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.


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