Before writing this letter, I reviewed the United Methodist Women website in order to write this letter with a more educated perspective of your organization. While I am perhaps still taken aback with the generosity that I have received, after reading your website, I find that I have much in common with this chapter of women, its principles and values. I can only give thanks that they realized this strong connection between us and took an interest in me, my project and the promotion of education in women and children in a faraway place by someone who at the time was not well known in the church community. I am so proud that not only is an emotional bond the basis of our work together, but also a strong sense of shared purpose.
I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who at the end of my service became involved in the community library in the village where I was assigned in Guatemala. After returning, I was living at home prior to accepting my current position as Director of Pedagogy for a literacy development organization. While living in the U.S. I was in the initial stages of beginning my own literacy nonprofit to support the newly formed library in my Peace Corps village. I was having a difficult time finding people and groups who would listen to my experiences. My father, who has been continuously impressed with the role of the women in his church, suggested I come to know the United Methodist Women. He felt this was a group who would listen to me.
What has struck me most strongly in my interaction with these women has been their enthusiasm and interest, blessing me both with many questions and words of encouragement. This is something that has allowed me always to maintain a positive outlook, or faith, in myself and what I am doing. When I began, I had not regularly been attending church with my father, and I felt awkward becoming a part of the church community. However, it only took a few steps to walk into the fellowship hall and begin a relationship with women who have continually chosen to dedicate their time to believing in me and encouraging my “literary mission.”
For your understanding and to better connect the project and my learning with United Methodist Women, I must first describe the community and its library. Santa Catarina Palopó is a small village in the department of Sololá with a population of 2,896 people, the majority identifying as Kaqchikel, one of the 22 indigenous Mayan groups living in Guatemala today. I began on a very small scale limited to book donation, and this initial involvement has grown into the sustainable development of academic resources and reading programs that impact the entire community.
In 2006 a spare few books provided for basic homework assistance and during school vacation a very basic summer school. Through the sale of traditional weavings by Weave. Hope. Inc., Ru K' ux Na' oj successfully doubled its inventory by 2008 and reached almost 600 donated books in 2009. Currently the library maintains around 2000 fiction, non-fiction and resource books for use in and outside of the library. Since 2010 activities have centered on promotion of the library resources through readings contests, professional development provided by literacy organizations for the librarian, workshops focusing on literacy instruction for teachers in the local primary schools, and community outreach, including a book lending program. In 2011 a local board of directors for the library formed reflecting the increased interest in the community for this important educational institution. The library is now located in its own space and run by a full time librarian, creating an even greater connection with its patrons.
I have found through my experiences, as stated on your website, the important role that women play in the maintaining the traditions of their village but also moving towards a better future for their children and thus the community as a whole. While historically Santa Catarina was a fishing village, its current income generation stems from tourism and sale of artisan crafts, specifically backstrap loom weaving that is showcased in the use of a spectacular traditional dress. The community library in Santa Catarina Palopó was founded in 2006 through the initiative of University students from Facultad de Ciencias Económicas de la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala as part of an internship in the finalization of their undergraduate degrees. They involved local institutions and community leaders, but it has been working daily with women to financially support the educational programs for children that make the project sustainable. Santa Catarina Palopó is a small village but in the last 15 years it has made strides in the education of its children. The primary school began in 1973 with three classrooms and 80 students. Today Santa Catarina is home to four schools: two primary schools, one junior high school and one preschool with a combined enrollment of roughly 900 students.
The initial empowerment of my project was limited to the women who began working with me creating the woven items that served as my sole fundraising in the beginning and which continue to be a strong reminder of what rests in the hands of those women. It is due to the creativity, flexibility and initiative of many dear friends who were not afraid to work with me that this project could take its first steps, and I think it is the first connection that the women in the church felt. Today there are many of their Bibles with woven bookmarks marking passages, backstrap woven prayer rugs and even stoles.
An ever growing awareness and support amongst these women has inspired individual donations collected specifically in Ruth Circle monthly and from the entire chapter this December. This growing economic independence has allowed the library to employ a full time librarian and I enjoy sharing with the women of Cargill the leadership development occurring with the young woman, Ana, who is the sole librarian. She was a young reader and high school student when I first met her and in whom I now find myself to be pursuing the similar objectives that your website eloquently describes as key principles and goals for young women. She completed her first year of college this year and I hope to unlock a full potential that would have remained hidden as occurs with too many young women in her situation, marrying and pregnant too early or simply not believing that life could have more to offer or to dream about. She is now an example for her seven sisters and for others I am sure that we have not identified yet. Ana has had the opportunity not only to provide better educational services for the young children but also to provide professional development for teenage volunteers who work in the library.
While this young woman, and myself, are still growing into our leadership roles, the support of experienced women is of great value. I did not grow up surrounded by such women’s fellowship and Ana did not grow up in an environment that empowered her. The deepening intersection between her, myself and the UMW is of great impact. I can only imagine from my isolated experience, the larger impact that these women have had before I came to know them and I feel honored for my small story to now be a part of their history.
I recognize that this generosity may mirror many other churches because I imagine many chapters work tirelessly in similar ways. In my experience in development work and with students in diverse classrooms, I have seen how exclusive groups can be no matter how inclusive their list of objectives may be. After extensive experience working with a variety of populations in the developing world, I believe that a vision without flexibility to make connections you are more likely to keep people away from the message or benefit you wish for them through the selected teaching. As I stated above, I do not regularly attend church. I do not self-identify as religious, but I have found the United Methodist Women at Cargill to be women who understand the value of making connections to those who are not yet sure of their path and women who continue to bring someone like me to see themselves more and more as a part of the church community and its larger vision.
I am very much appreciative of this opportunity to learn and these women. Thank you for taking the time to allow me to share this experience with you.