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 →


I’ve been doing a lot of planting lately.

My first endeavor was tutoring Vilma in English. A demonstrative young lady in the seventh grade here at CEMOC, Vilma is what most of the teacher refer to as a “special case.” She’s extremely bright, although a tad more juvenile than her peers, and occasionally prone to a bad attitude. When we started the tutoring, I was surprised at the number of staff members checking on me asking, “How is it going with Vilma? Is everything ok? Do you need help with her?” Considering that Vilma doesn’t like the English language, and likely has an undiagnosed attention disorder, their concerns were valid. Not to mention it was my very first time ever teaching on my own, with 90% of our lessons spoken in Spanish. Our two hour-long sessions early in the morning for 4 weeks challenged her ability to concentrate and at times, my patience.

But we experienced a turn after Vilma received a poor grade on her second quiz. The English teacher at CEMOC sat down with Vilma and had what we Southerners refer to as, a “come to Jesus” talk. She explained to her that being able to learn English one-on-one with a native North American speaker was a privilege that no students even at the best schools in Chimaltenango receive, much less the students of the surrounding rural villages.


One of Vilma’s HW exercises.

A light seemed to go off in Vilma’s head and her work effort truly began to show, as she continued to receive high marks on all her subsequent quizzes as well as her final exam. She began wanting to know more about my life in America and started bringing me fruits and peanuts from her home.  In a way, we became unlikely friends. I’m pleased to say that Vilma completed our remedial tutoring sessions with an 84% final grade. By the end of it all, I believe I may have planted a little seed in Vilma to enjoy her English classes a bit more in the future.


A page from the final exam I created for Vilma.

My second endeavor was a far more literal task of planting baby coffee trees. One of CEMOC’s many micro-enterprises is selling coffee to their Italian connections to bring in income for the school. The seeds they planted were sprouting and needed to be transferred to larger plastic bags which would become their new homes for the next one and a half years until they are big enough to be planted behind the casita where Eric and I live.


Two-week old coffee seedling.

The process was labor intensive, starting with shoveling huge mounds of organic material from the CEMOC homemade compost piles, then we mixed all the dirt, sand, and biodegradable waste together to form a lovely mulch for our future coffee trees. The final count of successfully transferred coffee seedlings is round about 2,000! In a few years, CEMOC is going to have a bona fide coffee finca on their hands. It was a blast getting our hands dirty and knowing that our hours shoveling dirt will eventually contribute to the sustainability of the school.


More than 500 of our future trees.

The third endeavor started yesterday in the wee hours of the morning. Fredy, Gonzolo, Eric and I traveled 5 hours up the mountain to the department of Quiche to deliver two stoves to an isolated community. This may not seem like a big deal at first, but Guatemalan women are accustomed to cooking over open fires inside their homes using large quantities of firewood. The smoke from the open flame causes respiratory problems, eyesight problems, and is often dangerous for children walking around the fire.


A smoky photo from our last visit to Chajul of a mom cooking over an open fire inside the house. I recall having to step outside because the smoke was so thick.

CEMOC sells an innovative stove that is easy to transport, assembles in only 10 minutes, and uses 80% less firewood than an open flame fire. This is a huge financial savings for families using firewood for every meal, not to mention the health benefits. The stoves we dropped off are sort of “model stoves” for the community, and the parish priest has agreed to purchase additional ones ($120/ stove) for the families that are interested.


Fredy and Eric assembling the stove.

Although the señoras in the community seemed genuinely interested, switching to a new cooking method is not only an economic change, but a cultural one as well. Mayan women have been cooking over fires for centuries and the transition is often not an easy one for them. But yesterday was a great start and a testament to all that CEMOC is about- planting little seeds of change in communities so that development and progress are a real possibility.

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One of the ladies testing the stove during the demonstration to see if it was actually hot enough to cook tortillas. You can see the smoke rising safely through the chimney.


Las Fiestas!

It’s fiesta season here in Guatemala and I’m learning more than I ever thought I would about Mayan culture and community.

Starting last weekend, we were graciously invited to a family wedding shower for one of the Cardenas family’s cousins. The theme was “Las Vegas” and the night was filled with dancing, food, and games that lasted until 3am. As you can probably tell, this wedding shower was a far cry from the traditional “fruit punch and gift opening” wedding showers of the South. In fact, it was far more comparable to a wild American bachelorette party.


This fiesta taught me that family is everything here in Guatemala. When you celebrate, there aren’t separate parties for your friends and your family. The people in your family are your friends. Your 90 year old grandpa and 3 year old niece are all going to be out on the dance floor partying with you.

And this past weekend, the parties continued. It was “All Saints Day” in Guatemala, a time to honor those who’ve passed away. Here in the small town of Sumpango, next to Chimaltenango, there is a very special tradition of flying kites attached with hand-written letters to send them to your family in heaven. Over time, this tradition has developed into a kite-making competition and exhibition.

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The largest kites we saw went up to a hundred feet in the air, and were covered in brilliant artistry describing the history of Guatemala.


We even bought our own kite and stood on a hillside with a thousand other people trying to get it as high in the sky as it would go.


Upon our return to the family’s house, we had plates of “fiambre” waiting for us. This is a special dish Guatemalans only eat once a year for “All Saints Day,” made up of cold cut deli meats,radishes, and other vegetables.


Then, that night, after a long conversation about faith and family with Papa Mario and Mama Miky, Miky began rapidly hustling around the kitchen gathering fruits, candles, and flowers. After I asked what was happening, she told me “Ah! We were talking for so long, I didn’t realize it was Midnight! We must prepare the altar!”

Mario explained to me that for “Dia de Los Muertos” they set out an altar for the spirits of the dead who come to visit during this special 24 hours. He continued to explain that for their family, this specific tradition is a combination of ancient Mayan religious acts and more modern Catholic ones.


On the school side of things, I’ve been tutoring a student in English twice a week and we’re making a lot of progress. It’s a challenge because she doesn’t really like English, which I understand because I never really enjoyed learning French in school, but I think our one-on-one time together is making a difference. She even made a 9/10 on the last quiz I gave her!

We also had a graduation for Tercero Basico (9th grade) last week! It was incredible to see the pride and joy on the faces of the students and their families. Graduation from colegio is no small feat here in rural Guatemala. Thanks to CEMOC, these 28 students are fully equipped to be successful leaders in their communities. I am so grateful to have been a part of their academic experience for a mere month and can’t wait for the next school year to start!!



Update on Our New Reality

The past two weeks have felt like the fog has lifted off our dream-like experience and the reality of our adventure here has slowly settled in.

A couple weekends ago, some of our Guatemalan family took us sight-seeing. First, to Iximche- ruins of the ancient Mayan Kaqchikel kingdom. This was the first site the Spanish visited during their conquest in the early 1500’s. Although the most powerful kingdom of that time, the site consists of the homes of only 4 families. Each home has monuments to the sun, moon, and mountain gods, as well as a football field. The grounds are expansive and some of the altars are still used by Mayan priests today for various ceremonies. In fact, during the civil war, Iximche was the location of a peace treaty between Mayan community leaders and guerillas.


A Mayan “futbol” field.


Remaining floorplans of one of the 4 homes, with the monuments in the background. The far left is the monument to the mountain, middle is the moon, and the tree on the right is on top of the sun monument.


The next day, we visited Lago de Atitlan and the town of Panajachel. This is a notoriously ex-pat dominated part of Guatemala. Even knowing this, our ears were shocked at the prominent English being spoken all around us. I’ve also decided that most Americans living here in Guate are sort of… odd. Despite some awkward conversations with random North Americans, we had a fantastic time with our Guatemalan family and their toddler and infant. The view is unbeatable, and we’ll definitely be returning- with a Spanish only policy the next time.


Volcán Tolimán y Volcán San Pedro.


The harbor at Panajachel.


Our wonderful friends and tourguides.

A few days later, we returned to CEMOC just in time to help catch tilapia for the celebratory lunch on the last day of school. Eric did a great job of cleaning some fish, while I made friends with some of the students. The girls I hung out with are normally very shy, but when it was just the 5 of us, they opened up to me, taught eat me how to eat an entire lime off the tree, and promised to visit me during the school vacation.  Two days later, we ate the fried tilapia- head, bones, and all. They were nice enough to cut the head off for me, because I’m too gringa, haha. But even for a gal who just started eating fish last year, I’ve got to say, it was delicious.


Eric cleaning a fish that was, impressively, still alive.


The final product!


Making friends while bonding over my iPhone camera.


The girls wanted to have a picture together.


This past weekend, we became more and more indoctrinated into the Cardenas family. We got to be involved in the planning of a family wedding shower and helped assemble a “cama elastica” or “elastic bed” (aka trampoline) that was an early Christmas present for the kids in the family. We were even invited to a family birthday party, Despicable Me 2 themed, complete with piñatas and pizza. It’s lovely to be included in so many special events, and I’m honored to be a small part of such an impressive family.


Eric and Juan assembling the (giant) trampoline.


And now, my focus is planning a re-vamped English curriculum for next school year, as well as doing some English tutoring with a student who didn’t do well on her exams. Additionally, Eric and I have been working on a sample website for CEMOC’s tourism business (click to the link to check it out:


and searching for the ingredients we need for a trial run of a potential lotion business. We would use the beeswax from the potential honey business to create additional products like body lotion, chapstick, and maybe even candles. But it’s all hypothetical right now and we’re eager see what our viable options end up being.

All in all, it’s becoming a reality, and let me tell you- I like it.


What We’re Doing Here, Pt. 2

Part Two

As you can see from part one, the perilous history of most Guatemalan Mayan communities sets the stage for generational poverty and lack of opportunity. The Cardenas family started CEMOC ten years ago with the firm belief that education is the door to success. A door to a better life for the students, as well as a better life for Guatemala by raising up strong young men and women with an unwavering moral compass and capacity for independent thinking.


This past school year, CEMOC had 90 students, 30 in each grade, that correspond to the 7, 8, and 9th grades in the US. Though at times awkward and unsure of themselves, just like middle-school students in America, these Guatemalan young people have tremendous respect for others and gratitude at the chance they have been given to study.

A group of 9th graders chatting with their friends and professors after their Final Exam in English.

A group of 9th graders chatting with their friends and professors after their Final Exam in English.

They are taught standard academic courses such as Math, Science, History, and Spanish with additional classes in English, Accounting, Mayan Kaqchikel, and Ecosystems. Furthermore, the students study in workshops relating to ironwork, carpentry, farming, cooking, and sewing. These training areas prepare the students with lucrative skills after graduation from CEMOC. The school also operates under the strong belief that nutrition is the key to beneficial learning for children, and therefore provides breakfast and lunch to all the students- a rare luxury in rural Guatemala.

The line for a yummy breakfast of queso and frijoles in the cafeteria.

The line for a yummy breakfast of queso and frijoles in the cafeteria.

Because of all these amenities, CEMOC is recognized as one of the best schools in this region. Though the mission of the school is to provide education to those who cannot afford it, affluent families in the neighboring town, Chimaltenago, realize the quality of holistic education offered at CEMOC and send their children as well. The tuition fees paid by those who can afford it, in addition to donations from an Italian foundation, constitute the majority of the school’s income. The school also sells the items made in their carpentry and iron workshops as well as agricultural goods from the farm. Over the years, the school has started various other small businesses such as tourism, coffee, and catering to offset costs.

Items like this metal flower planter will be sold in Chimaltenango to support the school. (Eric and I helped make this one during our first week here).

Items like this metal flower planter will be sold in Chimaltenango to support the school. (Eric and I helped make this one during our first week here).

This is where Eric and I come in… Shortly after arriving, the Cardenas’ asked us to assist them with strengthening their current enterprises and possibly starting a new, more profitable small business. Immediately, Eric and I set to thinking and investigating. We’ve been exploring businesses such as honey, peanuts, lotions, chia seeds, and many other options for the center. Ultimately though, the decision is theirs. We are only here for one year, essentially only enough time to research, write a business plan, obtain a loan, and lay the groundwork for a new enterprise. But we’re going to do the best that we can.

It’s now that I want to thank our professors from Belmont University for preparing us for such a weighty task- creating a social enterprise that funds the education and vocational preparation of the next generation of Guatemalans. Who would think that a 22 and 21 year old would have any chance at doing such a thing? But we have been given the tools, and we thank you.


So, this is what we’re doing here.

What We’re Doing Here, Pt. 1

The past month, we have learned an exponential amount about how Centro Educativo Monte Cristo (or CEMOC) operates.


(The courtyard of CEMOC).

In order to share this with you all, I feel that I must first explain the context in which they are operating, and then, what the center is doing to alleviate chronic poverty, and lastly, how Eric and I are attempting to contribute to their mission.  In order to do this, I can’t fit all the information into one blog post… So here’s part one:

To start, I want to mention the complex recent history Guatemala experienced starting with the armed conflict that rattled all of Guatemala beginning in the 1950’s through the late 1990’s. It is a deeply complicated situation that I will try to sum up quickly and fairly. Essentially, during the Cold War era, the United States backed a coup of the Guatemalan government out of fear that the agrarian policies of the President Arbenz were the signs of a pro-communist government.

From a hindsight perspective, the agrarian policies of the 1950’s were not really communist at all, but instead a democratic government trying to allow poor Mayan subsistence farmers to have access to capital in order to own their own land. In the past, these farmers worked within a feudalistic system, which did not support the growth of the overall Guatemalan economy.

After the government coup in 1954, the Guatemalan military came to power for decades, and waged a “civil war against communist guerillas” in the highlands of Guatemala, the home of many indigenous Mayan communities. The army entered these communities and raped, pillaged, and massacred many Indian villages without cause.

Currently, I am reading “I, Rigoberta Menchu,” an autobiographical account of a young Mayan women and her struggle with poverty, land rights, and oppression during the height of the armed conflict. Her story is influential because most Mayans grow up knowing only their local language and are unable to communicate with other Mayans or Spanish-speakers. There is tremendous beauty in these languages that have been passed down for hundreds of years, but it is limiting for communication with the outside world.


In her book, Rigoberta discusses working on plantations for less than a penny a day, watching her little brother die of malnutrition, as well as the rich traditions of Mayan culture. Centuries of oppression for the Mayans of Guatemala have created deep distrust of outsiders, plus skepticism towards new ways of thinking.

The village of Monte Cristo is similar in many respects to the village Rigobeta grew up in. There are about 100 people that live here, and the majority of adults only speak their native language, Kaqchikel. This is the context in which CEMOC is working.

Volcanoes & Coffee Trees

The last week has felt like 100 days, 100 days of new words, people, foods, and complexity. The language barrier has been significant, but I can feel myself progressing as I rapidly learn new words each day. The school we´re working at, Centro Educativo Monte Cristo (CEMOC), has been remarkably patient and generous with us.

We are living in a volunteer house with five spacious rooms and bathrooms with hot water. Our backyard literally has a volcano and coffee trees.

Here´s a view of our volunteer house:

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See that huge mountain in the background...? Yep, that´s a volcano.

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The food has been delicious- tamales, red pepper chicken, and grilled carne have been my favorites so far. Each day I work on learning more Spanish and usually help in the kitchen preparing the meals for the 100 students and teachers here. Eric and I are the first North Americans to stay at CEMOC for any extended period of time, so it´s taking everyone a little while to get used to us. We´ve made lots of friends among the school´s staff and hope to gain the students´trust as the days go by.



We picked a great week to arrive in Guatemala, though! It was the National Holiday of Guatemala, so we got to participate in alot of festivities. The students dressed up in tradional clothing and prepared tradional food for everyone.


We saw the city parade in Chimaltenango last Saturday and celebrated in Antigua on Sunday. All in all, I´m having a blast and can´t believe how much fun the next year is going to be! More updates to come.

The Last Whirlwind

Since mid-April life has been a whirlwind, filled with deadlines, parties, moving, competitions, moving, traveling, weddings, and more moving. The moments of respite have been beautiful- reading on the beach, cozy dinner parties, outdoor concerts, but the general force of the whirlwind has been steady.

Now I look around Eric and I’s house in dismay at the countless trinkets and do-dads that must be accounted for, organized, and relocated. But I am struck with joy at the realization this seeming chaos brings... This is the last gust of whirlwind!  The storm that is quickly picking up speed as we prepare to move to Guatemala is the last gust before our year of adventure.

12 months of a new culture, language, and service. I am so eager to rid our lives of the trinkets and do-dads American life has given us. The whirlwind can have them all. This is the last move for 365 days... We’re “planting”. As much as two nomads like us can plant, that’s what we’re doing. Let the adventure begin!

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