Rotary and Peace Corps Working Together
By Maureen Duncan, Brazil 1966-68

I am a Rotary Cadre who evaluates projects in Central and South America.  Having been a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil (1966-68) and worked for many years on federally and state run education grants in the US, makes being a Cadre a perfect fit for me.  This past February 2019, Rotarian water and sanitation expert Mark Balla from Australia and myself evaluated the WINS Rotary grant, visiting 15 of 48 schools involved in sanitation, menstrual health, and hand washing education. 

One of the schools we visited was a high school, Instituto Mixto Municipal de Diversificado (IDM) in Santa Lucia, Guatemala.  We were impressed by the efforts in expanding the students’ preparation for careers (secretarial science and accounting) to include saving the environment in Guatemala, and the planet!  We watched the students simulating real business solutions: recycling trash to make rugs and rudimentary attempt making renewable menstrual pads. They also were beginning to produce organic soap.   They just needed some infrastructure and support.

When I returned to the US I applied for and received a Rotary District Grant, Keeping Guatemalan Girls in School, which was made possible by donations from private donors, GoFundMe, and rotary clubs in San Diego and Melbourne, Australia. 

Grant Goal: In Guatemala girls need help remaining in school.  Elementary school is free and provides free meals, but when girls start their menstrual periods they often drop out of school without adequate menstrual products and facilities.  Junior high and high school cost money (tuition, books and uniforms) forcing 75% of Guatemalan children to stop attending school, which can lead to a pattern of poverty. This project targets high school girls (and boys) to continue their education and to learn entrepreneur skills, enabling them to be self-sufficient, to contribute to the community, and to have the confidence to pursue a future keeping pace in today’s world market and technology

I started the grant in country in September, hiring a local project manager and scouting for local Peace Corps Volunteers who might be of help.  I found Lauren Devol in our target community, whose role in Guatemala is to support community economic development.She and I have developed a strong relationship for this grant – she in Guatemala and me in San Diego.  Lauren is passionate about serving through her role as a connector to empower women, youth, and indigenous populations. Although we are 50+ years apart in our Peace Corps Service and age, we couldn’t be more alike in our fundamental aspirations to help people help themselves. 

I visited the project in October when I met Lauren and am about to go again mid-December.  When I can’t be there, Lauren and the local project manager meet with the twelve students (six boys and six girls), help them evaluate their goals, and provide cheerleading.  The two projects:  

#1 Reusable menstrual pads  The students decided that cloth based, reusable menstrual pads, knowing that disposable ones are bad for the environment as well as too costly for the majority of girls and women, would be one of their businesses.  Using the students’ own design, we are paying a seamstress in the community to cut and sew the protectors and the pads, fulfilling our grant by including the community in economic development. This business is more of a community service project, than a moneymaking one, as the students instruct Santa Lucia and nearby community girls and women as well as those in remote communities. One of the male students is Mayan and is going to visit his family over Christmas and introduce the product to his Mayan community.  Yes, the male students have learned to market the product too!

Project #2 Making soap from volcano ash –Volcanoes are everywhere in Guatemala; many of them still active and destructive. Why not profit from the volcanic ash to make a useful sustainable product?  We believe, by targeting tourists from nearby Antigua, that we can make a profit by selling soap (they named EcoMaya) made with local ingredients, including volcanic ash.  Lauren has been most helpful in monitoring the students’ activities: experimenting with local ingredients, packaging, marketing and sales.She and the local project manager even went on a hike with them up a nearby volcano to get some volcanic ash. This will be the students’ first step toward self-sufficiency. The money taken in by the first sales will go toward buying more materials for the product, students’ education needs and aiding in local community development. 

The grant ends in April 2020 – a short time, but stimulus for potential further grants. We have changed lives already: the positivity, the smiles, the enthusiasm on the seamstress, the school, the students…  But mostly, Lauren and myself, our lives, have been so enriched words cannot describe.