Give the Gift of Education

15 Jun

From Houses to Homes believes that education is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty; however, there are many obstacles.  Guatemala’s education system is severely underfunded.  Although elementary education is supposed to be free, most schools require students to purchase uniforms, books and other supplies that teacher’s request.  This presents a problem for the over 70% of Guatemalans that live below the poverty level.  As a result, most children who are fortunate enough to start school at all, do not continue, or they only attend intermittently.  Here are some sad facts:

  • 3 out of 4 students read below grade level
  • 7 out of 10 students do not continue their education after 6th grade.
  • 49 out of 50 Guatemalans could not pass a college entrance exam

From Houses to Homes finds this unacceptable, and that is why we are dedicated to a high quality education for these poor children.

Escuela Kemna’oj , which in the Kechiquel language means “weaving minds, weaving knowledge,” offers children just that, a quality education.  María de los Ángeles Jiménez Rosales, Principal/Director, and Rocxana García González, Psychologist, along with a staff of 10 dedicated teachers and volunteers are extremely supportive to students not only in the area of education but also regarding needs that may be identified outside of school.  Poverty presents many problems that cannot be ignored; for example, often children are undernourished, which impacts their ability to learn.  The staff of the school is aware that FHTH is in favor of identifying and meeting all the needs of the children.

We offer the opportunity to sponsor a student at the Kemna’oj School. This means that for a donation of $60 per month you  would receive a picture of a student, and quarterly updates on how your student is progressing in school. You are invited to go to our website and view the students picture and choose the student you would like to sponsor. Currently there are 100 students enrolled and we have sponsors for 13 students.

Jean and John Scott of New Jersey, who sponsor a student say, “We chose to sponsor a child because of our belief that education is one of the most important opportunities to break the cycle of poverty that afflicts Mayan villages such as Santa Maria de Jesus. We chose to sponsor a girl because it has been shown worldwide  that the education of women is one of the best ways to limit the size of families and (again) break the cycle of poverty.”

Hester Bury volunteered with FHTH and while building a home she noticed that many children did not go to school.  She states, “It troubled me that the whole week we were there I saw very few of the children leave for school, although  many of them were certainly of school age.  When we visited the school I learned how hard it is for those families to afford the books necessary for the children to attend school. I was very moved by the whole trip, but felt that when I came back to my comfortable home where education is available for everyone, my most effective contribution would be to sponsor a child.”  Hester sponsors Martina Chavez Antun.

The cost for FHTH to educate a child is approximately $60 per month. Through the initiative, every child receives two meals a day. It just takes $2 a day to offer a child an opportunity that can impact her life forever. This is a great project for a family to do together.

To learn more about how YOU can make a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org. If you would like to contribute to one of our projects, click here to DONATE NOW!

I also invite you to join us on Facebook by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

Clínicas Médicas San José Improves Health Care for Thousands

1 Jun

Clínicas Médicas San José Staff

On April 11, 2011, Clínicas Médicas San José opened its doors in Pastores, Guatemala.  To date, 5,736 men, women and children have received quality healthcare in a modern setting.  550 patients have also received dental care.  Many of these people would not have received any healthcare at all if not for the opening of the clinic.

Healthcare in Guatemala for the very poor is extremely inadequate.  There are many people that never receive any medical care of any kind.  There are many reasons for this, the number one being lack of financial resources to pay for treatment.  We have also been told that at times, the indigenous community has felt that they were mistreated, even discriminated against, when seeking medical care.  As a result of lack of medical treatment, people not only suffer from minor ailments, there are situations where they have died.

One very sad case we came across was of a little girl who had a bite under her arm that was infected. We instructed her to clean it and apply bacitracin ointment followed by a band-aid. We supplied her with the necessary items needed.  This seems simple enough, right?  She then explained to us that her little brother died after being bitten many times in the same manner. He was two years old.  This is one of the many reasons why the clinic is needed so badly.

Many people cook over an open fire in a kitchen without proper ventilation; another thing I have witnessed myself.  While visiting a family in Santa María de Jesus, I was talking with the mother, who had an infant baby on her back, as she prepared a meal for her children.  The open fire was smoking so heavily that my eyes were watering, and I started coughing. I had to leave the cornstalk shack.  This is her life and her family’s life every day.

Another issue that results in the need for health care is poor sanitation and lack of clean water. Clean water is in short supply.  One of our volunteers tells the story of a mother washing her baby in a bucket of rainwater and then someone else drinking from that same barrel.  Both of these situations are among the many reasons that there are so many cases of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.

At the clinic, our staff consists of an Administrator, Pediatrician, General Practitioner and Dentist.  The support staff consists of two nurses, a receptionist and a housekeeper.  They make a very effective team and embrace the mission of the clinic, which is to help people achieve their highest level of health through a combination of preventative care and health education.

Dr. Norma Pacajá de Castro, Pediatrician

The majority of health care issues we have treated in adults are hypertension, diabetes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. The pediatric population frequently suffers from respiratory, gastrointestinal infections and skin issues.   As a result of improper oral hygiene our dentist has diagnosed a high rate of tooth decay and periodontal disease.

Dr. Ana Luisa Ortiz, General Practitioner

Our clinic provides free medical and dental care and free medicine to all “our” families, all the children and their families in our school, Escuela Kemna’oj, and to children in the Cambiando Vidas School. We do not refuse treatment to anyone; however the clinic charges 25 quetzales, or $3.00, for treatment to all others.

Many of our patients require a prescription of some kind.  The average cost to the clinic is $10 per patient for medications.  We purchase the medications from three pharmaceutical companies in Guatemala. Frequently prescribed medications include antibiotics, inhalers, and insulin, cough and fever relief, anti-hypertensive, anti-anxiety, and of course both prenatal and regular multi-vitamins.  If a patient cannot afford them, we provide the medications at no cost.

Dr. Velvet Lopez, Dentist

Education is a high priority in the fight against many of the health issues our patients face.  Our staff conducts educational sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the clinic and also at the school in Santa María de Jesus.  The topics covered are the prevention of respiratory and gastrointestinal infection and hepatitis.  Information regarding breast and uterine cancer is of extreme importance to our female population.  Most of the children who come to the clinic are accompanied by their mother so we also have classes on healthy food choices and exercise.

From Houses to Homes has often been the generous recipient of medication and vitamin donations, however the need is ongoing.  If you or someone you know can offer us medication donations or if you have contact with a pharmaceutical company that may assist us, please email Judy Baker at judybaker@fromhousestohomes.org.

To learn more about how YOU can make a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org. If you would like to contribute to one of our projects, click here to DONATE NOW!

I also invite you to join us on Facebook by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

Joe Collins

Founder and Executive Director

Philanthropic 14-Year-Old Turns Vacation Pictures into Cash to Build Three Homes

15 May "Frutas!" One of the photos available at Guatemala Expressions, Chloe Bohannon's website.

“Frutas!” One of the photos available at Guatemala Expressions, Chloe Bohannon’s website.

Fourteen year old Chloe Bohannon was so inspired by how easily she could change a poor family’s life by building a 13 x 19 foot block home that she realized she was not going to be satisfied building only one home.  She came up with the idea of taking her volunteer vacation pictures and using them as a fundraising tool.  That is how Guatemalan Expressions was born.

Chloe made her first trip to Guatemala during the summer of 2010. She was taking a language emersion course with her mom. They were staying with a host family in Antigua. Another traveler staying in the same house told Chloe and her mom about From Houses to Homes. They decided that it would be a great family adventure, so Thanksgiving of 2010 they traveled to Guatemala and volunteered with FHTH.

Chloe found that it was really easy to make a big difference in the lives of a poor family, just by building a 13 X 19 foot block home.  The work is tiring; however, for the impact it makes, it isn’t much work at all.  Chloe says, “The house we built in one week made the difference of a lifetime for a special family of five.

Chloe has a really good friend who is a professional photographer in Denver.   She called her to tell her about her idea of a photography show.  She thought it was a great thought!  So, she traveled to Denver and spent a week cropping, mounting, matting and framing the photographs she took during her stay in Guatemala.  Chloe went to one of her favorite restaurants and they agreed to hang her photos for two months. Opening night was very successful; Chloe raised enough money to fund almost two houses.  The other bonus that night was that local newspapers contacted Chloe and published articles about her project. To date, Chloe has raised over $5000.00 by selling 20 of her photographs.

Along with her family and 14 friends Chloe returned to Guatemala in March and built 3 homes.  Chloe feels building the second home was equally as rewarding as the first.  She enjoyed seeing her friends having the same experience she did in 2010

After her most recent trip in April, 2012, Chloe reflects; Volunteering with From Houses to Homes has made me realize how lucky I am.  I don’t take things for granted, like having a safe and secure home or being able to go to school every day.  It also has taught me that you can make a difference.  I knew I would before, but this was different. I learned that in one week I could change a family for their lifetime. The photography show taught me that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. When I first thought of Guatemalan Expressions, I put down the idea saying that a 13 year old can’t do that. But, I proved myself wrong. Hopefully I will keep going with Guatemalan Expressions, the more houses we build the better.

Please pay a visit to Guatemala Expressions at:  http://guatemalanexpressions.com

Volunteers….Pack Your Bags!

30 Apr

I remember the first time I traveled to Guatemala to volunteer to build a home with From Houses to Homes.  Do I need hammers, nails, or maybe even a tool belt?  The one thing I knew I didn’t need was experience; I was assured of that by Joe Collins, Founder of FHTH.  I really didn’t know what it meant to “build a home” in a developing country.   I had never participated in a project like this.   I packed everything but the kitchen sink, only to find out there was no need for most of what I packed.  This prompted me to create a packing list to share with other volunteers, hopefully to prevent any anxiety OR pay the dreaded extra tariff for an extra suitcase or a bag over 50 pounds.  This is my packing list, if you have volunteered with FHTH and you have a suggestion to add to the list, please free to comment.

Work Wear

Work gloves-water proof

Sneakers/boots-make sure you don’t care if they get paint or concrete on them.

T-shirts

Shorts/capris/pants-I would recommend shorts or Capri’s as it may get hot and again nothing you will be upset about getting paint or concrete on.

I would consider bringing 2 or 3 sets of work clothes. You can send them out to be washed, it costs about 40 cents a pound and they will be returned the same day.

Poncho

Hat/Cap

Sunglasses

Backpack to carry your belongings in.

Bug Spray

(Every day dress is very casual.  Bring a light weight sweater or jacket as it can get cool at night.)

Lunch

Lunch bag or cooler (those flat cold bags work well and are easy to pack)

First Aid

Lomotil or Pepto Bismol

Sun block

There are plenty of pharmacies in Antigua if you forget something.

PASSPORTS   You will need a valid U.S. Passport.  We suggest you make two copies of your passport.  Leave one copy at home with an emergency contact, and bring a copy to carry with you while working. It is not necessary to carry your original passport with you at all times.

Most importantly, don’t forget your camera. No matter where you look you will see sights that will make the most amazing photographic journal to share with family and friends when you return from your trip.

That is all you need to participate in this life changing volunteer experience.  Honestly, you really just need the basics, and you will be on your way.   You will not only be building a home, you will be building an incredible bond with the family you build for, and for that you need not pack anything.

Weaving an Interactive Experience

2 Apr

In the past year, 9 out of our 12 Board Members visited Guatemala to volunteer their time in some capacity.  Most of them come to build a home and some will, in addition, volunteer in our school or medical clinic.  A few weeks ago Judy Baker, one of our directors, came down to volunteer at Escuela  Kemna’oj.  Escuela translated in English means school and Kemna’oj means weaving knowledge in the Kaqchikel language- one of 29 languages spoken by the Mayan people in Guatemala.  Judy shares her latest experience below.

As a director of From Houses to Homes and mom of two Guatemalan born children, I enjoy making the trips to Guatemala at least twice a year to build a home for a family in need or spend time at our school Kemna’oj, in Santa Maria de Jesus that provides education for students of poor families. Many of the students who attend Escuela Kemna’oj are children of families who have received an FHTH home. I usually take a week in the summer with my family and we spend five days building a home together and a couple days enjoying the city of Antigua, as there is so much to see and do.  My husband and I enjoy it for two reasons. We feel an incredible connection to the country where are children were born and secondly, we love working with the beautiful and grateful families that we’ve built homes for over the past six years.  We really feel a deep connection with each and every family and are thrilled that our children have an opportunity to give back to their native country.

On a trip a few weeks ago, I decided to spend time at our school in Santa Maria de Jesus and tagged along with the teachers in providing the students a real museum experience.  The Children’s Museum we took the students to is called Museos de Ninos and is located in Guatemala City about an hour from the school.

Students of Escuela Kemna'oj headed to the Children's Museum in Guatemala City

Museos de Ninos is an interactive science museum that I’m sure would entertain anyone at any age.  It is an educational museum with knowledgeable tour guides who teach and explain the different subject matters to the many children who are fortunate to attend. Many students don’t even get the opportunity to attend school let alone attend a museum an hour outside their village.

As the teachers and all one-hundred students were boarded on to the big blue and white chicken bus, I could not help bursting into a belly buster laugh when I saw all these little faces looking out the windows at me with such enthused and excited smiles.

Children learn about owning a fruit stand.

The bus pulled into the parking lot and the children jumped off  with excitement and ran to the front door.  They were even more excited as they got to see a live puppet show before touring the museum. The show was produced in a dark auditorium with puppets on sticks that danced and sang, and glowed in the dark.  They conveyed what is important in life – that everything you need is right in front of you, and there is no need to look any further then your own front yard.

Students learn about Electricity.

After the show, the children were split into smaller groups. Each group was escorted to different educational areas where they learned about such subjects as electricity, the ozone layer, the planets, earthquakes, and mining.  They had the opportunity to make paper and experience a small tremor in the earthquake booth while learning the correct things to do when an earthquake occurs.  The children were deeply engrossed no matter the subject matter. There was also a great playground at the museum where the children took a break from the educational portion and played to their little hearts’ content…….of course they were smiling the entire time.

The yellow mining car goes around and up and down as if the children were mining

At the end of the day, the children sat on the steps of the museum and enjoyed their lunch. I asked some of the children about their favorite part of the museum.  Maria responded with enthusiasm, “I liked the Bubble Area!” Ana boast, “I loved the giant puzzles!” That’s where the children learned about the environment.  Then Luis replied with gusto, “The earthquake booth!”  As I looked at their glowing little faces with big smiles, I was reminded that for many of these children it was their first time on a bus away from their village, and of course, their first trip to the big city.

I really enjoy the time I spend each year in Guatemala as it not only gives me the opportunity to work with the families and children, but to witness first-hand the opportunities they have been given due to the endless care, support and generosity of our donors and volunteers.

- Judy Baker, Director

As you might have heard on a volunteer trip or may have seen on our website, we are in the process of building a NEW School for our students of Escuela Kemna’oj who we currently educate in a rented building in Santa Maria de Jesus.

Rendering of New School scheduled to Open January 2013

We will still honor the school name and because we are building a larger facility than what we are able to rent, we will be able to provide the students with many more benefits. For instance, the NEW school building will have larger classrooms (20 x 20’) for class sizes of 20 or fewer children and will have three additional grades – 4th, 5th and 6th.  It will have a computer lab and a recreational area so the children won’t have to be transported to an internet café in town for computer classes or to a park for exercise and lose precious class time.  The school will also have a library where children will be able to check out books and take them home, which is rare in the Guatemalan school system. Many of the books will be in English as well as bilingual (Spanish & English).  You can find a list of many other benefits we will be able to provide our students in our NEW school scheduled to open in 2013 on our website at http://www.fromhousestohomes.org/ under the Education Tab. To date, I am happy to report that we’ve raised $300,000 or 60% of the total building budget of $500,000, and have secured most of the naming opportunities, but still need your help in reaching our goal of opening our new school in the first month of the New Year – the beginning of the school year for Guatemalan students.

Site of New School currently under construction

If you would like to give the gift of education that every child deserves and is worthy of receiving, please consider DONATING TODAY. To learn more about how YOU can make a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, visit our website at http://www.fromhousestohomes.org/.

I also invite you to join us on Facebook by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

As always, please feel free to contact me directly if you should have any questions at info@fromhousestohomes.org.

Joe Collins, Founder

Loyal Customers Help Baristas Fulfill Intention

21 Mar

For many years I would meet up with a group of friends after a long work day to gather and talk about life, work, family, current events, and sometimes tell jokes over a good cup of hot coffee. We used to meet up at a diner in Florham Park, NJ until Starbucks came into town and opened up shop.  Upon their Grand Opening, we traded in our “cup of Joe” for a mug of Dark Roast.  If you remember from my January 28th post, this is where the idea of starting From Houses to Homes – Guatemala first began.

Over the years we’ve shared a lot of stories making ourselves very comfortable in those soft rustic leather chairs. Living in Antigua, Guatemala for the past couple of years, I often miss my coffee-clutch as it was one of the things I looked forward to after putting in a full day’s work.  When I do come back to New Jersey, which is usually to visit family and receive my bi-annual check-up, that’s where you’ll find me between the hours of 4 – 5:30pm during the week.  Last May when I arrived back in NJ, the first thing I did was stop by and see my pals.  I arrived at the counter and ordered a cup of Dark Roast and spotted a couple of my friends in the corner already enjoying some lighthearted conversation.  As I approached the counter to pick up my coffee, a young lady boast, “You’re the guy who runs that organization in Guatemala!”  Jennifer, as it appeared on her Starbucks Name Tag, was very excited about what we were doing in Guatemala and wanted to know more. I didn’t have any brochures on me but I had some pictures on my iPhone of some volunteers with families at the site of a new home they built the week prior.  As soon as I showed her the pictures and she saw the families, her eyes lit up and she asked if she could show a fellow barista and friend.  She quickly spun around the counter to show Caitlin.  As her eyes lit up and a huge smile appeared across her face, Jennifer said to Caitlin, “Do you want to go to Guatemala? We have to go to Guatemala! We’re going to Guatemala!”  I always enjoy watching people get excited about wanting to be a part of something I know they will find rewarding.  As I picked up my freshly brewed piping –hot coffee, I gave Jennifer and Caitlin my card and encouraged them to visit the website so they could learn more and to contact me if they had any questions while making their plans. I’m delighted to have Jennifer share their story below as it is truly a testament to the Power of Intention. 

When I first accepted the Barista position at Starbucks in Florham Park, after being out of the workforce for ten years raising my two children, I had no idea what steaming milk and pulling espresso shots would do for me. It was definitely a huge transition from being home taking care of my children with sometimes long periods without adult interaction.  Working at Starbucks gave me the outlet to escape from the challenges of everyday life – the people were my outlet.  It was such a pleasure to come to work every day and be met with some of the kindest and most engaging people.  Our customers are so amazing and they played a big role in Caitlin and me fulfilling our desire of volunteering with From Houses to Homes for a week in Guatemala.

A couple of years ago, I noticed one of the guys who regularly sauntered in most late afternoons during the week wasn’t showing up anymore to meet the group.  One day, I decided to ask one of them, “Where’s the other guy that usually joins you?” He said, “Oh you mean Joe” and started to describe him.  I said, “Yes, where is he?”  He said, “He moved to Guatemala.”  I asked, “Why Guatemala?”  Then he proceeded to tell me about Joe’s organization and what he was doing down there.  As weeks and months past, I would occasionally think about Joe when his friends would come in and thought I would really like to talk to him.  One day last year in May I got my chance when Joe walked through the door that afternoon. During our conversation I could tell how passionate he was about his work. Once he showed me the pictures of the families and volunteers, I knew I had to volunteer and I knew my friend and co-worker, Caitlin, had to join me. It all happened so fast, but as soon as I saw those pictures, I turned to Caitlin and said we have to go to Guatemala. She looked at the pictures, then looked at me – with no hesitation – and said, “Okay let’s do it.”

..

Caitlin (L) and Jennifer (R) at Starbucks in Florham Park, NJ

Once Caitlin and I decided we were going, we planned for sometime in November, but didn’t set a date because we had to raise the money for our trip and the $500 donation required by each volunteer towards the project. We had a lot of ideas of how we would raise the money, such as creating flyers and a website. We were very excited about what we were about to be part of.  As the months past, even though we intended to get busy building that website and creating those flyers, other things just took precedence and before we knew it, it was getting closer to November and we hadn’t raised much. In addition, we realized we weren’t able to take time off work as we anticipated, as the business gets even busier before the holiday season.  As you can imagine, we became very disillusioned.

I remember how disappointed I was when I had to email Joe to tell him our situation. He quickly replied to my email by writing, “Don’t worry, you’ll raise it. You can do it. It’s really easier than you think.”  The next morning when I went back into work it became clear to me that we had good intentions, but we didn’t put the power behind it. At that moment, I turned to Caitlin and said, “We have to set a date!”  If we don’t set a date, we won’t actualize going.”  “We need to set an exact date and we need to place our intention on that date.” Caitlin looked at me and I could tell she knew what I meant. She said, “You’re right.  Let’s look at our calendars and set a date right now.” We decided on February 24th. I said, “We’re just going to say that we’re going on February 24th and the money will come.”  As soon as we made that commitment to a specific date, we realized we had to get to work.  We created a website and invested a few dollars in business cards so we could distribute them to let people know about our cause.  At first, we started receiving donations from our family and friends.  Then our co-workers, Wendy and Jayne, contributed and suddenly we each had enough for plane fare.  Ashlee,  one of our other co-workers, helped us by booking our travel arrangements so as to get us the best possible rate.  She is great at navigating the travel discount sites and saved us a good deal of money on our flights. Caitlin and I were very excited as we knew we were on our way.  We still had to come up with the $500 required by each volunteer to contribute to the home project, but we were passed our first hurdle and determined to keep our eye on the home stretch.

It wasn’t long after we booked our flights that something incredible started to happen.  Customers started learning of our cause and one afternoon we received a donation from one of our customers who got together with her partners and wrote us a check from their medical practice.   Then more customers continued coming in and handing us checks wanting to contribute. One customer wrote us a check for $500. At one point, Caitlin and I looked at each other and we tried to hold back the tears. It was all so overwhelming – the incredible generosity and kindness of so many people. Over the years we’ve been fortunate to get to know our customers, not only because we’ve learned that some like foam, others don’t and those who like it on the side with their Vente Americano with two-inch steamed soy, but because we’ve gotten to know who they are as people – the kind, supportive and caring people that have given us so much joy over the years and who we take pleasure in serving every day.

Jennifer (L) Caitlin (R) with their friend, Sandy, who also volunteered.

We were in the final stretch and reached our goal weeks prior to our departure date of February 24th. For some reason we knew it was a special day because when we arrived in Antigua that evening Joe told us they had just completed their 500th home that afternoon.

When we arrived in Guatemala we quickly realized how fortunate we were to be living in the US.  Then when we arrived in the town of San Antonio de Aguas Calientes at the Ordonez Payola Family house where we were to build their new home, we realized not only how fortunate we are to live in the US, but to live in safe and warm homes with running water and electricity.  As the week went by and we got closer to completing their new home, we got even closer to them as a family.  It was amazing to Caitlin and me how happy these people were given the very little they had and how giving they were of what they had.  We were putting some of the last touches on their new home when the mother came up to all the volunteers – as one volunteer translated – and said, “You have done so much for us that I want to give you something, but I don’t have any money.” She continued to tell us that she makes a nice fruit salad and she could make a fruit salad for our last day.  We told her it was not necessary for her to do anything for us as she and her family has given us more than she could ever know.  We could all tell that she really wanted to do something and was showing us the fruit she had.  We told her that we didn’t want to take her food, but we would be happy to pay her for the fruit so she could make the fruit salad for the closing ceremony.

Jennifer (L) and Caitlin (R) painting the interior of the new home.

We all chipped in to give her 100 Quetzals and we were all happy. The next day when we arrived to place the finishing touches on the home and organize the closing ceremony, we discovered the fruit still sitting there.  We found out that she didn’t want to use that fruit as she decided it wasn’t good enough and so she hitched a ride on a chicken bus the evening before and traveled the 40 minutes each way to pick up fresh fruit.  We couldn’t believe she went through all that trouble for us as we were the ones there to help her and her family.

At the closing ceremony I had the privilege of handing over the keys to the Ordonez Payola Family.  The keys to a new home we built with our own two hands, with a steel door and lock, sky window and a working roof to shield them from the rainy season. As you could imagine, it was a very emotional time for everyone.  The mom and dad were both crying and the two girls had a hard time looking up as they too were welling up with tears.  Although we were very proud of our work and the home we just built, we were even fonder of the relationships we built along the way with our fellow volunteers and with the Ordonez Payola Family, who will always have a special place in our hearts.

Caitlin preparing the cement for mixing

Caitlin and I wish to thank everyone who contributed in helping us realize our goal – family, friends, co-workers and our customers who took us to the finish line.  We cannot even begin to tell you how much this experience has given us a new perspective on life.  We also want to thank Joe Collins for believing in us – believing we could make our dream come true.

-       Jennifer Haas & Caitlin Correia

I love this story as I remember when Jennifer emailed me that day disappointed that she and Caitlin would not be coming and didn’t know when they could as they had to raise the money.  I only met them for that brief encounter back in May, but the determination in their voices, the glow on their faces and the brightness in their eyes told me that they had the passion and the determination to make it happen, and that’s exactly what they did.

To learn more about how YOU can make a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org. If you would like to contribute to one of our projects, click here to DONATE NOW!

I also invite you to join us on Facebook by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

Joe Collins, Founder

They Come with Big Hearts and Leave with a Deepening Wisdom

12 Mar

As many of you know From Houses to Homes reached a milestone a few weeks ago – the completion of our 500th home – and although we consider this an unbelievable accomplishment in just 7 short years, we realized that there is something greater and more profound that has happened along the way.  Yes, it is true that volunteers come to help build homes for the poorest of Guatemalan families, and they take great pride in the work they do here, but the reason they return, time and time again, has little to do with mixing cement and stacking cinder blocks.

I received an email last year from a very special young lady I met back in the summer of 2009 by the name of Hannah.  At the time, Hannah was a junior at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA and had come to Guatemala as part of The Westminster Schools service program.  I met Hannah briefly on that trip, but it was on her return visit last summer that I witnessed the profound affect the work she was doing here had on her. Hannah was now a college student at Vanderbilt University, in her second year, and decided to volunteer as a chaperone for The Westminster Schools service program where she had been a student two years prior.  Although Hanna was very excited to return to Guatemala and be part of another building project, there was something else she realized about the work she was doing here that goes beyond the physical labor.  I have to say I’m not surprised when I receive stories like Hannah’s below, but am glad when I do as it is a testament to the riches of community.

Hannah with the family she helped build a home for in the summer of 2009

Last summer I had the opportunity to return to the house I helped build two years prior and visit with the family. To say that was an emotional day would be a huge understatement. We loaded up into a pickup truck and headed to another area in Santa Maria de Jesus about 5 minutes away. As we drove down the hill, I began to recognize the street.  However, once we arrived, there was a mutual feeling of disappointment as we learned that the families were not there. We looked around at one of the two houses and Bill pointed out the flaws in our handiwork. As I looked around, I saw nothing but a structure. We headed back to the trucks and planned to return after lunch, when the kids would be back from school. I can’t speak for everyone, but the feeling that I felt was hard to explain. At lunch, Mr. Searl was able to put my emotions into words when he pointed out that we were all let down because the family wasn’t there. None of us really cared to see the house. What really mattered were the people who welcomed us into their community and loved us as members of their families. For me, this trip is not about the money we raise and the houses we build, but the relationships we form.

After an incredible lunch that the family prepared for us, we once again climbed back into the truck to try again. This time, as we headed down the hill, I spotted the families waiting for us. After rounds of hugs and greetings, we followed them back to their houses and handed out clothing and toys.              

After handing out Beanie Babies to 3 of the children, I sat down on the floor of their house and played with them. We tossed and juggled the Beanie Babies back and forth as their mother watched from the side. Slowly, as the giggles got louder, neighbors began to wander into the house. After a while, one of the workers from From Houses to Homes came in to get me so we could head back to our current houses. I took a few seconds to look around at the faces. Looking around, I saw family members and neighbors who had welcomed me into their homes two years ago. At that moment, I tried to remember how devastated I felt when I thought I would never see this family again.  As I stood up, I was overwhelmed by emotions. Both of the girls tugged on my arms and wrapped me in hugs. The older girl, Erica, turned to me and asked why I was crying. I told her I was crying because I love her and her family so much. But that simple explanation doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings I have toward the family. Her mom called her over to the bed in the corner of the house and pulled a picture off the wall. Erica ran back to me and handed me a picture of her and her little sister, Blanca, and their neighbor, Anna.  I commented on the picture and tried to give it back, but the mom stopped me. She told me to keep it as a memory of her family and to remember that they think and pray for me every day. After another round of hugs and tearful goodbyes, I climbed back into the truck full of thoughts and emotions.

Hannah (far right) with volunteers and the family they built a home for in the summer of 2009.

In the two years between trips, I had forgotten just how much this family meant to me. And while materialistic gifts brought smiles to their faces, I could never thank them and tell them how much they had given me. They had treated me as family and let me into their lives knowing nothing about me.
I continued to think about the relationships I had formed and the lessons I had learned as we went back to our houses for this trip. And when we got back and got out of the trucks, we were met by a mass of children running towards us. We followed them to the houses and gathered for the key ceremony. As I held one of the girls, her sister Maria held on to my side, never losing contact. After taking pictures in their new house, the girls surrounded me and we all embraced each other as we cried.

I was touched so much that these young girls were so attached to all of us. I held tight to Maria as she cried until she reached toward my face and wiped a tear from my cheek and then returned her head to my shoulder. And even though I had to leave and head toward the trucks, the girls followed all of us. Maria followed me into the street, her hand never loosening its grip. I suddenly realized that even though she had just received a new house with a roof and a locking door, unlike anything she had had before, she was willing to leave that behind in an instant to follow me and say goodbye.

This trip to Guatemala is truly about relationships. And through the relationships we build with the families, I have been forced to reflect on just how important relationships are. It was wonderful to witness how everyone in the community cared for one another. Neighbors were sharing in the joy of the family who was receiving a new house, even though they were still living in cornstalk houses. The sense of community is so strong and they truly support one another however they can. This was something that I really took to heart today as I looked around and felt the support of the families when I was feeling emotionally overwhelmed. They were there for me. Many times, I have found it easier to build walls and block people out than to form any sort of bond. But part of me wonders if that sense of community and support is what makes it possible for these families to survive in their current conditions.  It’s a lot for me to soak in, but I know it will be in my thoughts for a long time. As cheesy as it sounds, these families have given me a new view on relationships and support which far out values a cinder block house.

Hannah Wynne Woodward
Vanderbilt University, Class of 2014
Elementary Education, Child Studies, Spanish

Assistant Philanthropy Chair, Tri Delta Sorority

Hannah will be returning to FHTH this summer, but this time she will be interning at our school, Escuela Kemna’oj, in Santa Maria de Jesus.  She will be here for four weeks teaching Spanish to our eager students.  We look forward to having Hannah work with FHTH in this capacity as we know many of our students will not only benefit from her teaching, but will have the great pleasure of getting to know a very special young lady.

It gives me such joy to have been able to accomplish all that we have over a short period of time with the help of many donors and volunteers, and I feel even more blessed to be able to witness the countless friendships that are formed between volunteers and the families each week. When I started this project 7 years ago, I was very excited about how many people’s lives we were going to change here in Guatemala; what I didn’t realize is how many volunteers’ lives would be changed, and in some cases, even transformed.

I hope were inspired by Hannah’s story and will consider making a donation to one of our projects.  Donate Now and help us make a difference in the lives of the poorest, but most beautiful people in Guatemala.  To donate and learn more about how you can volunteer with From Houses to Homes, visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org.

I also invite you to join us on Facebook by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

Joe Collins, Founder

Hostels, Hotels and Hosts! Oh My!

5 Mar

When volunteering with De Casas a Hogares (From Houses to Homes) there are several types of accommodations you can choose from; it all depends on the experience you desire, your budget, if you prefer a small boutique hotel or a larger hotel, and the types of amenities you might require. If you’re looking for a real authentic Guatemalan experience, accommodations with a Host Family can start at as little as $11 per day. On the other end of the spectrum is luxurious hotels complete with on-site restaurants, nightlife, spa facilities and other extra amenities starting at around $130 per night and upwards. Then there are some great accommodations somewhere in between.

Hostal El Montanes Bed & Breakfast

Hostal El Montanes (double occupancy)

The better hostels can start at as little as $29 per day for double occupancy.  Some accommodations include hotel tax within their rates and some don’t so you want to make sure you ask when making comparisons. Hotel taxes run approximately 22%.

Hostal El Montañes offers nice accommodations as it’s more like a Bed & Breakfast than a hostel at $40 per night for double occupancy. Although tax is not included, a full breakfast is.  The accommodations are spotless, always hot running water and it’s close to the De Casas a Hogares office. You may want to learn a bit of Spanish or print out the handy Spanish-To-Go Guide as most of the staff speaks mainly Spanish.

Hostal Antigua (Room for 4)

For those on a tighter budget, Hostal Antigua offers double occupancy for $29 per night (including tax) with basic amenities and is located near the city center. They don’t include breakfast, but since they are located only two blocks from Parque Central (Central Park) you can pick up a flaky croissant and a cup of fresh roasted Guatemalan coffee at one of the cafés. Enjoy your breakfast right there at the coffee bar or get it to go and walk through Parque Central taking pleasure in the free entertainment usually offered on weekend mornings.

As for hotels there are many to choose from and you can find a nice place to stay starting at around $55.00 per night (double occupancy). Hotel Posada Placida Antigua, one of Antigua’s Bed and Breakfast’s offers accommodations for two at just $55 per night (taxes included), is located near center city and is a favorite among some of our volunteers.  For $76.00, Hotel Aurora offers rooms in a traditional setting with beautiful walking views of their gardens. It is centrally located to many restaurants, bars and services and only a couple blocks from Parque Central.

Hotel Aurora (Triple Occupancy)

For a standard room starting at just $98, including tax and breakfast, Pasado El Antaño provides lovely accommodations – offering a fireplace in every one of their 13 rooms whether you choose a standard room, a junior suite or master suite. If you’re looking for a little larger hotel, then Pasada de Don Rodrigo offers a selection of 41 rooms starting at $90 per night. Tax and breakfast are not included, but this hotel offers a colonial setting and ambiance with an on-site restaurant and is located a couple blocks from Parque Central.

Pasado El Antano

Pasado El Antano

For a 7-day deluxe room package at $960 plus tax, Pasada Del Angel offers luxury accommodations touting their 600-thread count linens woven from 100% Egyptian cotton, rooftop terrace to relax anytime of the day, beautiful lap pool and more. This special deluxe room package includes airport transfers, breakfast each morning during your stay and a city tour with a guide for two.

Posada Del Angel (Rose Room)

Now, if you really want an authentic Guatemalan experience, you can choose to stay with a host family in their home for the week. A host family is a Guatemalan family offering rooms in their home, providing you with 3 meals a day (except Sundays) and shared facilities for as little as $75 per week.

If you’re wondering about staying in touch with family and friends or your Facebook community, Tweeters and Google Circles while here, just about every hostel and hotel offers free Wi-Fi to keep you connected.

Some things to keep in mind when planning your accommodations:

  • Before booking your trip through a site like hotels.com, expedia.com, kayak.com or any other discount travel site, contact the hotels directly as some may offer special pricing for volunteering with us.  Let them know you are volunteering with De Casas a Hogares and would like to know if they offer a special discount.
  • Most hotels and hostels offer weekly discounted rates (7 days or more) so  make sure to ask about weekly prices or special packages.
  • Some accommodations include tax in their rates and some don’t; at 22% you’ll want to find this out as it could make a difference in your comparison shopping.
  • Find out if airport transfers are included in your rate or if it’s extra. Some of the higher priced hotels do include things like airport transfers and a tour of the city with a professional guide.
  • Prices for accommodations are a little higher during high season (Easter, Christmas and New Year’s) so you may want to take that in to consideration when planning.
  • Check TripAdvisor for online reviews as it may be helpful when choosing your accommodations.
  • Utilize our Facebook page to ask the FHTH community about recommendations or about a hotel you are considering. If you haven’t joined our Facebook page, this is as good a time as any.
  • For Host Family accommodations, please contact me directly to make arrangements.

NOTE:  Prices mentioned above are approximations based on time of quote. As prices and packages may change and additional packages may be offered, please contact hotels and hostels directly for pricing and special packages for your anticipated travel time.

For a list of accommodations and to learn more about From Houses to Homes and about how you can get involved in making a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, click the information tabs above or visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org. I also invite you to join us on Facebook, by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

As always, I encourage you to contact me if you should have any questions at info@fromhouestohomes.org.

Happy Trails!

Joe Collins, Founder

We Begin by Just Beginning [Video]

27 Feb

When I founded From Houses to Homes back in 2004, I didn’t think about how we were going to do what I envisioned for the 11-12 million Guatemalan people living in poverty – in cornstalk shacks lined with paper bag siding and leaky tin roofs – I just thought we better get started if we plan to make a dent.  Sometimes we can get caught up in where to begin when all we need to do is just begin.  If we never get started it doesn’t matter how much we set out to accomplished, but when we do – before we know it – we realize we’ve made some progress and maybe even some serious strides.

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We  just completed our 500th home this past Friday, after only 7 years from when we first began, giving more than 3,000 of the poorest of Guatemalan people a warm and safe place to sleep. Although I don’t think we’ll accomplish replacing the more than 2 million cornstalk shacks in my lifetime, even with being granted two extra lives – surviving a heart-attack in 2004 and my 5 ½ year remission after being diagnosed with Colon Cancer in 2006 – I try not to focus on what we won’t accomplish as much as on what we can do today.  What we are doing today, as we prepare to build home #501 and #502 this morning, matters to the “starfish” we are helping today.  If you’re confused by the “starfish” reference, see video above.

Some people will come to me and say, “Joe, I’m not able to come to Guatemala and volunteer and I don’t really have a lot to give, so how can I really make a difference?” My answer always is you don’t have to make a large contribution to make a difference. It can be as little as donating $30 to help feed a family for a month or $60 to help educate a child at our school in Santa Maria de Jesus for a month.  If you’re thinking, that is such a small gesture, how will that make much of a difference?  I will assure you, it will matter greatly to that one mom who is able to feed her entire family for another month or that child who will benefit from a month of learning.

For those of us experiencing economically challenging times, as any contribution can be difficult, there is something you can do and it will ONLY cost you a fraction of your time and I would be ever so grateful. I would  appreciate you sharing our blog and website with those you think would be interested in our work, and if they like what they see, ask them to “LIKE” our Facebook page. Just so you know a lot of our contributions have come from someone sharing our message.

On behalf of From Houses to Homes and the families we serve, I want to thank everyone who has made this 500th home milestone possible and those who continue to help make a difference in the lives of the poorest of Guatemalan people.

To learn more about our accomplishments and how you can get involved in making a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, click the information tabs above or visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org. I invite you to join us on Facebook by clicking the “LIKE” button on our page and find out what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

I also encourage you to contact me directly at info@fromhousestohomes.org if you should have any questions or would like to learn more.

Thank you for your interest, care and support.

Joe Collins, Founder

Finding Reward in Retirement

20 Feb

I met Jim Tierney one day back in 2006 while I was attending the 7:00am mass at Christ the King Church in New Vernon, NJ. Jim came up to me and introduced himself as our Pastor, Patrick O’Donovan – or Father Paddy as he is known – told him about my organization and the work I was doing in Guatemala; building homes for the poor.  Father Paddy knew of Jim’s good work as the former Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity (HFH) in Newark, an organization that builds and repairs homes, making them affordable to low-income families throughout the world.  Since we were doing similar work, Father Paddy thought we should get to know one another.

Joe Collins and Jim Tierney

During our conversation, Jim asked me if I wanted to volunteer with HFH, building homes for low-income families in Essex County.  Although Jim retired as Executive Director in 2005, he continued to volunteer with HFH building homes in the US and in other parts of the world such as India, Thailand and Armenia, Romania and Guyana. I let him know that I had my own charity and built homes in Guatemala which took up a great deal of my time, in addition to my work as a licensed private investigator specializing in adoption services. Jim said, “If that’s where you were called to help, that’s great.” I really liked his response. We started talking and sharing our stories of how we came to choose our work and I learned that Jim also volunteered his time as a full-time executive director for Habitat for Humanity as I do for From Houses to Homes. I also learned that Jim, like me, had no experience running a non-for-profit or building homes for that matter.  He just decided it was what he wanted to do; it was how he wanted to make a difference, so he just started asking questions and talking to the right people. From our brief conversation, I could tell it would turn into a long-term friendship as we had a good deal in common and I admired his spirit.

Jim Tierney with mom during home completion ceremony - March 2010

As we talked a bit more, I learned that Jim retired from Wall Street (UBS) back in 2000 and when he thought about what he would do with his free time, as a member of the Spring Brook Country Club, he said, “I could have spent my time playing golf or playing cards with the guys, but I really wanted to be productive and when I learned about Habitat for Humanity and about building homes for the less fortunate, I thought this is how I want to spend my time. I didn’t have any former training building a home, but I figured I could learn and thankfully there was on the job training.” Jim said he was going to Guyana that year and that he would like to stop in Guatemala on the way back.  He ended up doing more than just stopping; he stayed for a week and built a home with us. He continues to come down weeks at a time each year bringing volunteers for at least one of those weeks to build with FHTH.

In 2007, Jim was diagnosed with Ataxia, a condition that effects his motor coordination and speech. As challenging as his condition would become – having trouble with his balance – Jim never wavered from making the trips to volunteer with us.  I truly admire this man for his courage, determination and fortitude – he just doesn’t quit – at times when it can become very challenging for him – walking on cobblestone streets, which by the way are abundant in Guatemala, carrying heavy cinder blocks and shoveling sand to make cement. When I asked Jim how he stays in shape in order to keep doing all that he does, he said, “Besides running around after my 10 month old granddaughter, I ride my stationery bike for a half an hour and lift weights on most mornings.” He then went on to say, “When I was diagnosed with Ataxia – being a very active person with more energy than I knew what to do with – it was difficult to hear that my motor coordination would be compromised, but I am not one to sit around and feel sorry for myself, especially when I can be of service to those who are less fortunate, so I just picked myself up and just kept plugging along.”

Jim and Friends (L to R) John Regan, Jim Waldron, Erin Ranft, Jim Fehon and Jim Tierney

Over the last six years, as a volunteer and a member of our board, Jim has been a huge advocate for FHTH and Guatemala in general, by bringing over 40 volunteers to help build in addition to his own monetary contributions, and directing a tithe of Habitat for Humanity donations to HFH projects in Guatemala.

Jim is actually here with us now. He just arrived Saturday with his nephew John Donald and three friends, Peter Simon, Emily Simon and Mary Simon. We are all heading out this morning to begin the preparation of home #500 and will be completed at the end of the week. Jim will be with us for a total of five weeks building not only our milestone #500 home, but three more homes.  Although Jim has informed me that this will be his last trip to Guatemala to volunteer building, as it has become more challenging to keep up the rigorous schedule given his condition and having recently been diagnosed with diabetes. He tells me that he will still remain active on our board and the two others in which he sits, in addition to spending time with his grandchildren.

More about Jim Tierney:  Jim and his wife have three children and four grandchildren. In addition to volunteering and spending time with his grandchildren, Jim sits on the board of three organizations: Habitat for Humanity (Newark, NJ), the Parish Advisory Committee for Christ the King Church (New Vernon, NJ) and From Houses to Homes (Mt. Tabor, NJ)

To learn more about From Houses to Homes and about how you can get involved in making a difference in the lives of the poorest of people in Guatemala, click the information tabs above or visit our website at www.fromhousestohomes.org. I also invite you to join us on Facebook, by clicking the “Like” button in the top right hand corner of the page. Find out about what people are saying about their experiences or share your own!

I encourage you to contact me directly at info@fromhousestohomes.org if you should have any questions or would like to learn more.

Thank you for your interest, care and support.

Joe Collins, Founder

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