Before heading to Guatemala to experience my first GoVoluntouring trip, I did some basic research about the project we’d be working on and my expectations were fairly high that it was going to have a meaningful personal impact. The Project Somos Children’s Village seemed to have many of the ingredients that I could have hoped for including a focus on helping the local community through integration & partnership, while at the same time making it environmentally and financially sustainable.
I read about an incredible Canadian couple who spent years exploring the world in search of a project model that resonated with their desire to give back in a meaningful way that were now turning that vision into a reality. But what I hadn’t been prepared for was having my expectations completely surpassed when I was on the ground.
As impressed as I was reading about Project Somos, being there in person is truly special. Initially, you are struck by the beauty of the site itself which covers 145 acres and sits on one of the highest plateaus in the country at 7,000 feet above sea level.
Consequently, you’re treated to stunning 360 degree views highlighted by 7 volcanoes, some of which are still active. If that doesn’t take your breath away, the altitude will, which we quickly discovered during our lunch time soccer matches against the local workers!
Construction of the Village began in May of 2011 and upon completion will consist of 7 homes (that will each house a Guatemalan foster mom and 7 children), an activity centre, workshops for art and music, a guest lodge for volunteers and visitors, a library, a playground and a soccer field. Just over a year after breaking ground, 2 houses have been built as well as a gathering place, an organic garden and the exterior wall around the main site.
What also makes this project so remarkable is its focus on sustainability. The Village will use alternative electric generation, rain water capture, grey water recycling and solar energy in order to be as self-sufficient as possible. The majority of the families’ food will come from organic agriculture produced on site and we were lucky enough to sample some of the greens and potatoes that are already flourishing thanks to the climate and rich soil.
The buildings are being constructed using Earth Bags, an environmentally friendly method that uses sacks filled with inorganic material and some mortar which get stacked in a similar way to laying bricks. The walls are gradually built up and can take a variety of shapes including curved, straight or domed. I had never seen this before and would never have known the two houses standing there or the surrounding wall had not been built by more conventional means. A big part of our group’s job working at the site was helping to construct the bamboo framed interior walls with “eco-bricks”—an equally forward-thinking concept where wasted plastic bottles are collected and then stuffed with plastic garbage providing stable insulate within the walls which are then plastered over.
Each bottle weighs one pound and 7,000 bottles are used to construct each of the houses. Once the Village is complete, 49,000 pounds of garbage will have been removed from the streets and recycled using this method.
And then there are the people behind Project Somos. Upon first meeting Heather Knox and Greg Kemp, you’re immediately struck by their complete lack of pretention. In fact, one of the first things Greg said to me when we met was how they “…don’t presume to have any cultural overlay in Guatemala. We’re just trying to produce compassionate human beings.”
They personify authenticity and approach each stage of the process with practical and sensible solutions. They not only employ locals but they seek out local input. Their foreman Antolin is a Mayan elder and is probably their closest advisor not to mention a dear friend. Heather and Greg believe in creating a nurturing atmosphere where orphaned Guatemalan children can develop and learn in a thoughtful and caring environment. They’ve even incorporated rescue dogs into the project as part of the healing process, particularly for kids who’ve been abandoned.
Their goal unlike many well-intentioned projects is to have a conclusion. Once the Village is complete, the foster mothers hand-picked, and the children placed, it will be handed over to be run by the local community with a local director.
They are striving, and succeeding, in not only building a village but engaging an entire community.
If you’re interested in helping Project Somos one of the easiest things you can do is adopt and name a wall for USD$150. 70 have already been sold off and there are another 60 left for sale—a great way to assist this amazing project and begin your philanthropic career! El Camino Voluntours – led our group through the entire trip, put together a fantastic itinerary and I cannot recommend them enough. Just as importantly, 20-25% of ALL their voluntours go to the projects.