A week with Mayan Families in Panajachel, Guatemala

A couple of years ago I rode down from South Dakota to attend the Overland Expo near Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s an annual event where overlanders (motorcyclists, 4X4ers, etc.) get together to learn and explore the possibilities of traveling overland somewhere in the world. There was a booth there for Do Good as You Go, who help independent travelers find volunteer opportunities around the world. And through them I was introduced to the Muskoka Foundation. I had hoped to volunteer at an orphanage for girls in Guanajuato, Mexico earlier this year but didn’t have enough time to dedicate to them. So I was hoping to line something up in Guatemala a month or two down the road from Mexico.
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Muskoka Foundation put me in contact with Hannah at Mayan Families in Panajachel to see if I could be of any use to them. To be fair I know it helps them a lot more if volunteers are able to dedicate more time (ie. two weeks or more) than the one week I had offered, but I appreciated them finding a space for me. Hannah, the Volunteer Coordinator, put me in touch with Katy, the Communications and Marketing Manager who found some work that I might be able to help with. I worked on their Pinterest and Google Plus accounts a bit, and am working on some research that I hope to continue after I leave (as long as I can find internet, lol).
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The team at Mayan Families is amazing. They are friendly and caring, not just with the local Mayan people they serve, but with their team and volunteers as well. Hannah and Katy went out of their way to make me feel at home. I also met Directors Dwight Poage and Sharon Smart-Poage, who are obviously passionate about what they do. It’s inspiring. Mayan Families is based in Panajachel and serves the local Mayan communities around Panajachel and the lake, Lago Atitlan, through various programs including an elderly feeding program, school programs for children in rural villages, a medical program and much more. It has a 501.c.3 non-profit designation from the I.R.S.
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Hannah graciously invited me along on a Monday morning to visit 3 of the 7 pre-schools operated by Mayan Families and 1 of the elderly feeding program facilities. Eric was our driver for the morning and he loaded the truck at the Mayan Families compound and then we all hopped in. I rode shotgun in the back next to dozens of eggs. We stopped at San Jorge de Laguna and then climbed up the mountains to the highlands above to visit Tierra Linda and El Barranco. At San Jorge we stopped first at an elderly feeding program kitchen to deliver food for the week. The women in this kitchen prepare meals for elderly people who either come themselves or have family or friends come to collect the meals for them.
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Next we stopped at the pre-school in San Jorge. I got to see lots of smiling faces while delivering food for this small kitchen.
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The children are fed healthy meals from a young age while they attend the school and until they start to attend Guatemalan public school. All the villages where Mayan Families operates pre-schools are very poor. So the pre-schools provide a way to make sure the local children receive needed nutrition. When a child is in particular need, Mayan Families can also provide emergency food packets for them to use at home on days when they are not in school.
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Next we head up zig sagging roads and over the mountains to Tierra Linda where a large school is filled with smiling faces.
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And then we headed to El Barranco which isn’t far from Sololá on the northern side of Lago Atitlan. This school had a small playground in the courtyard. And those beautiful smiling faces.Bike Trip Jaibalito 178
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If I had it to do over again, I would have spent longer with Mayan Families. One week wasn’t enough, and I enjoyed it so much that I would have loved to had the chance to work with these lovely people even more. It was definitely a bucket list opportunity for me and one I’d like to do again someday.


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