Sharing The Dream provides taste of Guatamalan life

Visitors to the Sharing The Dream store in Vermillion Saturday received a real taste of Guatemala while shopping among the variety of hand-made crafts that are offered for sale there.

They also learned that the goals of the two Guatemalan women at the store that day is to one day achieve something that people in the United States take for granted.

They would like to see that the members of the older generation in Guatemala receive adequate care.

They also hope that one day, all children in their impoverished country will be given an opportunity to go to school.

In one corner of the store, Chonita Sojuel, the director of the elder center in the Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, clapped homemade dough between her hands, forming what appeared at first glance to be  a small, perfectly round pancake. She placed them on a small griddle, and when they had been heated through on both sides, she filled them with finely chopped vegetables and spices and folded the dough  to form tortillas, allowing shoppers that afternoon to sample her homeland's cuisine.

Diana Ramirez of Guatemala City, Guatemala was also there, sitting in a quiet area of the store as she participated in a video interview to tell the story of Sharing the Dream and how it is changing lives in her country. Diana, who holds a degree in accounting and is fluent in several languages, is originally from Santiago Atitlan. Today, she is coordinator of all of the Sharing the Dream activities in Guatemala, and lives in the organization's headquarters in Guatemala City.

Later Saturday afternoon, Diana and Chonita demonstrated the art of backstrap weaving, a traditional practice in Guatemala that is allowing women in that country to gain a new sense of economic and social freedom.

Chonita and Diana arrived in the United States six weeks ago. They have appeared at churches and others specially-designed events in Rapid City, Minneapolis and the Vermillion area, telling the story of Sharing the Dream. The trip is Chonita's second to Vermillion, but it marks the first time that Diana has been in the U.S.

When Chonita first visited Vermillion, the Sharing the Dream store was located in a building on the edge of the downtown shopping district. It has since moved, filling a storefront in the heart of Vermillion's Main Street that has better accessibility and more room for shoppers.

"I really like this new store because it is big and we can sell more products," Chonita said with the help of Diana, who served as her interpretor. "And of course, it is helping all of those people in our communities in Guatemala."

The elder center that Chonita directs serves the needs of 65 older citizens of the village of Santiago Atitlan. Unlike the United States, Guatemala provides no government-sponsored social programs that provide a safety net for the poor and the elderly.

"The elder center is affecting elders who are affected by the civil war in the 1980s," Chonita said. "Some of them have families, but they are very poor, and they can't sustain their entire families. They choose to sustain their children, and it's really hard, because the families often then can't sustain their elders.i

"The elders program is helping them, providing them with food, medical care and vitamins," she said. "They also do some activities."

At times, Chonita will make house calls. "She will visit elders in their homes if they haven't been to the center to see what is happening with them," Diana said. "She makes sure they are safe."

Three times a week, Chonita and other women from the village make 800 tortillas to help feed the elders. "They are provided three meals a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays," Diana said.

Watching Saturday's activities was Diane Nesselhuf of rural Vermillion. Diane, joined by other members of her family and the Vermillion area community, has forged a close relationship with the people of Guatemala for more than a decade, assisting with everything from drilling wells to building schools and providing assistance to the Casa Guatemala orphanage and several small villages.

A result of the cooperative effort between Vermillion citizens and the Guatemalan people is the creation of "Sharing The Dream In Guatemala" which promotes fair trade with cooperatives and small businesses in Guatemala. Sharing The Dream purchases crafts from low-income Guatemalan artisans, providing fair wages and employment which results in sustainable markets.

The goods are sold at Vermillion's Sharing the Dream store and several other markets have been developed for the products across the country.

Chonita said it is hoped that one day, a parcel of land can be purchased for the elders' benefit, with the construction of a new, larger residence.

"Right now, we are renting a house and it's very small, and it's not enough for the elders," she said, especially during times when one of the senior members of the village becomes ill and someone must care for them.

In her role as Sharing the Dream coordinator, Diana manages all of the organization's activities in Guatemala. Her responsibilities include scholarships, the elder center program, design activities for Sharing the Dream's weaving center, and other programs.

The weaving center was recently introduced to Guatemala, and became a reality in part through financial contributions of members of Dalesburg Lutheran Church, located north of Vermillion.

Three people are employed in the design program of the weaving center, including a woman from England who now lives in Guatemala with her husband and family. She serves as the program's designer. The other two employees include a man who is a master weaver using foot looms, and a young woman who works with backstrap weaving.

"The three of them are a great team," Diana said. Once designs for woven products have been developed, the three staffers of the design program travel to area villages and teach local artisans how to weave those specific designs.

Often time, the design ideas come about after the staff collaborates with the village women.

"When the staff is working with the women in the communities, they work together," Diana said. "Sometimes, the women just say their ideas, and that's how they come up with new designs."

Sharing the Dream is going in Guatemala, and one of the reasons Diana and Chonita traveled to South Dakota is to spread the word about the program's success.

"It's really good if someone from Guatemala, who works with the artisans in the communities and the villages, could speak about it. We have visited churches while we have been here, and people who have been in Guatemala have prepared activities for us," Diana said. "It gives us a chance to participate and talk about the programs."

Sharing the Dream works with 32 groups of people in various communities across Guatemala, she said. "One of the needs was a weaving center. The people in this village used to have a room with a roof of metal sheets covered with some bamboo and plastic. It was very dark, and the people worked for many years in that room, trying to survive.

"They came and said 'we really need a weaving center,' and now they have that," Diana said. "They are very, very happy, and very thankful for everything that came from this church."

Last summer Diane Nesselhuf and a contingent of people from the region traveled to Guatemala to view the site of the new weaving center. It is located in Comotancillo, located high in the mountains in the northwestern region of the country.

"It's not touristy, it's probably one of the least favorite places that people go to," Diane said in an interview before traveling to the region. "It can be very dry, and the people are very poor. There's a lot of alcoholism. It's one of the only places I've seen in Guatemala where you will see people laid out, just completely drunk.

"Hunger is a big problem in Comotancillo. Many people there resort to drinking anything — from rubbing alcohol to gasoline — in an attempt to kill the pain of hunger.  It's the only place I've seen where the kids have bloated bellies and where people are losing their hair," Diane said. "There's a lot of malnutrition." Daleburg Lutheran has been very, very supportive of the Comotancillo community, she said.

"Dalesburg has given money for a sewing center there, and they've given money for sewing lessons. There are nine groups there, and one person in each group had sewing lessons, and then they came back and they taught the rest of the groups."

Dalesburg Lutheran also purchased sewing machines for Comotancillo residents.

"We've worked with this community for quite a few years, and Sharing the Dream has also done a pig project there, we've done a chicken project, we've done a bakery – just lots of different things within those communities," Diane said.

Sharing the Dream is concentrating this year on providing the Guatemalan people training on how to sew, how to price their products and how to make tags.

"We really want to see those nine groups get up and running so they can do well," Diane said.

When the sewing center was built, the women working there were just trying to make products to export.

"Exporting products is really difficult," she said. "It's always best  if you can do something locally. That's always better.  So the women there now make school uniforms. These particular groups don't make anything for us. They are quite self-sustaining. In Guatemala, even students in public schools must wear uniforms, and that's this group's big thing."

While one group of women concentrate on making uniforms, other groups make fabric, using foot looms.

These programs demonstrate the ways that Sharing the Dream is living up to its name.

"Sharing the Dream is not only buying the products from our groups," Diana said. "It's also helping them that they can find their own markets so they can sell more and they can have their children educated.

"That is their (the Guatemalan villagers) dream — to have all of their kids educated," Diana said. "The problem now is that families mostly will choose boys to have an opportunity to go on to school. The girls — it's really hard for them. The idea of Sharing the Dream is to provide work so people can send their children to school."

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