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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Some Final Thoughts


Over two years ago I made the decision to leave a life I had always known for an adventure I had always dreamed of. This adventure is now coming to an end. It is time to reflect.

I think that we, as humans, have a nasty habit of lying to ourselves; and I think that this tendency is exacerbated in the field of development work. I am going to blaze a trail here and share the truth. So, with that in mind, I have a confession to make: I have not saved the world. In fact, the sum total of people I have saved throughout this entire experience is one: me.

When I look back it is clear to me that saving myself has been the goal right from the beginning. Any lofty dreams I may have professed about helping others, giving back, making a difference, etc. all had at their core one selfish desire: to save myself. I probably always knew this subconsciously, but at some point during the course of my service it made its way to the surface, and I struggled to come to terms with it for some time.

Eventually, what I realized was this: selfish philanthropy is not an oxymoron. On the contrary, selfishness is an indispensable ingredient in successful development work, and being able to admit this is both healthy and productive. I realized that the more that I put into my work the more I was going to get out of it; that this was not a personal sacrifice on my part for the benefit of others, but rather a mutually beneficial arrangement, wherein an investment of myself in the welfare of others was paid back to me with exponential dividends. (I do not think that I am unique in this respect, and I believe the field of development work as a whole would be more effective if this was acknowledged.)

And so, in light of this, I see my time spent here as wildly successful. On a community level we have seen many victories. We have created a recycling and environmental education program, built a new school, developed a thriving artisan industry (side note: we just received two very large orders that should keep the women working for at least the next six months), published a community tourism guidebook, created and implemented an accounting system and instituted many other administration practices for the management of the tourism project; and, as of this coming week, we will have opened a new community learning center!

(We have also seen failures. That same tourism project today stands in jeopardy of being destroyed, after 16 years of hard work building it into one of the most successful projects in the country, because of jealousy, stubbornness and dirty politics. I, personally, have spent countless hours and energy trying to mediate and resolve the situation, only to have to resolve myself to the fact that you cannot reason with the unreasonable, and that not all battles are mine to win.)

And thanks to all of this community development work, on an individual level, this experience has fundamentally changed my life. I arrived here with 32 other amazing people in January of 2009, and this January (2011), 29 of us attended our Close of Service conference. One of the activities we did was to vote on group superlatives. I was pumped to have won “most books read”; after all I had put a lot of effort into reading as much as I could. But, the second superlative I was given came as a real jolt: “most changed”.

Have I really changed that drastically? I think that time will be the judge of that. But for right now, although it is difficult to put in words all the ways in which I feel I’ve benefited from this experience, I am going to try and sum up a few of the highlights:

Living in the isolated, farming community of San Rafael Chilascó has been an almost indescribably rewarding experience (despite the disappointments). The warm-hearted people of this town have welcomed me into their homes and lives, and shown me that you can have dirt floors and still be unequivocally happy. This has allowed me to see, in a very real way, that true happiness is not dependent upon, nor can it be derived from, material wealth. To me this is no longer a cliché, rather it is deep-seated truth born out of meaningful experience. It will forever play a role in my life.

Furthermore, as a byproduct of this, I have learned to more fully appreciate the blessings and opportunities that my life is brimming with. I no longer feel guilty or embarrassed for these things, nor do I feel superior because of them. What I do feel is that to take them for granted is an affront to those that are not as fortunate. I feel that the only way to truly deserve these blessing is to try in earnest to make the best of them, while always remaining conscientious, respectful and grateful.

As an additional bonus, I have never felt closer to my family. Love does not heed the laws of gravity, rather it rebels against them; distance only strengthens the force. Being apart has shown me how important it is that we always stay close. The close-knit family (and community) structure here has been very inspiring.

Before I came to Guatemala I was at a crossroads in my life. I was struggling to find happiness, searching for a direction in my career, and constantly worried about the future. I will leave here at the end of this month happier than I have ever felt in my life, more focused than I have ever been, and enormously excited about what the future will hold. So I may not have saved the world, but I have unquestionably saved myself, and hopefully did some sustainable good along the way.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Help us build a new Community Learning Center

I am ending 2010 with a BANG!!! First, on a personal note I am thrilled to share that I received an acceptance letter from my first choice - Columbia Business School! Getting in to a top school was a goal that I set for myself back three years ago when I applied to Peace Corps, and so, seeing this dream become a reality right as I finish my second year could not be more exciting, satisfying, amazing! And, to make it even cooler, the Assistant Dean of Admission who called me with the good news told me that she was also a Peace Corps Volunteer when she was my age. Awesome all around, and thank you to everyone who supported me throughout the process.

Now, this by no means is meant to imply that I am done doing great things here in Guatemala. In fact, I kind of have a full plate. One project, however, is very close to my heart, and for the first time I am going to use this blog to ask you all to get involved!

My counterparts and I have a dream that we have been discussing since I arrived in Chilascó. A major necessity we have identified in the community is a lack of access to information and technology. There is no library and most people can't afford books. Although internet access is available, nobody has it, because there are no computers and the service is too expensive. Without access to the world's information the students here encounter a major obstacle when trying to learn; trust me, they knock on my door daily asking to use my computer for homework purposes. I have helped do research on everything from the 2012 Mayan Prophecies to how to make a piggy bank out of a two-liter bottle; but I won't be here after next April, and these kids deserve the opportunity to learn, uninhibited by socio-economic circumstances that are out of their control right now. So, I have teamed up with some fellow Ohio State Alums and...

We are going to create a new COMMUNITY LEARNING CENTER! The community development association owns the building pictured above and is planning to convert it into a learning center. The town members are chipping in their time and money to build the infrastructure needed (i.e. shelves, desks, chairs, etc.) The women's group and the tourism project have agreed to donate money to help obtain 2,000 books from a Guatemalan association. And with your help we are going to purchase 10 new computers for the learning center!!! The association is going to purchase internet service and sustain it with the tourism income. We will also be contracting INTECAP, a Guatemalan governmental institution that specializes in technical skills training, to come to town and train 15 young men and women to manage the computers. These youths will then be given jobs maintaining the learning center and will give classes to the rest of the town. The plan is to create a sustainable, developmental and educational community center that will do world's of good for generations to come.

We are budgeting $5,000 for the purchases and installation of the computers and necessary software. You can donate by heading to the website I built for the project:

The money will then be directly donated to ADESOCHI, which is a registered Guatemalan NGO. Therefore, if you would like a receipt for tax deduction purposes please write me at with your name, address and amount donated, and we will mail you one. I will update the total donated on a daily basis until we reach our goal. I will also be keeping up this blog with the progress of the project and many pictures so you can see where your donations have gone.

I believe everyone deserves the chance to obtain a quality education, to work to reach their potential, and to pass the fruits of their efforts on to the future generations. By helping create this new facility you are facilitating these opportunities, and giving the motivated people of Chilascó a fair chance. It would mean so much to me if you all could chip in and help us make this dream come true. Thank you for making a difference!

Please pass the word on and share the link for this project.

Happy Holidays to everyone!!!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Be Kind - All the Cool Kids are Doing It!

I recently read an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “Why is it So Hard to Be Kind”. The gist of the article was this: the author’s father had recently bought a new car, and while several dealers were cold and strictly business one went out of his way to be kind; including sending flowers to the hospital when the father fell ill during the process. His point was that this act of kindness was an anomaly in the business world, and his closing quote for the article (taken from CEO Jeff Bezos) was, “it's harder to be kind than clever.”

I thought about this for a while, and then I said to myself, “this guy has not spent much time in Guatemala.” I did not go to Harvard, and I have been removed from the American business world for some time now, but I know that in the Guatemalan campo the type of kindness that this article talks about is the rule, not the exception. Allow me to provide a couple examples…

I remember very clearly my first week in site. I felt a lot like a child might feel if he were to find himself lost on the streets of Manhattan – confused, scared to death and lonely. My third day in site happened to be my 25th birthday (the big quarter century mark), and I was sure that I was destined to celebrate it alone in my still unfurnished apartment - no cake, no presents, not even a hug.

I mentioned it to my counterpart in the morning, and he replied by asking me if I could help him carry some boxes to the bodega. I didn’t bring it up again. Then, at the end of the day, one of the other guys I work with, Don Bacilio, asked if I wanted to stop by his house for dinner. When I showed up I found a big bowl of caldo de gallina waiting for me and a sign on the wall that said, “¡Feliz Cumpleaños Tony!” Not only that, but there was a litro of Dorada Ice and a Magdalena cake for after dinner. This amazing family, that I barely knew, and that probably couldn’t really afford these extra expenses, went out of their way to make me feel welcome and make my quarter century birthday extra special. I will never forget this!

Another time, I fell ill and was out of work for a couple of days. A few days before we had done a taller where we learned a bunch of new ways to cook broccoli (anyone who knows Chilascó knows that we have an abundance of this wondrous green treat). In the training we had discussed how it was not only delicious, but also good for your health. Then, as I was laying in bed feeling sorry for myself, I heard a knock at the door. I opened it to find a group of women that had attended the taller. They had brought me a bag of broccoli. “Maybe this will make you feel better” they told me. It certainly did!

These are just a couple simple examples of the type of kindness that I have found to be ubiquitous in Guatemala. I am willing to bet that all of you could, on the spot, rattle off a handful of your own, similar stories. Stories where someone, unlike a car dealer who is trying to sell you something, selflessly went out of their way to do something for you, or to give you something, for one pure and simple reason: being kind is just the right thing to do.

I don’t care what Ivy League school a person attends, how much money they make, or how famous they may be, if they have not learned this basic tenet they are way behind Don Bacilio and my broccoli farming friends from Chilascó. And, if you, my friends and fellow volunteers, have picked up this little pearl of wisdom during your visit or service, then, no matter what else happens, your time here has been a success. For as Henry James once said, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mission Accomplished!

"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose." ~ Dr. Seuss

The school is finished!!! This Thursday we held the inauguration ceremony and it was an enormous success. The press , fellow volunteers and other friends from all over the country, representatives of many different NGOs and government institutions, everyone that worked on the project, and a whole lot of kids came out to celebrate the occasion and show their support. It really was a great day, and I am so grateful to everyone that was able to share it with me.

Now that it is over (although as I told the kids it is only the beginning), I would like to take some time to reflect on the adventure…

I think we probably all have heard the saying “If you love what you do you will never work a day in your life”, but I think many of us take this axiom with a grain of incredulity. It seems to me that work, for the majority of us, is just something we have to do during the week so that we can afford to do what we want on the weekends; it is a means to an end. However, adages such as this one did not just appear out of the abyss, and every once in a while we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the viability of living them out. This project has given me one of those glimpses.

As I have mentioned the “work” that has went into building this school has been fun since day one. But, more than that, it has also been inspiring, rewarding, and a wonderful learning experience – for me as much as for the community.

Inspiration is defined as: arousal of the mind to special unusual activity or creativity. An idea like the “bottle school”, which I have been calling the quintessential Peace Corps project, eloquently illustrates this definition. The ingenuity of the design speaks for itself. Three major needs of the community are met, with the end result being a low cost, high quality school building that literally traps this inspiration in a bottle and stands as a symbol of the synergy that is possible when a community truly embraces an idea.

The project has been rewarding for a great many reasons, but it has been especially delightful to watch its evolution. For the kids, and I think even for the teachers, recycling has went from just a crazy new word, to just another homework assignment, to something that might actually be useful, to an exciting concept that could change everything. In fact, inspired by the bottle school, the teachers held a recycling invention competition this week. In teams of four the students of the middle school had to invent a new way to reuse the trash of the community. As I watched them present their awesome creations, it really hit me that a paradigm shift had actually occurred, and I can’t think of anything more rewarding than that. (See photos below to understand what I mean.)

When I say this project was a wonderful learning experience, I really can’t overstate it. When it was all said and done we coordinated the participation of over 1500 students and 100 teachers across three separate villages, received support from four separate development associations, managed the work of many masons, welders, and volunteers, took over 20,000 pounds of garbage out of the streets of the community, and started and helped perpetuate a movement that promises to produce benefits on a local, regional, national, and now international level. In fact, an article about bottle schools in Guatemala just came out in world wide publiacation the Peace Corps Times, and I have just agreed to help advise volunteers from all over the globe to help them replicate the success we've seen here. It really is exciting!

I would like to thank Hug it Forward ( and World Ventures ( again for helping make this project possible. I think you guys are doing amazing work, and wish you all luck and success as you move forward. I see big things coming on the horizon!

And thank you to all of you who have been reading these updates and sending your love and support, you guys truly empower me! Please keep reading and never hesitate to keep in touch.

So, without further adieu, I will leave you with these pictures and let them do the rest of the talking.

My wonderful crew of masons.

Halfway done with the application of the cement.

Recycled clothing? Really? This is what I call embracing an idea.

Sky blue on the inside, and a combination of forest green and ocean blue on the outside.

Life is good.

Recycling bins out of recycled material in every classroom now. This is what I mean when I say these kids and teachers are inspired and motivated.

A little gardening to spruce things up a bit.

Pretty girls with flowers.

One more big community clean up!

Don Bacilio giving yet another speech on the magic of building with bottles.

Table centerpieces at the inauguration made of recycled materials. In fact, everything at the reception, from the centerpieces to the ceremonial tape, was made of recycled products. This is a direct result of the inspiration that the teachers and students of Chilasco have found.

Other community tourism sites and volunteers from all over the region came out to show their support and promote their projects.

Don Tono and Don Olich behind the ceremonial tape.

Bacilio and I with our last minute inspiration, a mural map of the world.

Johnny teaching dad our secret handshake.

My father and I had a nice dinner with my three counterparts.

Don Tono and the school director with a bunch of excited youngsters.

As part of the ceremony several groups of students entertained us with some dancing and singing.

The girls got the crowd pumped up!
Lots of people showed up for the fun!

Cutting the ceremonial tape with Bacilio and the two school directors.
And then we danced!

Me and my three bosses: Bacilio, Big Tone, and the estimado Don Flavio.

And we danced some more!

Smiles and laughs for everyone.

Guests of honor.

Chris and I in front of pictures illustrating the whole process.

Goodbye until next time, Don Tono is going on vacation!

Monday, July 26, 2010

One man's trash is our new school

If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good." ~ Dr. Seuss

Since my last post we have been "on fire", so to speak. We have finished putting all 7,892 bottles in place, finished plastering the cement on the inside of both classrooms, hosted visitors from seven different towns interested in doing a project like ours, had two television specials shot and articles written by both national newspapers, convinced the entire municipality of Salamá to start recycling their bottles, and turned in a proposal to build a second, even larger building for the middle school students. It has been a fun couple of weeks!

First let me just say that we had a blast putting all those bottles in place. I had a core crew of about 6 community members there every day working full-time and then countless kids stopping by to lend a hand. To be honest, if it weren't for all the fun we were having and all the people that were passing through to check it out and hear all about the project, we probably could have gotten it finished in half the time.

Once the bottles were in place the masons came in. The whole idea was brand new to them, and I think even they were a little skeptical at first, but after the first day they fell right into the groove. Don Nyo, the head of the crew, is one of the nicest guys I have ever met, and is doing an amazing job; couldn't have asked for anyone better.

I have been contacted by volunteers and community leaders from all over the country who have heard about the success of our project and want to try one themselves. Almost every day we have hosted a group of people who are excited to learn about how to build with "eco-bricks". Furthermore, the press has gotten wind of it and yours truly has appeared in front of a couple cameras. I am loving this, because an idea this good deserves to be spread.

Just to repeat, because it can't be said enough, with this one project we are cleaning up an entire community, teaching the youth and their families about recycling and caring for their environment, and building high quality classrooms at a fraction (about 1/3) of the cost of conventional building methods. EVERYBODY WINS!

Because of this good press, and the efforts of my counterpart Don Bacilio, the entire municipality is excited about the idea, and they are including the recycling of bottles into the school curriculum. The idea being that we will not only clean the city up too, but also create a stockpile of "eco-bricks" to have on hand so that we can repeat the project. With that in mind we have started to think about how to build another building for the middle-schoolers. Anyone interested in helping should check out the Hug it Forward website: They, along with the community tourism association of the town, have sponsored this project. Working with them has truly been a pleasure and an enormous success.

Finally, we have set the date for the inauguration: August 20th. And we are making an event out of it! I have been working really hard to design a community tourism guidebook for the sites of my region, and we are planning to roll it out together with the inauguration of the school. This project was a direct benefit of community tourism, and our alliance, Vivient Verapaz, will be putting together a tourism fair which will be held in Chilascó the day of the inauguration. We want to show people a real example of the benefits that can come from visiting these hidden treasure communities. We are expecting people from all over Guatemala to come, as well as some international celebrities... namely, my Dad!!!

Cheers to pushing the envelope! eight hundred and seventy eight, seven thousand eight hundred and seventy nine......

Don Tono getting interviewed by a Guatemalan news station about the success of this project.

You don't have to be a marketing expert to see the possibilities of this one...

We figured, since they are responsible for making the mess they should help to clean it up. So, this week we turned in a proposal to Coca-Cola to help us pay for the next building.

Eric Alberto has been my number one helper. He will be attending the school next year!

Don Tono giving the "can you believe it?" shrug for the camera.

Don Efraín putting the last few bottles into place.

Don Nyo and his crew applying the cement to the bottles. Three layers will be put on: first a rough, dry layer, second a smoother layer, and finally a third layer with lime.

A close up of the first layer in the plastering process.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bottle School Project Update

"Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!" ~ Dr. Seuss

Today capped off a great week for the project here in Chilascó. After a brief vacation, mid-year for the kids and 4th of July for me, we got rolling on the placement of the bottles. It took a couple of days to feel out the process, but slowly we figured out the methods that work best for us and fell into our groove; we "caught the wave" as they say here.

Day after day more people are showing up to see what the town is now calling "the famous wall of bottles". As more bottles get put into place and the school takes form the people are slowly starting to believe that it's going to work. In fact, invariably they pull me aside to ask if I think they can rebuild their house (usually made of cut trees for the frame, wooden boards for the walls, and tin roofs) out of bottles. "You better keep recycling," is what I tell them.

All of the kids are eager to pitch in a hand, or at the very least stand as close as possible and watch every movement we make; their curiosity and excitement makes this project so much fun to work on. The funniest is when they stand there pointing to bottles and tell me which are the ones they filled. To entertain the kids and visitors, Don Bacilio and I will launch into impromptu lectures on recycling, protecting the environment, or the importance of thinking creatively. And at least once a day we will hop in on a schoolyard soccer match!

We have also been championing the cause in other communities. This project has a certain irresistible appeal to poor communities with trash management issues, and I have already been approached by several other towns about the possibility of helping them build their own"bottle school." I tell them all to start recycling and I will see what we can do. Furthermore, to push the envelope even further, we obtained a half hour television spot on one of the local channels, and Don Bacilio went to work educating the entire department on the magic of bottle schools. People from all over are embracing the idea, and it looks like schools across the department will soon be requiring their students to recycle in their homes, perform community clean-ups, and bring their bottles into class. These bottles are to be shared, with the idea being to expand recycling and make it possible for even small communities to gather enough materials to build new infrastructure.

Our best estimate for finishing this project is for the middle of August. We have agreed as a group that we are not going to rush through the process; that, rather than rush, we will work at a healthy pace and assure that everything is done to the best of our ability. I am all for this approach, not only because it will yield higher quality work, but also, because it affords us more opportunity to educate and inspire.

Cheers to education and inspiration,
Don Tono

Meet Luis, one of the best bottle stuffers in town.

Juan and Bacilio tying bottles to the chicken wire while Doña Rosa looks on.

Orlanca and her son washing bottles to be put in the wall. I have never seen this kid without his sombrero on.

Efraín and me tightening the chicken wire to the frame. This stuff is frustrating and dangerous to work with. After a week my hands are covered in cuts and scratches, but that chicken wire sure is on there tight!

Don Bacilio with a group of kids after one of our impromptu lectures on thinking outside of the box.

Don Efraín with some curious onlookers.

The team after a hard day's work.

Wall #1 DONE!
A couple of proud little helpers and 1,128 bottles stuffed with inorganic garbage.