What happens when two ordinary Canadians decide to make an extraordinary difference?

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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 300 Canadian helpers. St. Georges and Southridge schools in the Vancouver area sent student groups down for the second time this year and now other Canadian schools are clamouring to send their children as well.

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 things 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.

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