How One Week In Guatemala Changed My Life

It’s National Volunteer Week and we’re thrilled to share a first-hand experience from one of our amazing volunteers who traveled into the field with us.  Below is a personal essay from Joseph Lee, a high school volunteer who spent a week building new cookstoves for families in Guatemala.  Thanks for sharing your story, Joe!

Joe standing in front of new cookstove

Joe proudly displaying a new cookstove’s donor tile inscribed with his name

Written by Joe Lee, President of the Project Cookstoves Club at Van Nuys High School 

I still remember the first time I set foot inside a traditional home in Guatemala—a country I had no idea would eventually hold a special place in my heart. It was early August in 2014, and I had just stepped off the plane to begin a week of volunteer service with nine other students—eight of whom I had just met that same day. The air was thick, yet the sun shined beautifully that morning. And as we anxiously took our first steps into the vast city, all ten of us were loaded inside a white van that was headed straight for the Good Neighbors Guatemala headquarters.  I looked around the packed vehicle to the nine other students—still strangers to me. We all had the same look on our faces:  tired and apprehensive. Although we didn’t know anything about each other, we all had one thing in common: we were about to embark on an adventure that would ultimately shift our perceptions of the world.


Arrival into Acatenango.

After a long drive to the rural side of the country, our naps were interrupted by the van’s sudden stop, signaling our arrival in Acatenango. Slowly making my way down the broken streets of the community, I immediately felt foreign and alienated by an environment that was so different from my own. How did I end up in a place like this? What on earth am I doing here? My mind was racing with these questions. We arrived at a small, run-down house that resembled almost all the other houses in the village. “Come inside,” said Jorge, our team leader as he beckoned us in with warm gestures. One by one, we each stepped in past the single narrow door that brought us into the modest and humble life of a Guatemalan family.


A family in Acatenango stands next to their traditional cookstove. My fellow volunteers and I built them a brand new stove during our trip!

I still remember this moment very clearly. Entering the dark and cramped room, I was inundated by a strong, suffocating cloud of smoke that instantly watered my eyes to the point of soft tears. My breaths became heavier, and I felt a pungent burn in my eyes. Out of desperation, I turned to locate the source of the smoke, and there it was: a cookstove, unlike any other, brewing a simple family meal. And, suddenly, the struggles and torments that I had learned about prior to my arrival became a cold reality.


Another traditional cookstove I saw in Acatenango.

I am a first-hand witness to a crisis that prevails in Guatemala to this day. Project Cookstoves is a Good Neighbors project with a mission to save the lives of millions of Guatemalans who suffer from their traditional stoves. These stoves, which provide daily meals for families, as well as warmth in the home, release toxic fumes that gradually fill each crevice of their cramped home. For a standard house with only one room, the effects are detrimental. Those exposed to the toxic exhaust, including children, immediately begin to feel congested and, thus, find difficulties in breathing, leading to cardiovascular disease, emphysema and lung cancer. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, there are nearly 5,200 deaths per year in Guatemala alone that are the result of household air pollutants, and over 9.6 million whose health and lives are directly affected. To mitigate this unhealthy exposure, Good Neighbors dedicates itself to building better, safer, and more energy-efficient cookstoves through this project.

Joe pushing a wheelbarrow with soil needed for cookstove

Me pushing a wheelbarrow with soil needed for the new cookstove.

As a student myself, I first became involved with Good Neighbors through my mom, who heard about the organization through her close friend. In the one week that I spent with their team, I participated in multiple activities. Every day from morning to early evening, we visited ten different families in total and worked vigorously to build brand new cookstoves for each one of them. The process involved hours of cement-making, brick-laying, and cookstove-building. We were guided by a local Guatemalan bricklayer, who expertly built each stove. After a long day of working, we would then return to the city, where we ate dinner, washed up, and hung out with one another in the hotel. This part of the day, for me, was always special because it allowed me to spend time with my team. I always found out something new about everyone, and I began to realize that we weren’t so different from each other. By the end of the week, the team became more than a group of random misfits; it was the beginning of new friendships that I know are going to last a lifetime.

Mixing cement with (l-r) Ryan, Nitya, Sunwoo and me.

Guatemala is a beautiful and fascinating country. But it is also a place that is desperately in need of help. While millions of people lead comfortable lives worrying about what kind of clothes they’re going to wear or when they’re going to obtain the latest gadget, the residents of rural Guatemala–as well as many other third-world nations–are struggling to cook a simple family meal without getting harmed by its negative effects. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that we stand up and make a difference. If we learn to break out of our local confinements and reach out to those who don’t reap the same benefits, the world would be a radically different place. If we don’t rise up and catalyze a change, then no one will. One helping hand, one willing body can make all the difference.

Taking a break with kids from Acatenango (back row l-r: William, Nitya, and me)

A finished cookstove I helped build, donated in my name!

Today, I am still a part of the movement for change in Guatemala. After experiencing a profound conviction from this volunteer trip, I was inspired to educate my peers and raise awareness in my local community. Thus, the Project Cookstoves club was formed at Van Nuys High School. I believe that anyone can make a difference in the world–it all starts with a willing heart. I highly recommend this volunteer trip to all those who want to lend a helping hand. I am confident that it will change your view of this world, as it did to mine.

Me (standing, on right) leading our Project Cookstoves Club at Van Nuys High School.

Wow, thank you Joe for sharing your experience with us.  We are so grateful to have you volunteer with us!  Do YOU want to be inspired, like Joe was?  Click here to read more about how you can volunteer in Guatemala!

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I Made ‘COFFEE MEETS WATER’ Happen: Meet Marcus!


We’re excited to introduce you to Marcus, another one of our Coffee Meets Water supporters! Marcus is an Aircraft Mechanic in Vacaville, CA who likes history, economics, and fishing (although he doesn’t like eating fish!).

We asked him a few questions, and want to share his answers with you!


Q: Hey, Marcus! As you know, the name of this campaign was Coffee Meets Water. You told us you drink coffee – but how do you like it?

A: I like it with a LOT of sugar, and some cream. Sweet is good!

Q: What do you love to do in your free time?

A: I love being outside – geocaching, camping, hiking and anything that will take me outdoors.


Q: What’s something interesting about you that not a lot of people know?

A: I have a dog named YOLO.


Q: Before donating to this campaign, you told us that you did a lot of research into the cause and the project’s needs. What made you finally decide to support Coffee Meets Water?

A: I’ve always wanted to volunteer in Ethiopia, but haven’t had the chance. The idea of helping so many people with a simple donation really didn’t seem like too much to ask and it seemed like the benefits definitely outweighed the amount of money. When I received the thank you card and photos from the kids and families that my donation helped, I knew I’d do it again.


Thank you so much, Marcus! Interested in learning more about our water projects around the world? Visit our website here. And to see how our Coffee Meets Water campaign helped thousands get access to clean water, watch our video here.

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I Made ‘COFFEE MEETS WATER’ Happen: Meet Jenn!


Last fall, we launched a campaign called Coffee Meets Water, to fix broken water wells in Sidama, Ethiopia, the largest coffee-producing region in the country. In this community (and in many around the world), women and children walk hours each day to dirty rivers and streams to collect water for cooking, drinking, and cleaning.

But thanks to our amazing supporters, we were able to reach our campaign’s goal and not only fix broken wells in Sidama, but also teach the local community residents how to fix them in the future!

We’re excited to highlight some of our Coffee Meets Water campaign supporters, because without them, bringing clean water to over 2,000 people in Sidama couldn’t have been possible!


Meet Jenn, an attorney clerk and student at California State University, Los Angeles. She loves traveling, movies, and is studying Criminal Justice with the goal of becoming an FBI Investigator! We asked her a few questions to learn more about her and what compelled her to join our cause!

Q: Hey, Jenn! As you know, this campaign is called Coffee Meets Water, so we have to ask the most obvious question: do you drink coffee? 

A: I used to never like the taste of coffee. When I was in 6th grade, my best friend’s grandparents offered us black coffee on a camping trip. Who offers black, cheap camping coffee to an eleven year old?! I remember being scarred by the taste, and never wanting to go near the stuff again. When I got older, I gave it a second chance, and now I love it! And not even the really sweet kind. I never knew real, authentic coffee could taste so delicious!

Q: What do you love to do in your free time?   

A: Traveling is by far my biggest passion in life! When I’m feeling stagnant, I like to go online and look up random flights and fantasize about all the places I dream about visiting one day. I love meeting random people, sharing stories with them, laughing, and coming home with memories that I will treasure forever. I love to explore and learn about different cultures that I would never be able to experience if I were to otherwise stay at home all the time.


Q: What’s something interesting about you that not a lot of people know?  

My dream is to be the leader of an international campaign against human trafficking. Sometimes I think it’s a farfetched dream, but then I think about all the incredible people who have made such an impact in this world and I realize that I have just the same potential as they did! I know I have a long way to go, but since beginning my studies, I’ve wanted to do something about the international sex slave trade. It’s a crime that has been happening for years, millions of victims are voiceless, and it’s almost like we don’t realize that it’s even happening. I think about the women, children, and men that cry and pray and beg for someone to help them and I want to be that person who saves them! Putting a complete end to human trafficking may seem like an impossible dream for one girl from California to conquer, but deep down inside I tell myself that it’s possible. I don’t tell a lot of people about this dream because they will probably think I’m crazy. But that’s how my teachers have inspired me: be crazy enough to dream and aspire to accomplish things in life that you’ve always wanted.


Q: Lastly, why did you decide to support our Coffee Meets Water campaign?

A: My friend, Jake Kilroy, posted the Coffee Meets Water campaign video on his Facebook page, and I remember being instantly intrigued by the campaign. When I read more about the broken wells in Ethiopia and the villages that I had the potential to help, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to participate.

My monetary donation seemed like a minuscule effort in comparison to the big picture. I’m just a girl who typed in her credit card info, hoping to help out. And let me just say, I would do it ten times over again! Getting that photo of everyone gathered around the well with my name on it gave me the biggest feeling of gratification. I almost started to cry, I was so happy to see everyone’s smiling faces! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing campaign effort.


No, thank YOU, Jenn, for your support and compassion! Interested in learning more about our water projects? Visit our website here, and watch the highlights of our Coffee Meets Water trip here.

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Some of the members of Team Good Neighbors after the race!

Saturday, March 14th was an amazing day for Team Good Neighbors – not only did we run a 5K (some for the very first time!), but we raised $5,565 for Project Good Sisters! But we’re not done raising money to support girls’ education and equality in Malawi. If you’re interested in supporting the project, you can still donate and learn more here.

Special shout outs to Ralph, who placed 9th out of 1,000 in his age group, and Nelson, who placed 51st out of 176 in his age group! Amazing job, guys!

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Some of our team members picking up their shirts and race bibs!

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Ralph and Steffany – so supportive of one another! Ralph was 9th place out of 1,000 in his age group – congrats!


We asked some team members about their day, and this is what they told us….

What was the best part of your day?

Ralph: Seeing my sister finish the race. I made sure to finish the race as fast as possible just so I could race on over to the finish line with my camera and await her arrival with warm encouraging chants and photos. I’m probably her biggest fan and all time supporter and I loved seeing how hard she pushed herself just training for this race. So it was a must for me to see her crossing that finish line. Seeing her smile and realize that all her hard work paid off was the best part of my day!

Matilda: My most favorite part of the day was finishing the run and hearing the supporters applaud us, and then receiving our medal. And it was fun taking pictures with Good Neighbors as a team!

Nelson: Best part of the day was spending time with friends running for a good cause.

Sarah: The 5k overall was so fun! It was my first official run ever and on top of that, it was a big one right before the marathon! I think the overall vibe was my favorite. Everyone was pumped up and ready to start running. It was great to see all the little kids enjoying the run and wearing their t-shirts for charity. There was music, people were cheering, and joining so many people at Dodgers Stadium and Elysian Park was a great experience.

Lauren: It was really fun experiencing the beginning of the race, when everyone is nervous but excited. The best part was getting over that last hill and finally seeing the finish line! Plus, knowing that I helped girls in Malawi by doing something as simple as running a 5k!


Nellie, Adriana and Lauren excited about finishing the race!

What was the hardest part of the run?

 Ralph: The hardest part of the run was maintaining my speed while going up the hills. I knew they would slow me down but I just had to push myself.

Matilda: The hardest part of the run were the HILLS!! So killer!

Nelson:  Well to me, the whole race was pretty fun but the hills were taking its toll on me, even though I’m used to running. Also, it started to get really hot!

Sarah: The hardest part of the run…was the running. I didn’t manage to run the whole way, but it was still nice even if I did rest time to time!

Lauren: There were a lot of hills, but there were two that definitely made the run extremely hard and made me want to walk!

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Our two youngest team members, Brennan and Camille, got some help from their grandfather!

Why did you choose to run for Team Good Neighbors?

Ralph: I decided to run for the team because I wanted to support their vision of helping out girls in Malawi. I wanted to make a difference for this awesome cause by giving it my best. I’m a huge supporter of their work.

Matilda: I wanted to have the opportunity to run with Team Good Neighbors because I appreciate all their work and I think it’s so great, all that they do to help people and everything they do as a team effort.

Nelson: I ran for Good Neighbors last year for the LA Marathon, so when I heard about the LA Big 5K this year, I decided to join! It feels good doing what I like for a good cause.

Sarah:  I decided to run because I wanted to raise money and this was a fun way to fundraise!

Lauren: I’m a very active person who loves the outdoors, and nothing beats getting good exercise while helping a great cause!

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Well deserved medals, ladies!


Nelson finished 51st out of 176 in his category! Amazing!


The awesome medals the team received!

What an incredible day! We want to say thank you SO much to all of our team members for all of their fundraising, and for running with us! We’re still shy of our overall fundraising goal, so if you’d like to help us reach it, you can give on our team page.

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#CoffeeMeetsWater: An Evening of Photography & Film


In support of World Water Day, which is celebrated annually on March 22nd, we held a special event on March 19th  to showcase photography and film from our most recent trip to Sidama, Ethiopia.  On this trip, in partnership with Let it Flow, we repaired broken water wells for thousands of people, and taught the local communities how to maintain and fix them on their own in the future.

Did you know that 783 million people worldwide do not have access to clean and safe water, and that 43 million of them live in Ethiopia? Through our photography and film exhibit, we were able to share the journey that the people of Sidama faced to restore clean water, so that over 2,000 people in their community no longer have to walk hours to collect water from  dirty rivers and streams.

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Held at The G2 Gallery in Venice, CA, the evening consisted of drinks, light bites, and coffee from one of our campaign partners Demitasse! And special thanks to our friends at Pop Art Snacks and Yum Yum Donuts Lynwood for their contributions of insanely delicious gourmet popcorn and tasty donut holes that perfectly complimented our film screening and coffee station.

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And a HUGE thank you to our partners 925 FILMS and See Mimi Go for their truly amazing film and photography. To see more of Mimi’s photos, visit her on Instagram; and see the film here:

Check out some of the fun photos our guests took throughout the evening and at the photo booth, and follow along on Instagram and #CoffeeMeetsWater to see more photos!



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Want to learn more about our water projects around the world? Click here to help bring clean drinking water to thousands of more people throughout Ethiopia, Zambia, Malawi and Chad.


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