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Las Manos @ El Hato

Three Years Running


Three years ago this month, Emma and I officially began the Las Manos @ El Hato project for Las Manos de Christine. It was a humble start, Emma disappearing up the Earth Lodge hill every morning as I scratched my head behind a computer. There was a website to revamp, newsletters to write, funds to raise, and new ways to find to acquire those funds. There were classes to be taught but no textbooks from which to teach them. Even so, material raisers and generous donors had supplied us with a library of story books, art supplies, and classroom paraphernalia. In the nasally (and unusually clear) words of Tom Petty: “The future was wide open.”


Las Manos @ El Hato was originally meant to be English classes at the public school in the village, an impoverished community about twenty minutes outside of Antigua, Guatemala. Emma was to teach the classes and develop a curriculum, while I handled fundraising, volunteers, and other administrative stuff. Within the first quarter, that concept ran away from us. The school was incredibly obliging and open to anything we presented, and people back home were equally as eager to help. An onslaught of material raisers (more books, PE equipment, more art supplies, little prizes to give the kids, school supplies) got underway, a playhouse was built, and extra-curricular activities became the norm.

By the end of that first year, our vision for Las Manos @ El Hato had morphed into something far beyond anyone’s expectations. Instead of Emma taking on a couple of grades, the project then adding another each year, she was teaching first through third, and I was tackling fourth through sixth—the whole school was getting English. The kids were elbow-deep in weekly art projects. Las Manos had begun supplying Saturday English classes for middle school students and helped fund a carpentry program. “Summer” school programs had been enacted to grand reception. A new El Hato English building was being built, as well as a permanent staff house at Earth Lodge.

It was difficult to leave, to walk away from something we’d poured our hearts into for a year, to trust that the program would continue to grow. Ultimately, however, one’s (my) do-gooding ego could only contain so much: I was both exhausted and immensely proud of the work I’d done, and Emma…well, she had gone into that school, filled it with new life and her love, and more or less single-handedly created something that had everyone—students, staff, and volunteers—crazy with enthusiasm. She was pretty tired as well. It was time to put into the hands of others. Two new teachers Stacy and Pearce took the reins, and we were gone.

Two years later…

When we returned last May, it was obvious we’d done the right thing. The program was humming along. The third generation teachers, Heather and Katy, were on their way out and the fourth generation arrived, Rainey and Becca—were teaching, classes were learning, textbooks were in, and a new general—Salina Duncan—was at the helm, steering this thing in all sorts of new directions.


The classroom Las Manos had built began to form into something quite amazing. As the year progressed, the teachers finally had an office to work out of, a functioning computer lab opened and was available to the kids, a loft library was constructed (finally, a proper space to utilize all the incredible books that had continued rolling in), and ultimately a whole new generation of El Hato children got to go to school. By the end of last summer, Salina, along with new staff members, Sally and Alejandra, had kicked off a pre-school program for the village. It was an absolutely amazing thing to see the list of Las Manos deeds extend in ways Emma and I had and hadn’t even dreamed of some two years prior.

To our delight, the new Las Manos members welcomed us back into the fold. Salina called on me from time to time to contribute something or in some way to her revived edition of the NGO newsletter: Hands on with Las Manos. For a couple of weeks over the summer, we got to cover classes and reunite with our students. Emma conducted a three-month yarn-bombing art project for another NGO called Unfinished Picture Project, with full and amazing support and supplies from Las Manos de Christine. We both participated in a new after-school initiative started by Becca for super-keen students to advance their English more quickly. When the third annually summer school session came round in November, Emma got to do more art projects and I got to play sports with the kids. In other words, Las Manos—with or without us—roared right along.

In fact, one of the happiest feelings I took from being back at the school again was just how much it had grown without us. Salina had come in and just brought the program to a whole new level. In fact, by the year’s end, she’d managed to not quite win a competition for a massive grant to build a new pre-school building on campus. Not to be deterred, she contacted the foundation awarding the money and finagled a sizeable sum to put towards a new classroom, play area, and Montessori materials for the toddlers. She was bringing a fresh, crazy passion to the place.

And year three…

This year, Las Manos came in with a staff of six, including two English teachers for the grade-schoolers, two pre-school teachers, an after-school activities coordinator, and Salina bouncing between them all. Rainey, a Floridian, has returned for her second term, as has Alejandra, a local woman who leads the Spanish side of pre-school classes. In addition, Las Manos has its first European mainlander, Manon (from the Netherlands). Rounding out the crew is Mari, who was short-term volunteer in 2010 and has returned to work with the toddlers, and Nikki, the resident artist and founder of partnering NGO, Unfinished Picture Project.


With Emma and Nikki leading the charge, new joint ventures are underway. Mr. Las Manos himself, Bryant Hand owns OBMontessori, an Antigua-based elementary school, where Emma is working this year. Emma has had the kids down in Antigua doing an art project in a spirit of collaboration with Nikki’s kids from the El Hato. It’s a cultural exchange that is very exciting, the children from El Hato going down to visit the school in Antigua and kids from Antigua bussing up to visit El Hato. We are hoping that this is just the beginning of the schools becoming frequent partners in education. It should prove to be eye-opening exposure for both sides.

Not surprisingly, other fresh initiatives continue. After exercising extensive patience and persistence, Salina finally got the new Montessori pre-school building started. Now the biggest structure on campus, Las Manos’s latest adventure in classroom construction is nearly finished, materials soon to follow. One of Salina’s great achievements has been Las Manos’s involvement with younger kids, catching them early to help not only with schooling but also things like nutrition and parental support. The pre-school program has been instrumental in building a better bridge between the NGO and the community, as well as empowering young mothers to take a leadership role in the children’s lives through the process of educating their children.

Other upstart programs are continuing and/or developing. Since last year, starting with former Earth Lodge chef, Thom, then with Emma, Las Manos has taken over state curriculum art classes for the El Hato’s middle school students and is now doing so in official stipend-ed capacity. The art classes, being handled by Nikki this year, are part of national requirements for graduation. Upcoming, Mari will be instigating an organic farming workshop at the school (She’s already started one at OBMontessori, and it looks fantastic). While the children already have a strong background in the industry, in the fields even before they can walk, hopefully Mari’s new project will introduce ideas for sustainability, farming techniques, and crop possibilities to the children and the community at large.


So, here I sit, three years later, pleased to see that Las Manos @ El Hato hasn’t slowed a bit. I can’t help but feel proud for having been a part of it, but watching from the sidelines now, that first year seems a distant memory, something almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of where Las Manos has gotten to. It’s a wonder to recall only a three Januaries back, Emma and I were sending out emails asking people to buy supplies to start the program. So many friends and family helped us then, so many have helped Las Manos since. It’s still such an inspiring thing to witness what can happen. If you are one of those people who have contributed along the way, then know that Las Manos de Christine is still going strong. Thanks to you all.


The latest in publications: On the River at Finca Tatin in Guatemala

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Posted by jonathonengels 13:13 Archived in Guatemala

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Knowing Salina, Emma, you - and so many of the people who volunteer(ed) - makes me fill with emotion and pride reading this article. Las Manos is, indeed, a wonderful place. I began the "journey with Las Manos" when Salina and Jeff moved to Guatemala, and it's been wonderful to watch all that has happened - even from afar and as a visitor! I can't describe what it was like to visit the school this winter, watch Alejandra work her magic with a group of 30-40 preschoolers (who were completely captivated) and to see the dedicated volunteers investing so faithfully and creatively in the futures of these children. Thanks for writing about Las Manos, Jonathan! It was a joy to read! Those who have invested in Las Manos have invested well - whether with their time or with their money. I wonder what stories will emerge from the children who got their start in this place! Someday I hope you will be writing them!

by Jean Duncan

Hey guys, great work!
While I was born in Guatemala now in Portugal, I am an American and have lived in NYC most of my adult life with the ocasional visit to Guate and Antigua where I have a very dear friend that invites me to his lovely house and got to know El Hato...Since I enjoy teaching languages and had recently opened a language school with my sisters, next time I´m there I if there´s anything I can do or be involved to help, please let me know, I would love to help!
Keep the good work!

by bragabond

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