot different, however. For starters, 230 concrete blocks are moved down 73 steps to the work site. Water is carried for the cement in jugs, sometimes for very long distances.
After the foundation and concrete block work was finished at the first site, it was on to the framing and roofing. The wood was secured from a closed school and delivered to the site ready for assembly.
After that, construction began on the second house for Francisca, who’s well-known to all Rotarians who visit San Antonio Palopo. She works long hours in the hotel that houses the Rotarians to support her daughter Astrid and handicapped son Herman.
Work on the house progressed steadily toward completion. The team worked extra hard on the houses this year because some of the regular contractors were not available.
“We buy all our supplies locally,” pointed out Andrews.
Meeting the kids who receive the donations is a treat for the Rotarians.
Soccer balls and uniforms donated by the Cowichan Valley Soccer Association were presented to a Grade 7 class. They were most appreciative, as their parents do not provide funds for sports equipment until later in the school year. The children receive free education only up to Grade 6, then must pay tuition to attend Grades 7 to 9.
Getting shoes was a big deal to children, who cannot attend school and participate in gym class unless they have some. The 28 recipients, selected by a women’s volunteer group, received shoes thanks to the generosity of four donors from Chemainus. The shoes were purchased by Fowler and Denise Stanton and two of the residents.
The 60 new stoves proved to be a hot item, with funding help from South Cowichan and Nanaimo Daybreak Rotary Clubs. A local gas distributor got quotes for the stoves, propane tanks and connectors before a purchase was made.
The gas stoves, tanks and connectors were received for 60 widows and their children. The women must attend training classes and sign a contract to participate in the program. They make weekly payments for gas and when their tank is empty, a full tank is delivered. Part of the payment goes towards the cost of the stove so they own it after two years.
The fuel is less expensive than wood and eliminates smoke so it brings economic and health benefits to the families.
It was another great experience in San Antonio Palopo this year and parting is always such sweet sorrow.
The group returned home in mid-February. Next year’s trip might be in jeopardy even this far ahead of time.
“Hopefully, we’ll do it again next year and put in an application for a Rotary grant,” said Andrews.
“We’ll have to see what the travel restrictions are. We’ll still plan to go down, who knows what’s going to happen between now and next year. Hopefully, things slowly get back to normal.”