What happens when two ordinary Canadians decide to make an extraodindary difference? Project Somos Children’s Village: A home. A family. A future.
For the last few years, I have been involved with a very special project: an EcoVillage of sorts for Guatemalan children. My family and I have visited five times: their story and their project have inspired me and hundreds of others to make a difference. Thanks to EcoParent for originally publishing this article.
Project Somos has something very different about it: a kind of small-world magic that seems uniquely Canadian. Some of the biggest supporters have just sort of stumbled upon it and by some force feel the draw of the Project and before they know it they are hosting a 60th birthday party to raise money for the organization, or joining the board, or bringing their families to volunteer for a week. This is the very magic that attracted me to the Project. I was attracted by the audacity of the vision: an ecological village that would raise orphaned children within families. I was so attracted that I brought my whole family to visit in 2011, just over a year after the founders, Heather Knox and Greg Kemp, moved there to start construction.
From the moment I stepped onto the site of the Project Somos Children’s Village, I felt something special. Perhaps it is because it is located at an elevation of 7,000 feet with a vista of seven volcanoes, adjacent to the Iximche Mayan Ruins; perhaps it is simply because the good intentions of so many people have gone into the place; and most likely it is because Heather and Greg have a palpable faith in their ability to help create change for children in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Heather and Greg make anything seem possible. They are not wealthy, they are not from old, well-connected families. While they were fundraising for the Project, they rented a basement suite, Greg a sort of Jack-of-all-Trades, worked construction and Heather worked for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. They believe, however, in their own sense of fortune. They have both travelled substantially and they realized what a privilege it is to be born in Canada. They both want to leverage that privilege. It is one of the things that attracted them to each other and that attracts others to this project: being a hero seems entirely plausible with these two as models.
“The hope of any country is in the kids,” says Heather. “My daughter and I had volunteered at a children’s village in the South of India,” she explains. “It was this model of a children village most inspired us. It is holistic on so many levels.”
A Children’s Village is about creating families for children, not just providing homes. The Project Somos Children’s Village will include seven of these families, consisting of a group mother and seven children. Each family will occupy their own home: a beautifully, ecologically constructed, nearly earthquake-proof structure. Two homes are completed: they each make use of Earth-bag outer walls, an affordable, ecological, and seismically-safe alternative to concrete block. Inside, the walls are made of plastic bottles stuffed with plastic bags that are collected as litter by the bushel all around the nearby town. The first solar panels have been installed on the homes and every two homes will have an organic garden shared by the mothers and kids. The Village will also include an administrative building for the Village Director, offices, storage for food and clothing, and a first aid room. At the centre of the Village is a Gathering Space that is situated in a circle with a fire pit in the middle and semi-circular clay benches that hosts campfires and performances. Underway now is a Community Hall with a commercial kitchen, meeting space, additional showers and washrooms. This Hall will be the place for the families to gather for larger events and that the local community can use and it will include cabanas and fancy tents for “glamping” as part of Project Somos’s growing voluntourism program.
Lloyd Bernhardt is the CEO of Ethical Bean Coffee and is one of the people that encouraged Heather and Greg toward Guatemala. In 1999, Lloyd adopted his daughter from Guatemala and he wanted to maintain a connection. So much so that he started Ethical Bean Coffee to “benefit the communities and children” by providing a buyer for organic, fair-trade coffee. He met Heather and Greg early in their process when they knew WHAT they were going to do, but did not yet know WHERE.
“International adoptions have closed [in Guatemala and there are SO many children without families, it is staggering,” says Lloyd. There are 370,000 orphans in Guatemala according to UNICEF. “Guatemala is one of the neediest places in the world,” he continues. According to The World Bank, 75% of that population is living in poverty and half of all Guatemalan children are malnourished. The child labour rate is 30% and education is abysmal with higher illiteracy rates and lower spending than almost any of the Latin American countries. “We have to take care of the world everywhere, not just our own backyard,” says Lloyd. He knew that Heather and Greg could make a “huge, positive difference” in Guatemala, and for relatively little money. Heather and Greg spoke Spanish, loved Guatemalan culture, and they liked that they would be within a day’s travel of their families.
Then, in 2007, they attracted yet another helper, a Guatemalan lawyer, Jorge Alberto Granados Mancio, who shared a similar vision of a more family-oriented, community-based place for orphaned children. Lloyd and Jorge both helped in the search for the land and it is with Jorge’s help that Project Somos will be submitting applications in early 2013 to receive their first children.
The search for land took three years. During that time, Heather took a fundraising class at BCIT. “With the knowledge I came up with from there we came up with a fundraising strategy,” and from that point, things began to catapult forward: they got their charitable status, designed a beautiful website, and started holding regular brainstorming sessions. “So many of the little details formed and grew [from these sessions,”says Heather. “Simultaneously, we started making ourselves present by doing public presentations every month in coffee shops, people’s living rooms, and at every festival we could get to: Car-fee Days, Latin Fest, Folk Fest. People started recognizing Somos,” she says and, “We needed that support to make it a reality.”
In 2010, they found the land and attracted another supporter to help fund its purchase: Ken Spencer of SpencerCreo Foundation. He bought the land for the Project and is leasing it to them with the intention of eventually donating as the Society continues to meet certain benchmarks.
Now, this magic little spot in Guatemala has hosted more than 200 Canadian helpers and there are already 90 more planned for 2013. St. Georgess and Southridge schools in the Vancouver area are sending student groups down for the second time this year.
Everyone who comes is touched by the Project. The high school students were no exception. Perhaps Neil, a student from St. George’s, says it best: “In developed countries such as Canada, life is so fast and materialism becomes our source of happiness. During our stay in Guatemala, however, we all experienced a different form of happiness, one that comes from the love of family, friends, and a community that supports the members within it. The best t
hings in life are free and experiencing this has changed many of us who were on this trip.”
It was a very similar sentiment that attracted everyone to this Project: the idea that what is relatively a little amount of money, resources, or connection in Canada, actually goes a long way in Guatemala. But, like Neil, I found that just as great as the impact that Canadians can have in Guatemala, is the impact that Guatemala can have on us. A chance to remember that it is family, friends, and community that create happiness.
To learn more about Project Somos, including how to donate money, a quilt for an orphan, or your time visit www.ProjectSomos.org. Or, ask about the upcoming family “voluntour” opportunities.
The photos at the beginning are courtesy of Project Somos and Gabi Dubland. The last is from Somos friend Maureen Cameron. All are taken at Project Somos.