The mission of Rotary clubs across the world is to support humanitarian and educational efforts to change lives and improve communities.
With this in mind, three members from the Blaine-Ham Lake Rotary Club joined a team of over 20 on a journey to Guatemala Nov. 8-16 where they not only helped improve the appearance of a woman’s in-home business, but raised funds for numerous other charitable causes.
“I would like to say that having Robyn West, Julie Gotham and Chris Tiedeman travel to Guatemala, and gain the support from the rest of our club by gathering thousands of dollars of supplies is unique for a Rotary club,” said Chris Hasling, president of the Blaine-Ham Lake Rotary Club that has about 25 members.
“Although I have learned that Rotary clubs around the world pitch in to complete very important international service all the time, this global commitment to service makes being a Rotarian something really special.”
Guatemala has changed a lot since Tiedeman last visited the country in 1995 when it was at the tail end of a civil war.
Although it is much safer and there has been some economic growth including development of wireless Internet networks, Tiedeman said there is still a lot of poverty, so the group of 20 that also included Rotary members from Buffalo and a handful of other clubs were on a mission to make a difference.
A Guatemalan woman named Maria Pacheco, who was a Fulbright Scholar educated in biology in the United States, was told that the way to really make a difference in her home country would be to help the women make money, Gotham said. There are now 15 to 16 women in 16 different villages who make handcrafted jewelry with local material that are sold in North America, Europe and Asia through the Wakami project.
The Rotary team from Minnesota painted a room and planted a vegetable garden at one of the home of one of the female entrepreneurs.
Women have become the breadwinner for some of these families, according to Gotham and West, because a fungus has devastated a lot of the coffee farm crop that the men had been harvesting.
International studies they have seen show that women will generally spend over 80 percent of their income on their family, while men will only spend about 30 percent, so women becoming the breadwinner has trickled down to benefit the children. In addition, it shows men unaccustomed to seeing women working that they deserve their respect.
“Guatemala is a very patriarchal society,” Gotham said. “When women have an income they’re empowered and less likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse. They have a more equal relationship in the family and in the community.”
But Guatemala has problems with human trafficking. It was why in 2007 and 2008 the Guatemalan legislature passed reforms that halted international adoptions, according to West. Adoptions are now allowed, but only inside Guatemalan borders.
Tamara Hillstrom, Robyn West’s sister, set up an orphanage in Guatemala called El Amor de Patricia, which translates to “For the love of Patricia.” Patricia was Tamara and Robyn’s mother.
The philosophy Hillstrom has is not to have a large institutional home, but rather a small community.
West said some of the other Rotary members have seen orphanages with over 600 kids. El Amor de Patricia has about 20 kids who are raised in as normal a home atmosphere as possible before a permanent home is found, she said.
This was the first time West has set foot in Guatemala and seen her sister’s orphanage.
Not all the kids are orphans, however. Some were placed in her home by the government because their parents were deemed unfit to care for them at the time.
West recalls how one child was found abandoned in a pile of trash. Another was found tied to a table while her mother was away at work.
“After the years of my sister jumping through the hoops to open this orphanage, I walked into the property with tears of awe as I took in the sight of these precious souls who are experiencing the family they so need to have successful lives,” West said.
The orphanage has close ties in the community and knows what families are in need. The Rotary group purchased bunk beds in Guatemala and Minnesota volunteers made quilts for each bed so families who were sleeping four to five to a bed or sleeping on dirt floors would have their own bed to sleep in.
A large public hospital in Escuintla will be receiving a container of cribs, bili lights and other basic supplies thanks to a donation from the Blaine-Ham Lake Rotary.
“They serve between 2,400 and 2,500 children per month in their pediatric emergency room,” Gotham said. “The conditions there are very challenging at best. They lack adequate equipment, adequate supplies.
“In their neonatal intensive care unit they have one bili light and they might have 12 babies in a day who need a bili light, so they have to share.”
This hospital has a high rate of nosocomial infection because there will be a dozen people in some large hospital rooms.
A Blaine dentist donated materials for a Guatemalan office.
An economic staple in some areas continues to be coffee farms, and the group toured some of these farms, according to Gotham and West.
They met one farmer named Daniel who works with a cooperative of about 20 other coffee farmers. They hardly earned any money selling ripe beans, but by working with an organization called As Green As It Gets, they have been able to extract the bean and roast it on their own to cut out the middle man.
West said the farming cooperative has its own board of directors that will kick out anyone who is lazy and impacting the rest of them. The cooperative has been very successful adding land and crop and has found techniques to combat the fungus impacting other farmland, she said.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]