Konojel. Kaqchikel. Marquenses.

By Kaity Fitzgerald, JUSTA Volunteer at Konojel Community Center

Konojel. Kaqchikel.Marquenses. These are words that come to my mind now when I think of Guatemala (or Guatemaya as some say). I spent a fabulous month living in the indigenous Kaqchikel community of San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlán and volunteering with Konojel Community Center through JUSTA & Global JUST Designs. Although I wish my time there was longer, I feel as if I made the most out of it because of my time working directly with the indigenous community of Marqueños . I am a Spanish teacher in California and have traveled throughout most of Latin America, but Guatemala has my heart. It is a beautiful country with some of the friendliest and genuine people I have ever met.

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I came to Guatemala with Katrina, one of my best friends since childhood. She is a third grade teacher in California. We made a good pair because of my Spanish speaking abilities and her elementary education expertise. We found Konojel on a whim. It was the best, last-minute thing I had even come across. Katrina and I had a different plan from the start, to volunteer in a different kind of community. The day before we were supposed to leave the United States for our volunteer positions in Lake Atitlán, the organization we had arranged to work with called, and told us things had fallen through. We were extremely discouraged and almost chose to stay in California for the summer. I randomly reached out to my old friend, Jessi Long, because I knew she was involved with great things on Lake Atitlán. Jessi is a beautiful person and founder of nonprofit, JUSTA Collective, a network of artisans and community projects supported by JUSTA’s fair-trade design project, Global JUST Designs. Right away she knew where we belonged, and that is where our journey with Konojel Community Center began.

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Jessi put us in contact with Konojel founders, Stephen and Andrew, then helped us secure a beautiful house (with an amazing view of the majestic, Lake Atitlán), and immediately put together a plan for how Katrina and I would spend our time in San Marcos La Laguna.

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We were to work with Lead Coordinator, Laura and her assistant, Sonia, of the after-school Children’s Enrichment Program. The program works with 40 indigenous children in the community of San Marcos La Laguna that are involved with Konojel’s Daily Lunch Program. After these children are fed delicious and nutritious meal (made by Konojel’s wonderful, hardworking cooks), they take part in Enrichment Program, receive support and one-on-one attention they may be lacking in their homes. We helped Laura and Sonia develop engaging academic games, organize the supply room’s donations, and run various activities with the kids. Activities that were big hits included making passports, flags, and writing our own lyrics to La Bamba. Part of Konojel’s Enrichment Program mission is to make learning fun, so we helped them do just that!

Each day I would wake up, excited about what the day at Konojel would bring! The children immediately gave me a warm feeling. They always had smiles on their faces and they were all very positive, despite coming from homes where hunger is a daily reality. After lunch all the students immediately went to the library and chose a book to read. Even the youngest children, who could not yet read, had books in their hands. Students who had homework, went right to ‘the homework table, where they received help, if needed, from Laura, Sonia, or the volunteers.

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All the children were eager to learn and share what they knew with Katrina and I. They were proud, as they should be, of their academic accomplishments and their reading abilities. Each day the children were enthusiastic about which activity was assigned for that day. I had never worked with children with such energy and enthusiasm! It was so nice to work with such a grateful population of children.

The women working at Konojel were some of the strongest and most independent women I have ever met. They inspired me and are great role models for the younger generation. Their strength, along with education, is what Guatemala needs to prosper.

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The experience was unforgettable and the highlight of my year. Konojel Community Center is an amazing organization that has already touched hundreds of people and will touch many more. It always felt good to be at La Casa Antigua and to be around so many wonderful and giving people.

I am proud to say that I am now a family member of Konojel and I will forever hold them in my heart.

Interested in volunteering with JUSTA? Email info@justacollective.org. To contact Konojel Community Center about getting involved with their programs, visit here.