Teens gear up for the journey of a lifetime
With the rising cost of living, soaring fuel prices and student loans that can follow you to the grave, most of us can say with confidence that we have experienced poverty first-hand.
But after returning from a trip to the developing world, where food and medical supplies are scarce, many of us realize that our experiences living in poverty do not compare.
On Feb. 3, a group of five high school students from Perth and Carleton Place will embark on the journey of a lifetime by helping volunteers of the Guatemala Stove Project build masonry cookstoves for impoverished families in rural Mayan villages.
"I went to Guatemala in 2004 to help build stoves and I'm looking forward to going back because it's a great experience," said Sam Clarke, a fifth-year student at Perth and District Collegiate Institute (PDCI). "These people are living in terrible conditions. Their homes (are often) one-bedroom shacks with dirt floors and (most families) only have one bed. When you get back here, everything is so different."
For centuries, the Maya have cooked on three-stone fires built on the dirt floors of household kitchens. Consequently, the homes become filled with toxic wood smoke which can cause serious health problems, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, particularly in women and children. Eye infections and chronic respiratory illness are also quite prevalent in these circumstances. In some cases, women have gone blind by the age of 40.
According to the Guatemala Stove Project's website, breathing in the toxic smoke from three-stone fires can also shorten the average person's lifespan by 10 to 15 years.
"People are dying every day from second-hand smoke and they don't really have the power to stop it," said Celina Clarke, a Grade 11 St. John Catholic High School student, who will be travelling to Guatemala next month. "Their homes are filled with smoke and there is nowhere else to cook."
With a new and efficient stove, smoke from cooking fires will travel through the stovepipe, leaving the house relatively smoke free. As a result, many Mayan families will see drastic improvements in their health, life expectancy and overall well-being.
"When people go to Guatemala they often get sick and become overwhelmed with the poverty," said Tom Clarke, a co-ordinator of the Guatemala Stove Project. "But after returning to Canada, people start to realize how incredibly blessed they are. Whatever problems they have here seem to become insignificant."
To date, volunteers with the Guatemala Stove Project have helped to build 3,000 stoves for villagers and this February, the group plans to build stoves for 500 more families.
"I really want to see where the donations are going to," said Emily Upham-Mills, a fifth-year PDCI student who will be volunteering in Guatemala. "I'm interested in fundraising for Third-World countries and I'm really looking forward to meeting the families and seeing the countryside."
Last Sunday, Guatemala Stove Project volunteers headed to Algonquin College in Perth to learn how to assemble a cookstove using materials similar to ones found in Guatemala.
For a group of experienced volunteers, it will take about four hours to assemble a cookstove, while a group of inexperienced volunteers could take up to two days.
"A lot of these people have never laid a block before," said John Scott, co-ordinator of Algonquin College's Heritage Masonry Program. "It's really fun to watch people lay bricks for the first time," he said. "It's amazing what people are capable of doing with some supervision."
Joe Wallace, a Grade 12 Carleton Place High School student, says he is looking forward to taking part in the project because he will be able to experience a different way of living and learn a new trade.
"I think it will be a good experience to see a different culture," he said. "I am also looking forward to seeing the end result."
For Kelly Cormier, a fifth-year PDCI student, the trip to Guatemala will be an extremely valuable learning experience. She says that she is looking forward to handing out gifts to the local children.
"This trip will probably change my view on everything," she said. "I just want to see what's going on in the world."
When the five students return from Guatemala on Feb. 18, they will begin making their way through various elementary schools to share their experiences with students.
"I think this trip will put everything into perspective for us," Celina said. "It will show us how lucky we are and how blind we are. I think it will also give us more motivation to get involved."
It costs only $200 to provide a stove (that will last up to 30 years) for a Mayan family.
For more information on the Guatemala Stove Project and what you can do to help, visit www.guatemalastoveproject.org or call 613-267-5202.