Hilary Hambrick Taft
Hilary Hambrick Taft
Guatemala 2013-2014
I am volunteering at the Monte Cristo Center in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. This family-run community development center provides education, healthcare, & vocational training to the surrounding community. I will assist with teaching English and computer literacy as well as possibly working on a micro-loan fund for local farmers. Read More About Hilary →

Home is 6 Days Away!

Loose ends are such trouble to tie up... The end of the school year is in full swing here at Monte Cristo and it seems so odd that I’m about to head out for six weeks. Just yesterday we had our school pageant and my contestant won!

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Even as activities gear up around here, I’m so ready to come home. At the very top of my list is playing with adorable nephew after missing out on the entire first year of his sweet life.

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I’m ready to hang out in Sevier park and play at Percy Priest. There will be Chick-fil-a waiting for us once we get off the airplane. And you better believe I’ll be at Frothy Monkey ordering a London Fog before y’all even know it! Can’t wait to see you, Nashville. The 6 day countdown is here!


One Year Ago

I’ve been in Guatemala for almost one year now. When I reflect on all that’s taken place, I am amazed at the changes I’ve experienced in my personal life.

One year ago, I could barely introduce myself in Spanish.

One year ago, I never wanted to be a school teacher.

One year ago, I wanted Middle School to be only a distant memory.

One year ago, I had no true Guatemalan friends.

One year ago, I had no idea what 2014 had in store.


Me at the beginning of our Guatemalan journey.

Now, in August of 2014, I speak far more Spanish than English on the average day. I stand in front of a classroom of awkward middle schoolers and teach them my native language through my newly adopted one. I spend my days with amazing co-workers and friends “cultivating young people” and developing small businesses.

And you know what? I love it.


The wonderful team I work with at Monte Cristo.

As part of my job at CEMOC, I accompany the students in the school bus every morning and afternoon. One aspect of that is that I get to see them outside the classroom environment. I get to see them waiting at the bus stops with their parents, talking with friends, and being vulnerable in front of their peers. Coincidentally, some our biggest troublemakers at school are on my bus route. And I get to see them be just a little bit vulnerable as well. The popular, “tough guy” routine is tough to keep up 100% of the time as a middle schooler, you know.

Two Fridays ago, my most “troublesome” student sat next to me on the bus route. During the 45 minutes we spent bouncing up and down on the dirt roads together, I realized that he’s just a kid. And beyond that, I realized that I love him. I realized that I genuinely love every single student on my bus. I know their interests, their dreams, their fears... And I love them.


Chatting with some of my smartest 8th grade girls last week.

2014 has been a crazy adventure, but it’s still not over yet. Thanks to the Lumos grant, I know that Chimaltenango, Guatemala is exactly where I need to be. It’s where I’ve found my passion and my service. I won’t be leaving for good anytime soon.


My 93 students

Queen Bee is in Stores Now!

We had an amazing event last week launching Queen Bee here in our local community of Chimaltenango. We advertised all the products Monte Cristo sells: coffee, fresh vegetables, metal work, wooden furniture, and last but not least- Queen Bee!



The beautiful set up of Monte Cristo’s new store.


The Queen Bee corner


The ribbon cutting of the store front.


Some of our 9th grade students showing off their dance moves for the audience.

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Our Queen Bee table display.


Some of our 7th and 8th graders helping advertise the fresh vegetables.

We’re so thankful for the way our Monte Cristo community has completely supported and encouraged the launch of Queen Bee. As one new product amongst many incredible Monte Cristo ventures, we’re confident that CEMOC will achieve it’s goal of self-sustainability in the next year and a half.

The Tears of the Mother

I come from a different world. I went to the same private Christian school for 13 years of my life. My world set me up to be an over-achiever and perfectionist. Never did I recieve lower than a B- in any of my classes: elementary school, middle school, high school, or university. I was friends with my teachers. I had their cell phone numbers, we went to the beach together... sure there were teachers I didn’t like, but I always treated them with general respect.

When my students at Monte Cristo rejoice with merely passing my English class with a 60%, I fail to relate. When my students talk back to me and treat me disrespectfully with out reason, I fail to relate.

On Monday, we were forced to stop our 9th grade class because of the extravagant amount of vulgar language, heckling, and disrespect.  As a result, the director of the center came to speak to the students and inform them that at 4:30 there would be a meeting with all the students and their parents about the continued discipline problems in this grade, not just in English class, but across the board.

When 4:30 came along, everyone was nervous. Even Eric and I were jittery. The meeting began simply enough, the director spoke to the parents and them gave the children the chance to talk with their parents about what had occurred. Then, the floor was opened for the parents to say anything they would like.

One mother from the rural community stood up, shaking with frustration and anger saying, “Tell me now if my son is the one doing these terrible things! Tell me now if he’s one of the students causing all these problems! Because listen here, if he is, I’m pulling him out of the school today. Today! There are no more opportunities left. We sacrifice for him to come here and learn and if all he’s doing is messing around and creating problems- he’s gone. He’s more use to us working in the fields to help put food on the table than wasting time here if he’s not setting his mind to learning.”

Now, I have this problem where if other people cry, I instinctively cry with them. When Wilmer’s mom spoke those words through her tears I began to sob as well. I remembered that I don’t come from this world. Where I’m from, education is a right that everyone deserves and expects to receive. Where I’m from, full-time jobs are for adults, not 9th graders.

As Guatemalan as I often feel after the past 11 months I’ve spent here, Monday taught me that I have to remember that I’m from another culture. My expectations and perspectives don’t always translate.

I’m happy to say that Wilmer’s mom didn’t pull him out of CEMOC. He’ll likely graduate with his middle school diploma in October. I hope he finds himself in anywhere but the fields.

La Abuelita

There’s a woman that I’ve never met, but she’s all I’ve heard about since I arrived here in Guatemala. She’s Abuelita Lipa. She’s the most “Jill of all Trades” that there ever was. She could farm, sew, and cook with the best of them. She would open her home to the homeless and feed them plus her 10 children. Unfortunately, she passed away over two years ago so I never got the chance to meet her. I have, however, seen her in numerous photographs. From the stories I heard about her from Miky and the family, I know that la Abuelita was an indigenous Mayan. A native to Chimaltenango who spoke Kachikquel as her first language and never learned to read or write.

From all the photos that I’ve seen of her, I always wondered why this beautiful indigenous Mayan woman didn’t wear the traditional traje. In Guatemala, the traje consists of a long striped skirt called a corte and hand-woven top called a huipil.


One of my sweet students agreed to be my model to show off the traditional traje of Guatemalan women.


A Chajul woman hand-weaving a huipil during the home-visits we did with the Belmont Study Abroad group.

Last weekend the family was sitting around telling stories about Abuelita Lipa and Papa Meme. I decided that now was my time to finally ask. I asked Ale, “Why did your grandmother never wear the traditional outfit?” The answer I was given surprised me more than I thought it would.

“She took off her traje the day she inscribed her two youngest children in Elementary school and never put it back on.”

I was confused. What did her outfit have to do with her kids receiving an education?

Ale quickly explained that when la Abuelita was growing up and even when Miky was a child, education was not for everyone. Mayan children, especially Mayan females could not go to the Catholic schools in Guatemala. This is one of the reasons la Abuelita never learned to read or write. She so truly wanted for her kids to have better opportunities than she did, though; that’s why she took off her traje. She took off her culture in exchange for her kids to have an education.

The most heart-breaking part of the story to me was that her sacrifice didn’t completely work. Doña Miky, the brilliant woman who started CEMOC, was not permitted to go to the Catholic school because the administration knew that her mother was indigenous. For this reason, Miky went to the local public school instead. Since then, for decades Miky has fought for educational and human rights across Guatemala. She even became the President of all the Catholic schools in Guatemala at one point, an ironic place to be considering she couldn’t enter a classroom decades prior.

I wish I could’ve met la Abuelita. But I see everyday the way her legacy lives on in her children and grandchildren in the way they fight for equality and knowledge.

Social Enterprise in the Developing World

As we embark on the adventure of finally selling our first Queen Bee products, I feel obligated to stop for a moment and relate my educational preparation to this current experience.

To start, my personal definition of social enterprise is the exchange of quality goods for the betterment of human livelihood. The creation of Queen Bee started as research into honey harvesting and manifested into a full-flown cosmetics business. From our first batch of hand creams in November to our finalized recipes in May, we’ve been constantly adjusting, criticizing, and improving our product. I truly believe that we now have an incredibly high-quality good that can stand alone on market shelves and succeed.

What then, distinguishes Queen Bee from the Nivea lotion or Chapstick tube I always carry in my purse? It’s the understated social value add. It’s the fine print on the bottom of every Queen Bee sticker. “Our profits go to support community development and education projects in rural villages surrounding Chimaltenango, Guatemala...”

To be honest, this value add hasn’t been easy to come by. CEMOC has fought financially to stay alive at times during the past ten years. They responded by starting social enterprises long before it was the “catch phrase” among American non-profits. Though now a more common term in the United States now than it was a decade ago, “social enterprise” still is not regular vocabulary word for the mainstream American. Imagine then, the struggle to explain and legitimize this relatively unknown concept in a developing nation.

Guatemala as a whole, I argue, cannot be categorized as “Third World.” There are plenty of individuals in this country who have traveled to Miami, Paris, and Madrid. However, the rural parts of this nation are undeniably neglected in the areas of infrastructure, education, and general healthcare. Particularly due to the lack of physical and bureaucratic infrastructure, our work starting-up this small operation has been double, if not triple, the amount of headache required to start-up a social enterprise in Nashville, Tennessee.

Actually, it would be far easier/ cheaper for us to register our company, collect all our primary materials, and fabricate Queen Bee in the US and mail the profits to CEMOC monthly. Why don’t we just do that, then? Because it doesn’t create ownership or develop the skills and abilities of our partners here in Monte Cristo. When our students’ mothers come learn how to make Queen Bee, they will receive a skill in return plus a paycheck and a contribution to their child’s education.

Our school’s director often says that each time they try a new idea, it’s like buying a lottery ticket.  Eventually one of these ideas has to work.  Queen Bee might not be Monte Cristo’s winning number, but it has a great team, a great product, and a great cause.  We hope Monte Cristo’s example will inspire others throughout Guatemala to embrace social enterprise.  If just one business can succeed to make a change in this country, though it might be small, we all win.

Queen Bee Hilary

Day Against Smoking

Last Friday we had an awesome day walking more than 6 kilometers with our students from Monte Cristo in a march against smoking.

We started off the day at the town hall with speeches from the mayor of Chimaltenango and the head of the Dept. of Education for our region. They reminded our students in the physical dangers of smoking and to fight the social pressure to start smoking at their age.

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The whole walk took us about an hour and a half with over 100 students and faculty members.


Thankfully, everyone made it in one piece to enjoy a quick snack and then finish out our day with a talk by the school’s doctor. He taught us about the general health risks and high percentages of carcinogens related to smoking.


Since coming to Guatemala, I’ve recognized how many parts of our American culture are subtly dangerous: our overly processed foods, lack of fresh air in daily life, and over dependence on transportation instead of walking. Our day against smoking at CEMOC was a blast and we all learned alot about how to lead a healthier lifestyle.


Updates on Queen Bee

We’re super excited because last week we ordered over 700 metal containers for our first major run of Queen Bee products. This week we also had a training workshop with CEMOC’s leadership to teach them how to make the product and brainstorm solutions to some of our biggest problems.


Right now one of our biggest challenges is getting all of our primary ingredients sourced here in Guatemala; products such as coconut oil, avocado oil, and coco butter. Our other big challenge is figuring out how to cheaply import our beautiful product containers. Although we don’t have any definite answers to these issues yet, we’re proud to have a brilliant team here at CEMOC that is skilled to tackle problems such as marketing, engineering, and sales.


As you can see, here in Guatemala alot of “mom and pop” companies are producing natural cosmetic products, but not with alot of luxury or up-scale marketing.

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Our vision is to be a high-quality, all-natural cosmetics company with a social purpose. We hope that as we expand the brand we’ll be able to train mothers in the Monte Cristo community to make Queen Bee as a way to earn income for their families and go toward their children’s education.


All in all, we still have alot to get off the ground before Eric & I head out in September, but we’re making some serious progress. Please be thinking of alternatives to our sourcing and importing challenges- we would love any ideas you may have to offer! Also, keep an eye out for our Queen Bee Facebook page which we hope to have up and running in the next few weeks!

Also- I celebrated my 23rd birthday last week! I was super honored by my sweet students when they sang to me and gave me flowers to celebrate my special day.


To Belong

Being a volunteer is hard. When you show up to an organization that’s running perfectly fine without you and say “Hi! I’m here! What can I do?” Often times, even under the best leadership, the answers are vague. Or not what you signed up for.

When Eric and I first arrived at Monte Cristo our days were spent studying Spanish and our new surroundings. The occasional tasks we had were helping with proper pronunciation in English class, helping chop vegetables in the kitchen, or just general “extra set of hands” stuff.

This week has been a reminder of how far we’ve come. How much Monte Cristo has accepted us and invited us into their organization, how much the children have actually begun to rely on us as leaders and mentors, and how the community has openly included us in their daily lives.

On Monday, to take a break from my daily jogging circles around the basketball court, Eric and I took a jog to the neighboring village, Pacoc, where many of our students live. On the way there we ran into a group of some of our girls from the eighth grade who were headed home. I started talking and joking with them and in the conversation they told me how much they enjoy having English class with us, how it was always so confusing for them in the past but now they really want to learn more and more. They also begged me not to leave in September and made me promise that I would try to come back for their ninth grade year.


You can faintly see to the left of the big tree part of the path we took up the mountain to Pacoc.

Once we made it to Pacoc, I was shocked at all the people we knew in the village. Our students’ mothers were stopping me in the street asking how we were doing and what brought us to their town. Kids I’d never seen before were screaming “Hillarlly!! Erikk!!” just like the little ones in Monte Cristo do. It was a really neat experience to accidently walk home with some of our favorite students and sneak a peek into their real lives.


Me and my neighborhood bff Patty.


Precious Emily and her sister. We’ve got some pretty awesome buddies in Monte Cristo after 8 months.


Evening soccer game outside our front door.

Also, this week we had our fancy Mother’s Day celebration. I’ve been working hard doing voice lessons with one of our students from ninth grade. She won the talent show competition in March, so now she’s presenting another song in front of everyone for Mother’s Day. She was super nervous and I had to convince her on Thursday to even go through with the performance.



We also taught choreography to some of our youngest students to the song “Happy.” I initially thought the steps would be really easy for them to pick up, but it was more of a challenge for them than I expected. The rhythm was tricky for them, but they did a great job!


Another big moment for me this week was participating in my first athletic event since the 12th grade... I played on the “teachers” basketball team and had a total blast. I even made a basket!















It’s been a tiring week with lots of extra-curricular commitments, but those are the moments when I feel I get to know my students and co-workers the best. It’s so reassuring to hear that your work is actually making a difference in people’s lives. After eight long months of Guatemalan life, it finally feels like I’m starting to belong.


There’s some videos going around the Internet about Guatemala, and I want to share them with you. It’s a pretty serious topic, but it’s a conversation that unfortunately needs to be had. Take one minute to watch.

Look Alike- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haw6xox1mXs

Lost- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AJ_T_shLfY

One of the things that prompted me to work with Be a Blessing and the orphanage in Jalapa three years ago was this very plight of young teenage mothers who are left alone with an infant to care for as a result of inter-family relations. According to “LatinWorks,” the group that made these videos:

“In 2013 alone, according to The Monitoring Center of Sexual Health and Reproduction in Guatemala, more than 60,000 girls and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 gave birth … Of these 60,000, 4,356 are girls under 14 years of age and 89% of their abusers are family members, and among them, 30% are their own fathers, cited by a study conducted by the PDH (Procuraduria de los Derechos).”

As well, these numbers are likely very low because of the lack of information gathering in rural, isolated areas.

Which brings me to Monte Cristo. This tiny village of 100 people that Eric and I live in has a reputation for inter-family marriages and familial abuse. That’s one of the reasons CEMOC is truly a safe haven for an unknown number of our students. It’s also one of the main reasons they offer free medical evaluations with a female doctor plus intensive sexual education classes to our students and their parents. Among the many reasons this inter-family abuse takes place is ignorance of general healthy sexual practices.

I’m thankful to be involved with organizations like the orphanage in Jalapa that offers an escape and rehabilitation for these girls + their children and like CEMOC which tackles the endemic problem of teenage mothers from a holistic perspective and offers a safe place to run for guidance and counsel.


Two of the darling girls at the orphanage in Jalapa.

This is not an issue that will disappear immediately. It takes time and education to change the problem one generation at a time. Right now we’re thrilled to have a new generation in Monte Cristo ripe for learning and change.