One of my absolute favorite ways to spend my mornings here in Santiago Atitlan is with La Puerta Abierta library and learning center. La Puerta Abierta was founded by an inspiring friend of mine named Amanda, who first came to Santiago as a Peace Corps volunteer about ten years ago. During that time, she met the man who is now her husband and the two of them have lived here ever since. With the Peace Corps, Amanda’s work centered on nutrition and health education in local schools, which gave her great exposure to the failings of the Guatemalan school system and the great community need for early education and literature. Eventually, she opened a small library which has since evolved into what the Puerta Abierta is today – a learning center staffed, attended, and embraced by community members offering preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, early education classes, a traveling library program, and a youth book club. The center also partners with Natik on our scholarship program, allowing our 25 students to meet there on Sundays.
Because La Puerta Abierta is already so established and thriving, my work here is more heavily focused on our scholarship program and fair trade women’s artisan collective. But, I enjoy supporting La Puerta Abierta’s work whenever I am able to, so for the past month or so, I have been spending at least two mornings a week helping out at the school in any capacity needed, primarily assisting with English instruction for the young students. Which has been wonderful!
Stepping into the little yellow building at the top of a hill overlooking the lake and volcanoes of this glorious region, I immediately feel a wave of warmth and positivity as I’m greeted by the many passionate and dynamic teachers and volunteers. I greet Miss Isa, one of the preschool teachers, with a kiss on the cheek and we catch up on each other’s weekends. I wave to profesor Gaspar as he plays guitar and sings with the children seated in a circle on the carpet. I wander outside to the playground where the older students are having recreation time and say hello to Candelaria, the lead first grade teacher who is also my coworker at Natik for our scholarship program. I check in with Juanita, the newly appointed assistant director, to find out what’s going on for the week and how I can help. I chat with Isais, the traveling library coordinator, as I prepare materials for the class and he works on his lesson plan for the week.
When the time for English class arrives, Amanda and I head to the carpet with the children, who cheer when they hear that the time for English class has arrived. They are so happy to learn English with us, which we do through song and movement and art. Amanda leads the class with a bright smile and the children listen quite attentively for their age. Amaya and Nuria might come sit on my lap as we talk about our new vocabulary words. Alvin eagerly raises his hand to answer every question. Sharlin and Junior respond with near perfect pronunciation. Harrison and Pedro get so excited when we practice words with movement – walking, running, and jumping about the room. This is, more or less, a typical day for me at La Puerta Abierta. Being with kids never fails to lift my spirits, and these kids especially put me in a great mood, always welcoming me with hugs and smiles.
Last week, La Puerta Abierta had a special event to coincide with a curriculum on nutrition and healthy eating – an organic picnic in the nearby learning garden with the kids’ families! Amanda invited me to help out for the event and I gladly accepted.
The day started at 8am in Amanda’s kitchen where she and the mother of two of La Puerta Abierta’s staff were preparing food: mint tea, celery with peanut butter and raisins, a leek and broccoli soup. It smelled absolutely wonderful! Amanda put me to work creating an educational poster we would use for a game during the picnic. It consisted of a chart with a vegetable or fruit on one side and it’s main health benefits on the other. With the help of Amanda’s youngest daughter Chloe, who is also a student at the school, I drew pictures for each one, which would be beneficial for the younger students still learning to read and the parents who don’t have strong Spanish skills, since their primarily language is Tzutujil. When I finished, it was time to head to the garden carrying as many things as we could from Amanda’s house just up the hill.
At the garden, the parents and children flooded in and we divided into two groups. One group went with the gardening instructor, Felipe, for a tour of the garden and explanation of what the kids had been working on and learning. The other group stayed with Amanda to learn the health benefits of the various garden foods and go on a scavenger hunt for them. After the groups switched, it was time to eat! Families laid out blankets and unpacked their food from home to eat and share. Everyone was able to try the foods made that morning from the garden. The soup was a big hit!
While any day with La Puerta Abierta is sure to put a smile on my face, this one was especially memorable (and delicious!)