SANTIAGO, Guatemala – Far away in the highlands of Guatemala, and a boat ride across the mysterious and marvelous LakeAtitlán, its shores dotted with a dozen small towns named after the 12 apostles, is the village of Santiago.
Surrounded by young but dormant volcanoes, the lake and village speak of peace and beauty.Yet the area has seen devastating conflict and recently felt the wrath of Hurricane Stan, which last year caused a flood of water and mud that swept through the area, creating a swath of destruction, burying fields, houses, people and livestock under a six-foot pile of rubble.
Statistics say “100 people dead,” but 600 are still missing, and until the bodies are exhumed, the actual death count cannot be known.
U.S. teacher Ryan Stimmel arrived in Santiago four days after the event. Appalled by what he saw, he knew he had to do something. The teacher, who majored in sociology at TexasA&MUniversity in the United States, decided that helping the children was his goal.
“I saw the need for an educational program to combat the juvenile delinquency of a dissolving community,” Stimmel told The Nica Times. “Also apparent was the loss of the Maya Tz’utujil culture due to governmental hostility and the natural disaster.”
He added that without international aid, the Tz’utujil community of Santiago Atitlán would likely lose its identity and culture – a culture that has survived intact since pre-Columbian times.
Hence, he created the Santiago Relief Fund to establish a series of one-room schoolhouses to provide educational activities and programs for children. He began with one small schoolhouse that has already earned a positive reputation within the Mayan community.
“The schoolhouse project is our first project,” Stimmel said. “It’s in the ravaged neighborhood of Panabaj, just north of the path of last year’s ruinous mudslide.”
The doors of the schoolhouse open every weekday from 10 a.m. to noon for children who don’t attend public school and who don’t have to work, according to Stimmel. In the mornings, students who come in with assignments receive tutoring and read in the Spanish-language children’s library.
After the end of the public-school day, other children filter in, and from 1:30 to 4 p.m. the schoolhouse hosts music and art activities and lessons in reading and writing.
Some 25 to 35 students come regularly, and a handful of others come from time to time when their other responsibilities permit, Stimmel explained. The school is open to children of all ages, but its programs are aimed at children from about 5 to 12, he said.
A certified teacher and two volunteer assistants staff the little school. They now earn a minimal-living stipend, but because of the small scope and youth of both the project and the supporting organization, all employees give one-third of their service as an in-kind donation. Foreign volunteers also help from time to time.
“So far we’ve seen the teachers become more confident and effective in their profession,” Stimmel said. “The children return day after day to participate in activities and are happy and active.
Stimmel says the goal is to established a pool of professional educators who continually increase in experience and qualification, while hopefully working in cooperation with local and international education programs aimed at children.
“I believe it is also helping to preserve the Tz’utujil culture,” he said.
Another project in which the Santiago Relief Fund has taken a leading role is the development of a mental-health network in Santiago.
The network is dedicated to collaborating with the different efforts of mental-health professionals and educators operating within the temporary shelters of Tzanchaj. The fund plays a role by helping to coordinate activities in five classrooms built by the Guatemalan National Foundation for Peace and Save the Children.
“Our job is to organize the children, especially those who don’t attend school, into classes to take part in learning activities,” Stimmel said. “Other organizations can then bring their messages to groups of attentive children in a healthy environment.”
He said time slots have already been filled by organizations to teach cultural expression and creativity, psychological development, food safety, hygiene and disaster-preparedness programs.
All of this marvelous work is being done on a shoestring. And, without help, it may not be able to continue.
For information, visit the Web page www.santiagorelief.com.