Have you ever heard of the Magic City?

The Magic City is a mystical place of incredible, humbling beauty, where the rivers run clear, the trees are tall and plentiful, and the mountain ranges and landscape are vast.  It is also a place of extraordinary opportunity: to have a high quality of life, to raise a family, to hunt and fish and hike.  Never heard of it?

How about a small town in Northern Maine called Millinocket?  The name means “the land of many islands” in the language of the native Penobscot people.  It is surrounded by lakes and rivers and sits in the shadows of Katahdin, the “greatest mountain”.  It is about as stunning a setting as one could imagine or even invent.

In the early 1900’s, the town of Millinocket sprung practically fully formed from the depths of the dense, wild woods to become a thriving paper mill town.  Because of its virtually spontaneous creation and rapid growth it came to be known as the Magic City.

The views of Katahdin from Millinocket and the natural wonders and wilderness setting of the Katahdin region are enough to earn it the magic moniker.  For a time, the bounty afforded by the papermaking world of the Great Northern Paper (GNP) Company was also magical.  For years, Millinocket boasted the highest per capita income in the state.  There were papermakers balls, an opera house and movie theatre, open access to GNP land for hunting and fishing, and the guarantee of a lucrative job waiting for high school graduates.  At its peak, GNP was the largest landowner in Maine.

If you have heard of Millinocket at all, chances are you’ve mainly read the dire headlines about how tough they’ve had it there since the paper industry, the one industry in town for a century, foundered and eventually closed in 2008.  U.S. Census data reveals that Millinocket’s population increased rapidly through the 1970s and has declined each decade since.  The balls and opera house were long gone by the 1990s when I first showed up there.  Now so too are the jobs and the tax base.  And, swiftly, the hope, many of the young people, and much of the magic have drained from the region.

But this is a story about finding hope in unexpected places.  And the Millinocket of the past decade, with its bleak headlines, empty storefronts, vacant homes, and abundant for sale and for rent signs, surely is a place where hope has been more difficult to find.

However, in 2015, Gary Allen, a Mainer from the coast, had an idea.  And that idea was to hold a Marathon.  In Millinocket.  In December.

That’s right.  26.2 miles in a relatively remote part of Northern Maine where the weather graph looks like this:

Millinocket Weather graph

Because of Allen’s connections in the running world, 50 people ran in 2015.  But it wasn’t only runners who showed up that day.  The people of Millinocket did, too.  And with that, a new connection, a new relationship, was formed, and Gary Allen’s idea became a spark that has transformed in the intervening years to become one of the small wins this region, this town, desperately needed.

The Millinocket Marathon and a Half is now a certified USATF course.  The race will take place on Saturday, December 8, 2018, for the fourth consecutive year. It is the only marathon that takes place in New England during the winter and it is fully subscribed with over 2,400 people registered to run.  No entry fee is charged for this Boston Marathon qualifying event.  Race organizers hope that instead racers and their fans will spend money in the town.  The concept is: “Don’t Run Millinocket for What You Get; Run Millinocket for What You Give”.

Meanwhile, being the Mainers that they are, the locals dove right in to welcome the runners.  They have organized an Artisan Fair with over 45 crafters.  There are spaghetti and pancake dinners planned, a variety show, and a pre-marathon breakfast.  Multiple local establishments are hosting parties after the marathon as well.  If you want to see Millinocket and northern Maine hospitality shine brightly, this is an amazing opportunity to do so.

This marathon is a vote of support and an influx of interest and money just when the town needs it most.  It’s a remarkable demonstration of what a little idea, some hope and determination, and a few connections can make happen.  Kind of like magic.  Just think what could happen if we all thought, every day, about what we could give versus what we could get.

Read more

Gratitude Every Single Day

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is all about gratitude, giving thanks, coming together with family and friends to break bread and re-connect.  I could write entire individual blog posts on each item I have to be thankful for: my family, my friends, my health, a roof over my head, feeling safe, the ability to travel freely.  I’ll start right away with a THANK YOU.  I am so grateful for each of those things and more.

For the sake of this not becoming a dissertation, I am going to limit my list to some of the basics that I don’t believe many of us in the U.S. spend much time thinking about.  I am thankful for: clean water that is readily available and inexpensive; ample supplies of food; toilets that flush and plumbing that works; clean and functional hospitals; libraries (FREE books that you can just take at will!); public education for all through 12th grade; a postal service that efficiently gets correspondence, bills, and packages from point A to point B (yes some countries – Guatemala being one – don’t have that).

Of course there are exceptions to even those examples – residents of Flint, MI, surely would not highlight their water system; food insecurity is real and healthy food can be very expensive and unaffordable on many budgets; some people live off the grid without flush toilets and plumbing; we all know the U.S. healthcare system has its issues; libraries and public education are free but widely variable in quality depending on the local tax base; and the postal service is having trouble keeping up with the times.

Yes, there are haves and have nots, there will always be people with more and those with less (see Desiderata poem), and corruption and inequity exist here, too.  But, overall, damn we are lucky.  It’s not that there aren’t problems or that it’s perfect; but we have a basic standard of living in the U.S. that exceeds the norm in many places.  And that’s something I want to acknowledge and say thank you for.

As I traveled through Guatemala, I was simultaneously reminded about all that I take for granted while being struck by the contrasts that so often exist within a developing country.  There is such beauty and yet such poverty.  It’s a compelling place to visit, but such a challenging place to live.  There are resources available to travelers from afar that people who live in the country couldn’t dream of accessing (due to the vast difference in the value of a dollar against local currencies).

The issues facing disenfranchised communities in the U.S. and abroad are big and overwhelming.  The scope of the problems and the sense of hopelessness can be paralyzing.  I have spent a lot of time on the sidelines wondering how I could possibly help, worrying that my involvement as a “helper” could be counter-productive, and generally so caught up in not knowing which direction to head that I headed nowhere.

Recently, though, I have changed my mindset.  I am choosing gratitude over guilt.  I am choosing to face into problems and be part of the solution, versus doing nothing because it all feels too big or uncomfortable.

So what will I do?  What can we do?  Champion. Invite. Invest.  Find people doing good work and shine the light on them.  In the Quaker faith, they “hold someone in the light” to bring attention to a person’s suffering.  Essentially the concept is to shine a light on hard times.  Hold people and communities up to the light in their time of need.  Bring attention to the issues that matter to you and be an ally to positive change.  Invite others to join you, to see these places and people, to face into the problems and be part of the solution.  And, if you have some money to spare, invest in the good work that is happening and the real changemakers doing it.

Thanksgiving is about inviting everyone to the table for a meal and saying thank you.  It is not always easy, it can be stressful, and it also has a conflicted history.  But the concept is right on.  As I enjoy the bounty of good food and the company of family, I will be conscious of my good fortune, I will be saying thank you, and I will be holding those who are struggling in the light.

Thank you for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!  Gobble gobble.

Gratitude Meme

From Positive Energy +  https://Instagram.com/positiveenergy_plus

Connections and Community Count

Let me back up a bit and talk about how I came to be in Guatemala in the first place. 

I am a people person, a connector, a collector of friends.  I take keeping in touch seriously, as my GPA my first year of college reflects.  It turns out that spending countless hours in the library sending emails is not exactly the same thing as spending countless hours in the library studying.  I, unfortunately, did not learn a tremendous amount by carrying my books back and forth to the library and sitting in the computer lab.  Educational osmosis, apparently, is not a thing.  Ah, life lessons.  But I digress…

The point of my connector story is that I traveled to Guatemala with a friend I met on a semester abroad program during college.  We have kept in touch for over twenty years, and though we hadn’t seen each other in seven years I texted her out of the blue one quiet weekend day this fall and mentioned that “I was trying to get ideas about where I can put my efforts to save the world and researching what others were up to”.  Her response, to paraphrase, was to check out the Maia Impact School program in Guatemala and consider joining her for a trip she was organizing to attend the inauguration of the new Colegio Impacto school building at the end of October.  The rest is history.

But it wasn’t as easy as an idea and an action.  There was a heck of a lot of soul-searching and then logisticating to get me on the plane.  The soul-searching was primarily around leaving my family.  I had never really done that before!  I love to travel, but I hadn’t traveled solo in over a decade and in fact hadn’t left my kids for more than two nights ever.  Life got busy and complicated and for a long time I wasn’t in any condition physically or emotionally to go anywhere.  I didn’t have time to plan a trip, let alone go on one, so it just wasn’t part of my reality for a while. 

But I’ve been around long enough to know that life is short and I’ve faced enough adversity to know that it’s also unpredictable.  I take the phrase “seize the day” to heart.  And, honestly, I was desperate to go on this trip, but also terrified of leaving and rocking the boat.  I am a worrier and a thinker, and now that I have little people and a husband counting on me, I kept hearing these messages in my mind that “life is good, it isn’t worth the risk”.  

And then my village stepped in.  The women in my community not only told me that I should go, but that I NEEDED to.  One friend explained how important it was that my children see me as a person, with my own interests and passions.  Two others gave me a crash course in Spanish.  And all of them offered before and after school childcare coverage to make it possible, while emphasizing that my husband and children would be okay, and pointing out that since I would be leaving on October 31 they could survive (probably quite happily) on Halloween candy if absolutely necessary. 

So I booked my flight and visited the local hospital’s travel clinic (because even though Guatemala is fairly innocuous as developing countries go, I need to be extra thoughtful about travel with my medical condition) and before I knew it I was leaving for the airport.  That’s when my flee instinct really kicked in.  In the predawn hours, with my ride waiting outside, I insisted to my husband that I didn’t actually have to go, that just dreaming of the trip was enough.  He reassured me that I’d feel better by the time I got on the plane and that they’d be fine.  And so I went.  And, he was right, I was okay by the time I arrived at the airport.  And, wow, how luxurious to be alone, to read a book, to watch a movie, to think, to sleep…all uninterrupted!

Before I knew it, I was touching down in Guatemala City (check out my Arriving in Guatemala post).  Within Guatemala I traveled to Antigua, Sololá, Panajachel, San Juan La Laguna, and Santa Catarina.  I traveled with a group of women who were immediately like family, all kindred spirits, all seasoned travelers, and all strong, smart, kind, passionate women.  They each brought different strengths to the group; different insights when we would talk about the problems in Guatemala, in our own country, in our own lives; different interests and pasts; and different dreams and hopes.  But we were connected in this moment in time, in this spectacular place, at an incredibly powerful moment for the organization and the girls we were there supporting.  Through this trip I connected with new friends; I reconnected with friends from my past; and I reconnected with myself, my passions, and what stirs my soul.  I couldn’t have done that without taking a chance and taking this trip.  I couldn’t have done that without the support of my family and my community.

While traveling I recommended Brene Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability” Ted talk to one of my fellow travelers.  Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.  Whatever my co-traveler and I had been talking about, it seemed relevant.  Needless to say, I hadn’t actually watched it in ages and didn’t have enough battery power or cell service on my phone while I was traveling to re-view it myself.  It’s been an open weblink on my Iphone for a couple weeks now, but I finally got to watch the first ten minutes of it again this past weekend.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing so I jotted down the notes.  In her shame research, Brene found that:

[The one difference, the one variable, between people who have a sense of worthiness, who have a strong sense of love and belonging, versus those who struggle for it and who always wonder if they are good enough, is that they believe they are worthy of it.]  “The one thing that keeps us out of connection is a fear that we are not worthy of connection…what these people had in common was a sense of courage.  Courage, the original definition…was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.  These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect.  They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.  And the last part is that they had connection.  And this is the hard part – as a result of authenticity.  They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.  You have to do that – absolutely – for connection.”

I take from this and my own life experience three main things: 

1.  Always be true to (imperfect) you.

2.  You can’t practice compassion with other people without being compassionate with yourself sounds an awful lot like you can’t take care of other people if you don’t take care of yourself (oxygen mask people!).

And, 3. Meaningful connection with other people is incredibly important. 

Oxygen.  Compassion.  Authenticity.  Connection. 

Hope.

MAIA’s Pioneering Impact

In my previous posts I provided a very brief history and economic background for Guatemala and then discussed the pioneering efforts Colegio Impacto/Maia is making in educating indigenous girls.  Well-intentioned development work happens the world over, but with widely varying intentions and results.  Some development creates greater dependency on aide, intentionally or not, versus establishing systems to foster sustainability and independence.  Some development work downright backfires.  Some development work is positive but incremental, which can be okay depending on the circumstances.  And then there are the game changers, those organizations with a belief that incremental change is not sufficient, that the challenge is too acute, and that a new approach is needed.

So, what’s the magic formula that creates a successful development project?  I wish I knew the answer to that question!  But I don’t and I don’t currently have the capacity to embark on a scientifically evaluated study either.  I can, however, outline the components of an exemplary development program based on what I saw with the Starfish program.

Norma Bajan is the Maia Impact School program’s Country Director.  She is an intelligent, empowered, courageous woman, who has an amazing story to tell.  Follow this link to read the text of the speech Norma gave at the Amplify Her Voice Annual Event in Colorado, in which she describes her childhood and her journey to where she is today.

Norma is a Mayan woman.  And it is she who leads the Maia program in Guatemala.  She has a tremendous partnership with the Executive Director, Travis Ning, and incredible support from the U.S. Board, but the program is based in Guatemala and run mainly by indigenous people.  And that is by design.  Maia aims to empower the local community and the U.S. team endeavors to be so successful in doing so that they work themselves out of a job.  Norma, her colleagues, and her Guatemalan Board want change to happen in their country and also to honor their culture.  As a result, the Maia school program covers the traditional subjects one would expect from science to math to writing and reading.  But the students also study Kachiquel, their native Mayan language, alongside learning fluent Spanish and some English.  The positive aspects of the students’ Mayan heritage are incorporated while the girls study new academic and social skills.  Home visits and mentoring and other aspects of the program go beyond the typical school day to foster new ways of communicating and relating in the girls’ homes and their communities. 

In sum, the Maia development model is exemplary because it:  demonstrates strong, selfless leadership; maintains healthy, cooperative partnerships (between the administrative team, the Guatemalan Board, the U.S. Board, and their allies and supporters); reflects a community-based approach that is culturally appropriate; is an incubator for best practices from all over the world; and is completely open source, sharing their knowledge and experience with 30 local organizations per year.  The Maia program inspires emboldened self-sufficiency and long-term stability and sustainability.  What more could a parent hope for for their child, for their family’s future, for their country, than that?

See what I mean?  Hope springs eternal, and human connections – to each other and to our own humanity – are the link.

 

Some days you need a little time to breath

It turns out that setting up a little bloggy-blog takes a bit more time and has a steeper learning curve than maybe would have been expected.  I spent most of my “writing time” yesterday on formatting and figuring out this blog platform situation (oh, yeah, and chaperoning a second grade field trip).  So I am going to take my own advice and step back for a minute and take some time today to breath and catch up.

For today I am posting a few pictures of the beauty that is Guatemala as well as one of my favorite quotes.  Stayed tuned for more on Colegio Impacto/Maia and Guatemala; on community and friendship; on more local stories of hope and courage; on my personal reckoning after a diagnosis with Rheumatoid Arthritis; on my journey in caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s.  But that’s all for another day…

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

Pink flowers
Flowers of Guatemala

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Fisherman La Laguna
Fisherman on Lake Atitlan

 

Day of dead landscape
Day of the Dead, Sumpango

Where is the hope?

So where is the hope in the story of Guatemala?  The statistics, especially for the indigenous population, are bleak.  In my previous post I outlined some of the headwinds facing Guatemala, especially within the indigenous population and particularly for females. I didn’t even mention the 36-year civil war that only ended in 1996, and the 200,000 deaths due to that war, 93% of which were indigenous people.

How does change happen, how does one ever move the needle to dismantle entrenched systems of inequality, how do people rise up and out of day-to-day survival to a more sustainable life?  The obstacles appear insurmountable.  And, yet, I had the opportunity to meet a girl pioneer from the Colegio Impacto/Starfish (now Maia Impact) program and her family in their home.  I had the opportunity to tour the newly-built school that will begin to welcome students in the classrooms, using the computer and science labs, reading Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and Charlotte’s Web, among many others, in the library in January of 2019.  I witnessed with my own eyes the families, this caravan of hope, walk through the gates of that school after the ribbon-cutting ceremony on November 3, 2018, and I glimpsed a powerful new narrative and a promising future for Guatemala.  

The Colegio Impacto/Maia program in Guatemala provides a model for education and economic development that can and should be replicated.  Maia Impact School is a school and mentoring program designed for indigenous girls that is run by indigenous women.  Maia works with young women from low-income, traditionally marginalized communities who have the talent and desire to succeed but lack access to opportunity.  The program’s goal is “to create truly meaningful and long-lasting change” through the core fundamentals of community, academics, and culture.  Maia believes in empowerment, equality, and opportunity for all.  Check out their website – www.maiaimpact.org – for more information.  I can’t do justice to the full scope and impact of their work here.  But the work is powerful and they have results and success stories to demonstrate that this model works.  

One success story I can share is the example of the girl pioneer, Zonia, who I had the good fortune to meet while I was there.  Her grandmother is about 75 years old, was never educated, and cannot read or write.  Her mother is in her late 40’s and finished only 6th grade.  This level of educational attainment is pretty typical in rural Guatemala.  They live in a simple home, a short walk down a dirt path through open fields and corn stalks from a secondary road in their village of Chaquijyá, a division of Sololá.  This is an agricultural community and it is the 5th poorest in the country, according to data from WeGuatemala as of 2013.  In 2013, 34% of people in their community were surviving on $1USD per day.  There are no modern amenities or conveniences in the home.  Laundry is cleaned on a scrub board outside and hung to dry.  A wood fire heats the stove for cooking.  The sink is outside, as is the pit toilet.  The ceilings are low, maybe 5’5” at the door.  Potable water is a limited resource.

Zonia is 20 years old, petit, quiet, and polite.  She finished high school at the Colegio Impacto, and is now in her third year of a six-year nursing program.  Her family took a chance on this exceptional young girl.  Her family made a commitment to her education, and they broke the mold of the way it has always been.  They and all the Maia families had to be unbelievably brave.  They had to sacrifice in the present on behalf of their child’s future, giving up the child’s short-term earning potential selling goods, their help caring for other children in the family, their help going to the market, making meals, working in the fields. They had to have the courage, in the face of disapproval from their neighbors, their community, and possibly within their own family, to try something different, something new, and something previously untested.  

Zonia (in blue), her mother, her grandmother, and our Maia group

One of the goals of the Maia program is for the girls to be able to earn a middle class wage when they complete their studies and enter the workforce.  This would be approximately $3,500USD per year, an 8 to 9 fold increase from typical wages in this region.  Zonia is still studying, but she has already been able to help her community by administering medication and triaging sicknesses to prevent or delay travel to a health clinic.  Her family, and their broader community, is already reaping the rewards of Zonia’s hard work and her family’s commitment.  Her dream is to finish her studies, which currently require her to travel a fair distance from home, and to return to her family and to work in the Sololá community.  She has a high school education, is working towards a professional degree, and speaks two languages (Spanish and her native Kachiquel) while having stayed true to her Mayan roots.  Her potential, the horizon for her future, is truly infinite…

And now there is a magnificent, modern, new school building in Sololá in which other girls like Zonia will learn and become leaders for their communities and hope for their country.

The concept of the Colegio Impacto having its own building was a dream; the reality was many years in the making.  I can’t imagine the hurdles the Maia team had to overcome to pull all the necessary pieces together to make it happen.  But happen it did, and watching the Maia team, the students, and the neighbors marvel at the reality of it during the inauguration ceremony was humbling and powerful.

The building is unique in the Sololá landscape.  There isn’t much that compares to it in terms of modernity, sophistication, architecture and sheer size in the whole country.  The details are extraordinary, with the architecture suggesting the patterns of Mayan textile weaving, and symbolizing the drawing together of the community, the girls’ families, and the program’s allies as well as the past and the future.  This building is a beacon of promise, and a vision of hope for what could be.

Arriving in Guatemala

I traveled to Guatemala between October 31 and November 6, 2018, to attend the inauguration of the new Colegio Impacto/Starfish (now called the Maia Impact) school that will open to students in January 2019. What I discovered and learned in Guatemala exceeded expectations I didn’t even realize I had, and also presented me with a different narrative about Central America than I had previously encountered.

There is so much to share about my impressions of Guatemala as a first time visitor. There is the Mayan influence, the traditional dress, the woven clothing, and the cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors. There is the food – frijoles and pepian and tortillas, as well as fresh papaya, watermelon, avocadoes and limes, to name a few. There was the Kite Festival of Sumpango and the Day of the Dead ceremonies on November 1; we learned the next day that many families remained at the cemetery until noon on November 2 when the spirits of their ancestors returned to the Earth. There are the 310 microclimates as well as active volcanoes. There is Lake Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, over which lightning storms light up the night sky and across which rainbows sometimes appear to erupt from the tip of a volcano. There is the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, a designated UNESCO world heritage site, with its cobblestoned streets, bright and colorfully painted walls, trendy restaurants and cafes, ruins from a series of earthquakes in 1773 that destroyed much of the original city, and tourists from all over the world.

Guatemala – from its volcanoes and scenic vistas to its hand-woven textiles in myriad colors – is a truly stunning, colorful, and inspiring country. Stepping off the plane in Guatemala City I expected the wave of warm air but not the wide, gleaming hallways in the small but modern airport. Colorful posters adorn the airport walls in an organized marketing campaign advertising the many tourist attractions. Coffee shops and convenience stores beckon. Guatemala City itself features a skyline full of skyscrapers and architecture that would be familiar in any small U.S. city. The arrivals terminal bustles with energy; a large crowd, most dressed in traditional Mayan clothing, awaits arriving travelers just outside the terminal. The weather is a perennial spring – 75 or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, with colorful tropical flowers adorning the roadside. The people are kind, gentle, talented and welcoming.

Guatemala is also a developing country that faces systemic poverty and gender inequality. The country’s population is the largest in Central America at almost 15.5 million people as of 2017. It has the highest fertility rate as well as the youngest population in all of Latin America, and suffers from high maternal and infant mortality rates. Based on 2017 data, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book ranked Guatemala 153rd out of 229 ranked countries in terms of GDP on a per capita basis (Purchasing Power Parity or PPP). For context, the U.S. PPP is $59,500 as compared with Guatemala’s $8,100. The distribution of income is also notably unequal in Guatemala, with more than half of the population living below the poverty line. Among the indigenous people, the income inequality gap stretches wider, with 79% living in poverty, 40% of whom live in extreme conditions.

The prevalence of child labor and adolescent birth rates are also higher in Guatemala than in any other Latin American country, according to data from Girl Up, a United Nations partner. Females, especially indigenous females, bear the burden of limited health information, sexual violence, constrained choices, and inadequate educational opportunities. Amnesty International reports that in 2018 unaccompanied children from Guatemala comprised the largest group of arrivals that were apprehended at the U.S. border. Inequality, limited opportunity, corruption, and localized gang violence spur Guatemalans to leave their beautiful country, their families, their history to make the difficult and uncertain journey north to seek refuge elsewhere. This is all part of the reality of modern day Guatemala. The challenges are real and difficult and unwieldy. AND there is so much good work happening there and so much hope for a brighter future being built from within. Those stories, those statistics, need to be amplified.

Colegio Impacto/Maia is a school for indigenous girls that is run by indigenous women. Their brand new, state of the art school is ready to receive students starting in January. This is a story of dreams coming true on so many levels…and it is just the beginning. Tomorrow’s post will begin a tale of hope personified…