Siena Students Journey to Guatemala

Vera Eccarius-Kelly Features

In the aftermath of Hurricane Stan this past fall, which devastated many impoverished, rural communities throughout Guatemala, 14 Siena students and I traveled to three remote Guatemalan highland locations in January and delivered desperately needed assistance.

The township and mission of San Lucas Toliman, located on the shore of beautiful Lake Atitlan, received a donation check, generously sponsored by Siena’s Martin Luther King Lecture series. Siena provided the financial assistance to Father Greg Schaffer, a diocesan priest from Minnesota, who has spent 41 years in the Guatemalan community. The donation will be used to rebuild houses that were washed away during the last hurricane season.

You may remember reading about the village of Panabaj, which was washed away with its entire population, and, shortly thereafter, categorized as a cemetery following the mudslides. That village is located just a couple of miles away from San Lucas Toliman, whose population also suffered extensively.

Devan Lavigne, Student President of Siena’s Psychology Club, organized a school supply collection prior to the group’s departure. With the generous support of members of the Psychology Department and each traveling student, the group delivered large packages of pens, pencils, paper, markers, etc. to two programs that focus on assisting marginalized children.

In Guatemala City, the students visited UPAVIM (United for a Better Life), a women’s cooperative focused on reaching out to street children who have been denied the opportunity to attend school. Carmen Guzman, President of the UPAVIM Cooperative, expressed her deep gratitude to Siena’s students and suggested that “every pencil opens a child’s mind and saves that child from a potential life as a gang member.” Overcome by emotion, she said, “we can’t express in words how much these school supplies mean to our mothers and children.”

Siena’s students also delivered school supplies to a K’ek’chi Maya project in the township of Chisec, an area hit very hard during the civil war. The school supplies will be used to support scholarship-receiving Mayan elementary school children who attend a basic skills program in the town.

During our 12 days in Guatemala, we also visited ancient Mayan ruins and temples, explored outdoor markets, hiked through the rainforest to learn about the delicate ecological balance there – while encountering howler monkeys, parrots, and tarantulas. We also learned about hardwood forestry management projects, and experienced traditional shaman religious practices. In comparison to prior years, the country appeared more peaceful and safe. It was an incredibly worthwhile experience for everyone.

Dr. Vera Eccarius-Kelly is an assistant professor of Political Science at Siena College and also a member of the Peace Studies Program.