Hearts & Hands: From Canmore to Guatemala
Jan Townsend, wanted to make a real difference to the world in a meaningful way. The Hearts & Hands Foundation was registered as a charitable society based in Canmore, Alberta in Canada’s Rocky Mountains in 2005. Our mission is to enhance the quality of life of the Mayan people through sustainable programs in health and wellness, infrastructure, and education.
I took my first group of 11 volunteers to build stoves in September 2004. The project was to replace open fires in Mayan homes. The open fires were the method of cooking and heating their homes. Families suffered much from respiratory and eye disease, burns from falling in the fires, and used lots of firewood. The use of firewood was causing deforestion which often resulted in mudslides in the rainy season.
In addition, it was the women who usually gathered the wood as the men were working in the fields. The gathering of wood took time away from the crafts the women made to sell in the market. This income helps with the little income the family has.
The stove project grew with 3 to 4 volunteer trips per year until covid postponed all trips until this year.
To date we have built over 6000 stoves with over 1200 volunteers in 75 communities.
In 2007, the organization began to work in a much more rural poor area called Uspantan. Jan immediately began to work with the mayor who was willing to partner with H&H stove project, and he requested some help with construction of schools in his municipality. Jan’s philosophy when she went to Guatemala was not to solve their problems, but to assist them to solve their problems- a hand up not a hand out. This was explained to the mayor and a partnership was formed that would include H&H, the mayor, and the community that needed the school. The residents would provide the labour under supervision of a professional engineer. Jan was a member of Rotary International and 6 Clubs from the Calgary area through a District grant applied for a grant from the Rotary Foundation to fund construction of 58 classrooms and two junior/senior high schools. We were successful in getting the grant and began construction in 2007. We later built more schools in another area. We have built a total of 78 schools. It soon was apparent that new classrooms were great, but what occurred in those classrooms needed attention as well. Guatemala is 17th from the bottom in the world in quality of education. H&H brought all the teachers and principals together and formed a focus group to identify the problems and seek solutions to improve the quality education being provided. In time a program called “Teach the Teachers" was begun. H&H obtained an agreement with the department of Education of the University of Puerto Rico that included the Dean of the department and 10 of her professors that came to Guatemala twice a year. The group of professors taught the teachers new teaching modalities, how to create their own materials, and other educational methods. These conferences were attended by teachers from Uspantan and many other areas. In 2010 H&H published 2 books in the Mayan Quiche language that translated their language into Spanish. Most of the famiiles in the rural area speak only their Mayan language. Spanish is the first language of Guatemala and the students are required to learn Spanish. Since the federal government does not produce text books in Mayan language, many kindergarten and first grade students fail or drop out. H&H published two text books, phonetics charts, and composition books in both Quiche’ and Kakchiquel languages that were in both their Mayan language and Spanish. The students could transition from one language to the other overtime. Quiche’ and Kakchiquel are the two largest 23 Mayan groups. We gave the textbook, phonetics chart, and composition book to each child to take home as their own. A result we did not anticipate was some of the whole families used the books to learn Spanish also.
At the beginning of this program, 47% of students were failing or dropped out. In five years of this program, the rate has fallen to 19%.
In 2008 we began a scholarship program for 7th through 12th grades and university. The program is dearest to my heart as I hope we are producing new leaders of Guatemala. In the rural areas, the usual is; girl’s go to grade 3 and boys grade 6. We have helped to erase that pattern. We have done a lot of promoting with parents to emphasize the importance of education for a better life. We have been successful as there is always a waiting list. To date I have managed to find sponsors for every student who applies. We have graduated over 600 students with 60% going on to university.
I think we are making an impact on the future of Guatemala.
In the area of health we have held 12 dental clinics, 2 medical clinics for women, and an eye clinic. We teach nutrition programs, community gardens, and personal hygiene.
During covid we were able to provide food for one month to families in 7 communities through donations from Rotary and Lion’s Clubs in the Calgary area.
This is not all we have done by any means. It is too much to write here. We have had many accomplishments in 18 years.
I would like to say my dream when I chose Guatemala to work, was to make a difference by working with the Mayan families. I had no idea what that would be or how I would do it. Somehow it has all come true. Many people here in Canmore and in Guatemala adopted my dream and together we have worked together to make that difference come true. I have been dearly blessed.
If you would like to support Hearts & Hands and make a difference in the lives of the Mayans, it's easy to help. Be a volunteer and travel with the group one of the future stove-building trips and donations are always welcomed.
Another way to get involved it to attend the Hearts & Hands Fashion show, happening Nov. 4, 2022 at Creekside Hall, 600 9 St. Canmore from 7:00-9:00 pm.
Hearts & Hands Foundation
In 2005, the Hearts & Hands Foundation was registered as a charitable society based in Canmore, Alberta in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. The mission is to enhance the quality of life of the Mayan people through sustainable programs in health and wellness, infrastructure, and education. Programs delivered by volunteers and Guatemalans ensure cross-cultural understanding and promote mutual respect.