“Sharing The Dream” Shedding Light On Maya Community
A high population of Maya elders in the Guatemalan community are often forgotten or abandoned due to the fragility of their families economic situations –leaving these elders uncared for and without a proper social safety net. (a non-profit fair trade organization in, Atitlan) provides a center for 65 elders who have full access to nutritious meals and medical care. Sharing The Dream has also partnered with an incredible school in Santiago called, (The Open Door) who bring their children into the center to engage in reading based activities with the elders. So, the exchange of stories, slam poetry, songs, dancing. This organization creates a space for the elders to feel warmly embraced, loved and cared for, a place where they can feel human again.
I walked into the center while women in brightly colored dresses found their seats. Women along the walls, preparing tortillas and fresh coffee. There eyes staring curiously at me. I sat down with my notebook and camera, carefully observing from my corner, as Isai (the one reading above) flipped through colorful pages of a storybook. He projected the words with a voice so massive that it immediately lit up the entire room. Laughter began bouncing between the baby pink walls and suddenly a big smile emerged from my face.
After speaking to Isai, (teacher from La Puerta Abierta) I learned that this wasn’t his first time reading to the Maya elders. He comes in 3 times a week to read a story to them. Other times, he’ll listen to stories from the Maya elders, bring them to the La Puerta Abierta children and create storybooks with them. I realized immediately that this experience was so special to these women and the children at La Puerta Abierta. This was home for them. A place where the preservation of traditions and stories could create anew, where generations intertwined, shared stories, created deep bounds and learned powerful lessons from one another. To witness a program as such was an honor. This center left me deeply inspired by what it has done for it’s community.
Director in Guatemala, Lauren Vaske
How long has the center been around for?
L: The center has been around for about 17 years. It’s been a learning process. It didn’t start in the same state as it started now. It’s really evolved. So, when it started, Bernabela (elder center coordinator) and her friend were going to work with war widows and they came down with money to give to the war widows to start a business and that didn’t happen. So, they decided to work with the elders. They started giving out stable food items once a year and then it grew and it connected with “Sharing The Dream.” We were able to do stable food items once a month and we were able to have more elders as well and then they realized that a lot of the elders couldn’t cook the food because they didn’t have access to fire wood. Either they weren’t able to cut it out into the fields or on the side of the mountain anymore or they couldn’t afford to buy it. So, in order to be able to eat a lot, a lot of the elders were selling staple food items that we were giving them in the market for a much lower price. So, we re-evaluated and decided to serve food here at the center. We’re supposed to have tables set up, we realized that a lot of the elders were taking 3 bites and then taking the rest of the food home and we asked them, “Why?” and they said, “This might be one meal for you guys. For us, this is lunch today and dinner tonight.” And a lot of them have it for breakfast tomorrow. We reevaluated and decided, well if that’s the case, it’s best if the elders take it home to eat. They can preserve parts of it for further meals!
M: Wow, it’s hard to accept and process that. The women living in high poverty…and have no sense of home… I didn’t realize how severe it was out here. I didn’t fully understand, but I think it’s wonderful that this center can be that safe space for them.
L: I think it’s important, with anyone you’re working with, to listen to their needs and not come in with your own ideas and say, “Well, we need to do A, B, C, and D because this is the way it’s done. But most importantly, to keep that ear and open conversation. To adapt to the needs of whoever you’re serving.
M: Yeah, everyone has completely different needs. Sometimes we get caught up with how things “should” be done as opposed to just adapting…
L: Absolutely, it’s very important we remain open.
What was the inspiration behind the center?
M: Was there a certain moment in time when this was realized? Like, “Hey, this is something important and needs to be done!”
L: I guess the moment of inspiration was when Bernabela (elder center coordinator) and her friend tried working with the war widows. This American came down and wanted to do a project that would serve the community after the Civil War. He was thinking heavily about the war widows. So, when they gave these women the capital to start a small business, he came back a year later and no one had actually started it. So then, this gentleman gave Bernabela (elder center coordinator) some time to think about what they wanted to do. Her friend’s son said, “I think you’re forgetting about another population that was also effected by the war, you know, the war widows can still work.” “They’re 30-40 years old and they have the opportunity and ability to work, but the elders were greatly effected by the war as well and they’re not able to work anymore” So it’s true, it’s a very big need in the community.
M: It’s shed tons of light on the issue…
What do you feel is the driving force that keeps the center going?
L: I think the 65 elders in the program, knowing that even if it’s small, we’re making a difference in their lives…
M: It’s like a trickle effect, it’ll inspire other programs/organizations. You’re all making change, even though it’s baby steps. It’s really extraordinary.
What’s been your greatest discovery along this journey with the elders and this center?
L: I think my greatest discovery is how much I still have to learn. I think the elderly have a lot to teach us from their years of experience and living on this earth. They’ve seen so much in their life time. I mean, think about all of the changes they’ve seen in the last 90 years here in Guatemala. I think, learning that there’s still so much to learn is the biggest one for me. Another thing, I’ve also learned is that although there is this communication barrier, I think that you can still communicate. I don’t speak the Mayan language well, but there’s a lot of non-verbal communication that can happen and it’s important…
M: Yes, I’ve noticed that entirely. It’s really pushed me into paying attention to the language of the eyes, hand gestures, body language.
L: And I think those things are very important in general in the Guatemalan culture. The Guatemalan culture is much better at reading body language and picking up on that non-verbal language than we’re in the U.S for example.
M: It’s interesting, we communicate without even doing the thing…*laughs* Thank you so much, I really appreciate this!
L: Of course, thanks for stopping by!
This day, with these women –something I’ll remember forever. If you would like to learn more or contribute to Sharing The Dream, take a look at their mission and all their ongoing projects. Thanks so much for following this story!
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