11:00 AM, January 26, 2011 In spite of dire warnings of another ice storm, the heavy weather did not materialize, and I woke at 3:15 this morning to find nothing more threatening than a light drizzle falling from the sky. I made it to the airport by 4:15, and left on time at 6 for Atlanta, where I caught up with Andrew Brown, looking remarkably chipper for someone who must not have had much more sleep than I did.
Andrew is the newest member of the board at PEG Partners, the small non-profit that my wife Deanna and I founded in 2004. He has traveled in Guatemala several times before and for a few years owned a small plot of land there with his wife. Andrew has been a sustainable agriculture consultant all over the world, most recently traveling to Bangladesh. He has worked on sustainable agriculture in Guatemala before, as well.
When Deanna and I originally traveled to Guatemala, we were not looking for a project. We stumbled into one, though, after I visited a school there and began to learn about the chronic and severe underfunding of Guatemalan schools. In most Guatemalan public schools, the government of Guatemala only pays for the teachers’ salaries, leaving all other expenses to the local community. That includes the costs of constructing a building, paying the electric bill, textbooks and school supplies, etc.
The problem is that Guatemala is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, after Haiti. It is difficult to raise money for anything, no matter how important, from people who are living on less than two dollars a day, which many Guatemalans are. Because of that, many Guatemalan schools have no textbooks at all, and many meet in thatch buildings that are subject to destruction by heavy weather. Some have no buildings at all. It was clear to me that this was a place I could have a positive impact, and I felt a strong sense that I should try.
At first, we only set out to help the school I first visited, which had 218 students and North American style bathrooms, but without the running water. They had a well for water, and cleaned the bathrooms out with buckets at the end of each day. The principal told me he had a dream to run plumbing to the bathrooms from the well, but that the cost was prohibitive. I asked him what kinds of bids he had gotten on the job, and he told me it would cost 1000 quetzales. In US dollars, at that time, that was $125. Since then, PEG has grown to work with a dozen schools and libraries across Guatemala. We have raised a little more than $100,000 in donations, mostly through small donations at my concerts. Though that’s not a lot of money in the U.S., it goes a long way in Guatemala. We have partnered with other organizations like LEAF International and Child-Aid on some projects, and done others on our own.
For several years I went to Guatemala two or three times a year to check on existing projects and move things forward and vet potential new projects. For the last two years, though, I have been living in Australia and India working on a masters, and haven’t been able to get there. I’m eager to get back. The board did a great job of keeping things going with PEG while I was gone. Caroline Proctor and Cecil Bothwell each spent a year heading up the organization, and my songwriter friend Johnsmith, who traveled to Guatemala with me just before I left, started telling stories about his trip and raising money at his concerts. And Andrew joined the organization while I was gone, which has been a wonderful addition. I’m eager to get back there — to see old friends and to taste the avocados again.
The recent bitter temperatures and winter storms in North Carolina have certainly heightened my anticipation, and I’m already stripping off layers, anticipating the promised temperatures in the high seventies when we touch down. One bonus of this particular trip is that though it will be my… ninth(?) trip down, it will hold my first actual concert in Guatemala. An old friend of Andrew’s moved to Guatemala some fifteen years ago, and owns a blues club in San Marcos, on Lake Atítlan. I’m going to do a little show there on February 2, and that should be fun.
Thanks for your interest in PEG, and for your continued support. If any of these stories inspire you to make a contribution, they are welcomed, and I give you my word that I will get the money where it needs to go. PEG is unusual in that we don’t put any money at all toward administration (plane tickets, printing, web site, etc.) unless the donor specifies that they would like a portion to be used that way. If you send $5, $5 will go to a project. And $5 can go a long way in Guatemala. Of course, we do have expenses, plane tickets being the biggest, so if you feel like it is appropriate for some of your donation to go to administration, please let us know and we will direct it that way (after Deanna and I had spent a few thousand dollars on administration, we decided to introduce that option).
I’m hoping to update you frequently while we’re on this trip, so stay tuned (and feel free to ignore them if they are more than you care to read – the flow will return to a trickle in ten days or so)! “Like” PEG on Facebook and spread the word, if you’re so inclined. Most of all, though, keep in touch. All of this work, in the end, is about building community—breaking down barriers and building relationships. Thanks for being a part of it.
Paz y justicia,