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Debating & Creating The NGO List

A Venture for Adventure

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Most of you, readers of Jonathon Engels and patrons of Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, are now very aware of the new project—The NGO List—my wife Emma and I have begun. Even so, I thought instead of writing another NGO profile this week (The NGO List has taken over this duty), I would direct your attention to our new website. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though, what kind of blogger/writer would I be if I didn’t ramble out a few lines first.

This year I wanted to do a little something new with my blogging. Up until January, I’d spent the better part of a year writing a lot about work and life in general as an expat, but I decided to strive for a little more: more variety, more of a challenge, and mostly something more meaningful. So, I came up with four monthly topics: an NGO profile, book reviews, Guatemala (my current expat home), and an expat anecdote. It seemed to go pretty well. This year’s blog has attracted over 20,000 unique visits so far and is gaining more and more readers each month.

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In July, I discovered a few interesting articles about making money via blogging. Feeling a little annoyed with my inability to earn a living freelance writing, and armed with a new wealth of info, I decided to give it a go. In the past, Emma and I had tried to find places to volunteer a few times, but unless we opted for “volutourism” companies, it was much more difficult than expected. After some consideration, soul searching, noticing that my NGO write-ups did pretty well (my number one blog post is about Las Manos de Christine, an NGO I worked for a couple of years ago), I settled on making a website about NGOs.

In the next couple of weeks, I followed the instructions of a website about making moneymaking websites: Smart Passive Income. I researched good SEO names, purchased a domain, and promptly failed to understand Word Press, which apparently is the simplest blog creator ever. So, now a couple hundred dollars into the project (about 25% of what I’d made writing this year), I began to moan, whine, and fuss to my wife and visiting mother-in-law in the evening. Eventually, I had to ditch Word Press, despite Smart Passive’s instructions, and I used the same blog creator my personal website is on, which I highly recommend (Weebly.com).

Then, the List got rolling. Evenings started becoming exciting, with notebooks and ideas spread all over the table. I decided, rather than writing a bunch of articles and copy for friends and family to wade through, I’d compile a massive, OCD-organized list of NGOs for people interested in volunteering when they traveled. I started with Guatemala, and by the time the other Central American countries were getting their rightful pages, Emma had joined the project and took over researching, allowing me to handle design and website building.

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By the end of September, with the Central American list complete (over 70 NGOs), we did our first promotion. The response was incredible. The NGO List outdid my personal website that weekend, and by mid-October, had come to draw over 100 visitors a day. In less than a month of being up and about, we were pulling nearly a 1000 people a week to the site, more than Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad has ever enticed. Energized, Emma and I increased our efforts to get the South America list together (over 80 NGOs). Now, we are on to Southeast Asia (over 20 already, in Cambodia alone).

The NGO List has come to occupy the bulk of my freelance work time these days. The site has me so excited, and incredibly, Emma and I have found ourselves referencing our own site to plan our upcoming trip to South America. That more or less did for me: The NGO List, I know, has amazing potential to help people, grow into something bigger, do some good in the world, and possibly yield a more promising income than freelancing online.

To date, the site has earned us exactly nada. I’ve monetized it using affiliate links—Better World Books, Lonely Planet, HostelWorld, and Vayama International Airfares if anyone's interested—that pay us a commission when visitors use the links on our site to access their services and buy something. It doesn’t seem to be working, but I have hope (and plans to explore other income avenues). Regardless, we’ve gotten so into the project that the money side of things would be gravy. This NGO List has me jumping around the world, daydreaming about trips to come, new projects to discover. It’s just exciting.

So, without further gushing, you are all officially invited to explore The NGO List. Join us on Twitter, on Facebook, on Pinterest (the albums for this site are awesome), and on Google+. Don’t be shy. We’d love the support. We’d love to know what you—friend, family, or stranger—think of it. We’d love to hear about your favorite NGOs. We’d love to know what else you might want on the site. We’d love to see our project continue to grow and branch out and morph. Ladies and gentleman, gnomes of all sizes…

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Posted by jonathonengels 05:39 Archived in Guatemala Tagged travel profile ngo Comments (1)

Saving Sea Turtles in Hawaii—Guatemala

& Another Attempt at a Blue-Green World for Akazul

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To those of you who enjoy my blog, you are cordially invited to befriend me on Facebook, include me in your Twitter feed, Link up, Pin me, and/or encircle me with your Google-y world. It's a great way to let us lowly bloggers know we are doing something worthwhile.

Hawaii, the city not the state, is located on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, a mere stone’s throw from the border of El Salvador. It’s a place famous for sea turtles, particularly the endangered leatherback and the olive ridley, and in the same breath, it is known for being one of the last commercial distributors of sea turtle eggs. Herein lies the inspiration for another great NGO working in Guatemala: ARCAS.

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ARCAS, a non-profit formed by concerned Guatemalan citizens in the late-80s, has centers throughout Guatemala: in Peten, where monkeys and jaguars are; in Guatemala City, where environmental education takes precedence; and in Hawaii, home of the ARCAS sea turtle hatchery. However, today, perhaps because I’ll soon be visiting the Pacific coast and the hatchery, I’ve come to talk turtles.

While much of the southwest region’s volcanically fertile land has given way to agriculture, the brackish mangroves along the shoreline have remained a healthy contrast and are still rich with life. ARCAS has been working here since 1993 when, alarmed by the depletion of leatherback turtles in the world, the NGO settled in Hawaii to try to prevent the over-harvesting of turtle eggs by the local communities. (Not to be left unnoticed, adult turtles are often victims of the tuna and swordfish industry.)

As it seems is often the case with over-harvested things, the big draw to turtle eggs was not the makings of a really wicked omelet but the belief that it was an aphrodisiac, a la tiger penis and bear bile. (How the world does fall into the whims of impotent men!) Sadly, there are reportedly only around 2000 leatherbacks—the second largest reptile in the world—left in the Pacific, and eggs are pretty important to repopulation. In its hatcheries in Hawaii and El Rosario, ARCAS manages to collect 50,000-plus eggs a year.

But, ARCAS hasn’t stopped at turtle eggs. The NGO also has programs for community development and conservation in the area, with opportunities to volunteer. They are petitioning the Guatemalan government to create 4000-hectare protected park centered on the important mangroves around Hawaii, and ARCAS has even gone so far as to purchase Finca El Salado to start the project off and buffer the mangroves from the encroaching sugar cane farms, as well as monitor the factories effects on the coast. The Hawaiian ARCAS branch also does a lot of work with local iguanas and caiman, two indigenous species, like turtles, in need of population recovery.

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Another of the many great turtle projects in the area is Akazul, a UK-born NGO located in La Barrona, not far from Hawaii. In 2010, Akazul was formed by members of a program, Project Parlama (the local word for the olive ridley), that was begun by ARCAS and another UK-based NGO, Ambios. Akazul, derived from the Mayan word “ak” (great cosmic turtle) and the Spanish “azul” (blue, as in the ocean), is also working hard to make sure these turtle stick around a while longer.

Akazul is trying to connect all the turtle hatcheries along the coast in order to build up and standardize the conservation efforts here in Guatemala. As well, they do a lot to educate local communities, preserve the environment, and monitor how all the various projects are going. Like ARCAS, Akazul offers volunteer opportunities, or for those interested in helping from afar, the NGO accepts outright donations, membership fees (which includes a subscription to an e-zine about the project), or nest sponsorships.

Both of these organizations are worth exploring online. I can’t wait to check them out in the flesh in a couple of weeks.

Interested in more awesome Guatemalan NGOs? Check out my NGO page with fresh profiles on some of the great projects to be discovered in Central America's do-goodery capital.

Posted by jonathonengels 08:55 Archived in Guatemala Tagged animals guatemala profile ngo Comments (0)

Got Water?: The ecofiltro

Imagine having to hike miles for your water every day, several times of day...

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Last week was an awful one for me. As I’ve written before, my apartment here in Guatemala is not always the height of luxury. Though the setting is beautiful, my shrewd-ish budget and lackadaisical real estate hunting techniques basically led to living in an old hotel room without a hot plate kitchen, mini-fridge, and a bathroom that serves both as a place to shit and a place to wash my dishes. It’s this bathroom that has caused the fits of late.

For some reason, in the whole of Antigua, the running water in my apartment complex basically disappeared. Well, if I turned the hot water spout, a trickle of cold water would come out, but the toilet tank no longer filled (causing me to stand at the sink for about fifteen minutes after each bowel movement and hope this next slow gallon of water would get it down), cleansing showers became a memory, and filling up my ecofiltro water cleaning system turned into a real pain.

As I sat down this morning to write this blog, I knew it was NGO week, and beyond that, I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to present to you. The internet at the café was down, which meant classic Wiki-research methods were out of the question. I sat scratching my unkempt and crusty beard (It’s actually to a point where I may go up to Earth Lodge to take a decent shower.). Then, I got up and grabbed the latest Que Pasa, thinking they’ve always got a nice write-up. First page I opened to, I saw an ad for ecofiltro: Hike for Water.

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First of all, let me explain what an ecofiltro is. More or less, it’s a five gallon bucket with an insert that sanitizes this infamously stomach-churning Central American water into something perfectly acceptable to drink. Without further polluting the environment with plastic water bottles and little plastic water bags, folks can acquire a little clean drinking water. Earth Lodge has them, Oxford Language Center has them, I have one, El Guato Tattoo shop—let’s just say anybody who’s anyone in Antigua these days has an ecofiltro.

Recently, the folks at ecofiltro have kicked off a pretty cool campaign. Thinking of the villagers in Guatemala who sometimes have to hike over a mile just get water, a task done multiple times a day, EcoFiltro has started an empathizing (at least symbolically) fundraiser: This year there are five hikes, climbing three volcanoes in Guatemala, and one mountain in Seattle, in which each participant essentially donates one ecofiltro to communities who could probably do with a sip or two of something cool and clean after carrying five gallons of soiled water over a mile.

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I actually saw a few pictures of the first hike last week on Facebook. It looked like there was more than just do-gooding happening. People seemed to be having fun as well, and that’s always a combination that feels right to me. So, one hike is down and there a four more to go: 22 June is Volcan Pacaya (actively spewing hot lava), 27 July is Volcan Fuego (also a lava spitter), 7 September is Mt. Si (the Seattle sidestep), and 16 November is Volcan Acatenango (Fuego’s dormant neighbor). I’m hoping to make at least a couple of these. If you’re interested in hiking as well, visit ecofiltro’s Hike for Water page, or if you just want to support the project, that’s possible, too.

Eco-filters have been around since 1981, when first invented by Fernando Mazariegos, scientist at the Central American Research Institute. The following year, the design garnered the AIDIS prize for innovation in Latin America. Unfortunately, the filters didn’t really start making a massive breakthrough until the 2000s, when current CEO Philip Wilson began networking with NGOs and World Vision stepped up to help instigate widespread distribution. These days, with over 50,000 families benefited, ecofiltro is a for-profit operation that supports ecofiltro:one, its charitable partner creating sustainable solutions for communities in need of clean water.

As for me, I guess I’m thankful, if push comes to shove, walking a mile for water is not really in my likely future, and when I finally cave and decide a real shower just must happen, I can do so with relative ease. And, I’m thankful for my ecofiltro. In my first month down in Antigua, unwilling to part with the start up money (like $50) to get a filter system, I was rationing one plastic gallon of water a week, getting a little more dehydrated by the day. Then, after a run one weekend, I discovered my gallon jug empty. I’d had enough. Best $50 spent this year.

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Posted by jonathonengels 12:19 Archived in Guatemala Tagged mountains profile ngo expat Comments (0)

Camino Seguro/Safe Passage

Re-Introducing a Fine NGO

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Most of you who have followed Emma’s and my adventures throughout the years know about Las Manos de Christine, the NGO we’ve returned to Guatemala several times to assist. However, what you may not remember is that Las Manos, now standing on its own in Aldea El Hato, began as an effort to support another great NGO: Camino Seguro, or Safe Passage.

Safe Passage, around for nearly a decade and half now, began by aiding children of the families who live near and work in the Guatemala City dump. It’s the largest dump in Central America and the sole source of income for an entire community, fishing out anything recyclable, in Guatemala’s capital. Since 1999, Safe Passage has grown into much more, now offering not only support (educational, nutritional, medical, and psychological) to the area’s children, but also programs for women, a nursery for babies and toddlers, and classes for reaching adult literacy. Through years of service, Safe Passage has made and continuous to make an undeniably positive impact on the community that surrounds it.

The non-profit was founded by a US-born woman, Hanley Denning, who came down to Guatemala to study Spanish in 1997. However, after visiting the dilapidated neighborhoods around the garbage dump, she sold her computer and car to fund a project to help the children she’d seen. Thus, in 1999, Safe Passage was born, beginning with forty-six of the poorest children in the area. Over the next eight years, Hanley fostered the program and the community, as well as garnered vast international support, local volunteers, and a devoted foreign staff. Then, in January of 2007, she died in a car crash.

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Though obviously shaken, Hanley’s admirers, friends, and staff pressed on, continuing the vision that had consumed the last eight years of her life. Today, Safe Passive provides educational support, various health services, and means to rise out of poverty to over 550 children, not to mention the support given to families from bottom to top. Perhaps as notable, however, is that Hanley’s love and devotion has opened the eyes of so many others, those who worked with her, who continue what she began, and for whom she labored on behalf of.

In 2008, the first time Emma and I lived in Guatemala, Emma worked at Safe Passage every afternoon, teaching English classes provided by a tiny NGO called Las Manos de Christine. By the time we’d returned in 2010, this time as full-time volunteers for Las Manos, Safe Passage had outgrown the need for Las Manos-funded English classes, which is why we began our work in Aldea El Hato. However, the mission of Safe Passage has remained strong in our hearts, and in the world, and for me, the two NGOs will forever be intertwined.

For more information on Safe Passage, visit the website: www.safepassage.org.

Thanks for your interest. In the coming year, I hope to provide a monthly blog post about the exciting, inspiring projects happening in Guatemala. If you know of one, would like your organization to be included, or are particularly interested in some facet of NGO work, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Until next time, best wishes.

Posted by jonathonengels 12:34 Archived in Guatemala Tagged profile ngo Comments (0)

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