Natural Disaster Expands Focus of Humanitarian Trip to Guatemala

OGDEN, Utah – The aftermath of Tropical Storm Agatha has altered the itinerary for a group of Weber State University students studying abroad in Guatemala.

Foreign language professor Alicia Giralt is leading a group of 23 students on a two-week trip to the Central American country. They are joined by Dolores Jasmer, a Guatemalan native who teaches Spanish as an adjunct faculty member at WSU.

In addition to learning about the culture and language, the primary purpose of the trip is to build on microcredit opportunities for Mayan-Tz’utujil women, which were established by Giralt, Jasmer and a group of WSU students during a trip to Guatemala last year. Microcredit is the extension of small loans to people living in poverty in an effort to spur entrepreneurship.

Giralt hopes to use microfinancing principles to help the women improve their lives by creating and selling a variety of products, including food and handicrafts.

Tropical Storm Agatha caused floods and landslides that have killed more than 150 people in Guatemala. Unbelievably, the tropical storm was one of two natural disasters affecting the nation. The Pacaya volcano began erupting May 27, spewing lava, rock and ash, and forcing the closure of Guatemala’s international airport.

The disruption in air service meant Giralt and her students had to fly into San Salvador, then take an eight-hour bus ride to La Antigua, Guatemala, where they waited another day until the road to the town of Panajachel was open. From there they took a boat to their final destination of San Pedro La Laguna, since the roads were blocked. Upon arriving in San Pedro, they discovered that three of the Mayan-Tz’utujil women who received microfinancing loans last year had lost their homes in the storm.

Suddenly the group’s humanitarian efforts have taken on a new urgency.

On June 3, all the women in Giralt’s group helped clean debris and trash Agatha dumped in the nearby lake.

“The lake is very dirty from the storm,” Giralt said, “which is sad because they use the lake to bathe, to wash their clothes and to attract tourists. We filled many sacks with trash brought down by the storm.”
While the female students helped clean the lake, all the males helped dig up a damaged home and level the ground around it.

Despite the recent upheaval, Giralt and her students plan to continue with their microlending efforts.

“We have 20 new ‘moms’ this year,” Giralt said. “Students are teaching them some basic business concepts and will give them microcredits to get started. We also will work with the ‘moms’ from last year who have already returned their loans.”

Giralt’s students plan to teach some returning women and some new ones how to make soap, which they can sell.

As part of the study abroad course, students spent a week (May 24-28) taking pre-trip classes on WSU’s Ogden campus, learning about the region and the microlending concept. They flew out May 30 and will return to Utah June 15.

Giralt has another trip to Guatemala scheduled for 2011. Eventually, she hopes to raise enough money to create a museum and training center for the Mayan-Tz’utujil women. The center would serve as a resource for local women and teach tourists about the ecology and products of the region. WSU students would create displays for the museum in English and Spanish. Students who could stay in Guatemala for longer periods of time would teach the moms to read and write.

To help with the financial aspect of the project, donations are accepted at WSU’s Department of Foreign Languages-Students Projects in Guatemala.

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Alicia Giralt, Spanish professor
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 •