Category Archives: Project Cookstoves

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

VOLUNTEER INTERVIEWS | A Warm Touch of Humanity

Meet Jacob (pictured above on right.) High school student, musician, and life-changer. After consistently offering his small income to support a child through our sponsorship program, Jacob made the bold decision to take his involvement a step further. In 2015 he signed up for our volunteer trip to Guatemala with his musical ensemble of 18 students from Irvine, CA. Little did he know that this courageous decision would set him up for an encounter that would impact his life forever.


Hello Jacob, introduce yourself to our readers!

Hello, my name is Jacob, I’m a music dork who plays the viola and is obsessed with classical music.

Awesome, wish we could hear some of it! Tell us a little about the trip you took with Good Neighbors.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

After five hours of flight, our ensemble arrived in Guatemala and headed for our target city: Patzicia. Led by Good Neighbors Guatemala staff member Maribel, we immediately started building cookstoves for families in rural areas. After short greetings with overjoyed residents, we dirtied our hands with bricks, and mud, and started to build our first cookstove.

Traditional cookstoves in kitchens are very toxic: smoke from cooking fills the room, the family member’s eyes would burn, and it is difficult to breathe. I had assumed that cookstoves weren’t as crucial as other projects, such as building houses, but I was wrong. Cookstoves are pivotal to the health of the whole family. The process wasn’t as laborious as I had expected; we had teams of 7-8 volunteers  per cookstove which made the work enjoyable and relatively quick. Each day, we built two cookstoves, and vastly improved the lives of each of those families! We shed blood and sweat, but reaped the residents’ heartwarming thanks that motivated us to keep on serving the community.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

 

That’s so amazing! Were there any challenges you had to overcome through this experience?

On the fourth day of our trip, we hosted a concert for a high school run by Good Neighbors. The violins, clarinets, and violas set up on the stage, and as the time of the performance approached, the seats in the gym started to fill with friendly faces. I took out a little speech I had prepared, introduced our ensemble, and started our repertoire of five pieces.

Disappointingly, most of the audience seemed uninterested. In desperate need to entertain them, after the fifth song, I asked the audience, “Quien sabes Mario?” I was met with silence and I was shocked that they didn’t know who Mario was. I asked once again, “Super Mario?” The crowd suddenly became boisterous, showing unprecedented excitement.Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

I started to play the Super Mario theme song, and their faces remained astounded and excited. I continued with Titanic, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Frozen. Surprisingly, most of them knew these movies; especially during my playing of ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Do You Want To Build A Snowman?’ the crowd became wild.

This had to have been one of the most climactic moments of my music life: I was able to excite the whole crowd with the goofy musical pieces that I’ve often played for fun. My competitive side of music has been mostly in my view, but this was an opportunity to show my goofy side.

So fun!! Now, we heard that you had a really special encounter on this trip? Can you tell us what happened?

A few days before my departure to Guatemala, my mom told me that Good Neighbors had set up a meeting with Bryan, a boy I’ve been sponsoring through the Good Neighbors sponsorship program. My feelings were mixed: nervous, yet excited. I hadn’t considered that I might ever have the fortune to meet Bryan face-to-face, and now that this opportunity was so close, my eagerness grew.

After the concert, the rest of the group left to continue building more cookstoves, but I stayed with a Good Neighbors leader to meet Bryan. We walked down an underground path to the Good Neighbor local office. I slowed down, realizing how tremendous and significant this meeting would be.

When we reached the office, there was a young boy with short, spiky hair, waiting there. I reached out to him and hugged him tightly. He had grown so much since that picture Good Neighbors first sent me. Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

We couldn’t communicate fluently, but with my limited knowledge of Spanish and with some translation help, we started to talk about all kinds of random things: favorite colors, hobbies, subjects, foods, and every other possible thing that came across my mind.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

We walked around the neighborhood that Bryan lives in, and each step that I took with him seemed so unrealistically marvelous that I couldn’t help grinning. Bryan’s mother also came along, and gave me a hug and kept thanking me for coming.

Guatemala Volunteer Trip August 2015

I’ve never felt so accomplished, satisfied, thankful, and proud. Our awkward conversation continued on, but each word we spoke touched me; everything seemed so unreal and too good to be true.

They kept on thanking me, but I should’ve been the one thanking them for being a source of encouragement and motivation every day. Meeting Bryan was probably one of the best moments in my life, and I will always treasure it.

These were the biggest highlights from my Guatemala trip that made it so meaningful and worthwhile. What I gained from this trip highly outweighed the laborious aspect; we exchanged our hard work for a warm touch of humanity. This trip was indeed an unforgettable journey, and I am very thankful to Good Neighbors that I’ve been given the opportunity to participate.


Incredible. Thank you Jacob for making choices that position you to make real, consistent change in people’s lives! We’re inspired by your story.

If you want to experience a warm touch of humanity like Jacob did, email us at volunteer@goodneighbors.org for information on our upcoming trips! You never know, you might just end up with your own miraculous encounter.

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VOLUNTEER JOURNALS | Unedited Lives of People

In 2015 Amy Chiu, a student from South Hills High School,  gave up part of her summer to fundraise and take a trip with Good Neighbors to Guatemala. Once there, Amy and her team spent long days in the sun building safe cookstoves to replace old units that were causing serious health risks for the families. But we’ll let Amy tell the story..


Nowadays, technological innovations seem to be updating faster than we can keep up, allowing us to view other parts of the world through the small screens of our electronic devices. However, what we see on television simply isn’t the same as what we can marvel at in person. Although we hear global news blasted from our car radios every morning, we don’t truly understand these problems with such big, scary-sounding words.

I wanted a taste of this experience firsthand by catching a glimpse of real world crises that others face. Thus, upon decisively signing up with Good Neighbors to volunteer in Guatemala by building cookstoves for the local villagers in Acatenango, I embarked upon a weeklong journey.

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An old cookstove

Constructing new cookstoves could make a significant difference in the lives of local villagers. In order to cook, families build open fires inside the rooms of their homes. This is especially dangerous for small children playing near the fires. In addition, the families are exposed to the smoke, which can cause lung-related illnesses, and young children who should be learning at school must spend long hours gathering large amounts of firewood instead.

Compared to the amount of wood needed for traditional cookstoves, the Good Neighbors cookstoves only needs one-third of that amount, and the smoke travels through a stone chimney connected to a hole in the roof. Not only can many health problems be prevented because the toxic smoke is eliminated, but children can also have more opportunities for a better education by not having to collect as much firewood throughout the day.

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A new Good Neighbors cookstove being installed

This trip ultimately broadened my perspective as an individual and taught me lifelong lessons that I will forever cherish. During my experience, there were countless moments that touched my heart.  

On the first day, after we arrived, all fourteen of us (including our Good Neighbors staff members and guides Esther and Jose) clambered out of the airport and into a van. (By the way, our driver would prove to become a regular James Bond with his insanely awesome driving skills.) We were, and I quote fellow volunteer Jason, “excited and nervous.” I pressed my face up against the window in anticipation, drinking in every detail. Our group stopped by the Good Neighbors Guatemala office for a quick tour and introduction (and our hotel DelSol) before we headed to Acatenango.

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Guatsquad with local school children in Acatenango after chatting with the students and challenging them to an intense game of soccer. We tried and failed at not looking like tourists.

During the first half of the drive out of Guatemala City, our surroundings resembled parts of Los Angeles. However, as the van carried us further out into the villages up the long, winding roads, we all quickly became mesmerized by the beautiful scenery. Everything was so…green. Our van moseyed up the mountain, and everyone seemed to be infected with excitement as we pointed out the rows of unending maize, oohing and aahing at adorable children playing. Young, rowdy boys piled into the backs of trucks laughed and waved at us.

When we finally parked at the side of a dirt road, Jose led our group to the very first house we would build a cookstove for. The piece of land was surrounded by a fence made of short sticks, and Jose swung the gate open, inviting us in. There was a cage full of chickens, and small chicks roamed freely. Before us stood a room with three walls and to our right stood another room half its size. There were no doors, and the floor was completely made of dirt.Amywork2

Everyone was assigned different tasks, and then we got to work by soaking bricks in water collected from a plastic barrel, sifting the dirt, and mixing the cement with a sticky syrup. We took turns asking the family questions in Spanish, who introduced their three children. Oldie was a bright little girl with wide eyes and an even wider smile who caught chicks for us to hold. Little Santo shy, but he occasionally rewarded our attempts at jokes with peals of laughter. Alfonso was quiet, with a mischievous sparkle in his eye.

With everyone pitching in, we managed to finish most of the cookstove that day.

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The next few days, we repeated the process of building stoves for different families in the community. Some lived higher up in the mountains, so to reach their homes, we hiked for fifteen minutes on steep roads. Others lived in the middle of the farmland, so we waded through the rows of maize. As we chatted with the locals, we picked up bits of Spanish phrases and learned more about Guatemalan culture. I found out that one couple had been married for fifteen years and the husband built a well from scratch in fifteen days! Their doe-eyed little girl, Dulce Maria, was bundled up in a Dora the Explorer jacket and their son climbed trees to pick fruits. The couple shared soda and local snacks with us.

Although each family had a unique story, I noticed a common theme that all the residents shared. There was an intangible element in the air, a feeling that I couldn’t quite put into words, until one night, when Esther asked us to share our thoughts in our daily evening reflections. As she spoke about teamwork and being good neighbors, I realized that what we had all been feeling in Acatenango was a strong sense of community.

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Bolique. The traditional Pueblo meal with Amy, Jason, Miles (from left to right)

Whenever we passed by anyone, each person always chirped a friendly greeting, whether it was “buenos dias” or “hola.” Strangers welcomed us to their homes with genuine smiles. Even when we were building stoves for one family, other friends would eagerly stop by to lend a helping hand. Though our Spanish was far from fluent, we connected with the children by playing games. In fact, the locals were so open and warm, when we spontaneously decided (encouraged mostly by Jason) to challenge a nearby school to an intense game of soccer (which the schoolboys won), the principal came out to take pictures!

Everyone wanted to share a piece of their lives with us- some families generously prepared traditional Pueblo meals of bolique and tamalitos; Maria passed around cups of leche con bananas as Mark, Shivani, and I painted her stove, and still others bestowed upon us blessings with tears in their eyes.

Building cookstoves became routine for me, but this meant the world to the families.

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My beneficiary family: Maria, the mom, Oldie, the daughter, Santo, the little boy, and Alfonso (not pictured). They were the first family we visited, and to my surprise, after a couple days, we came around full circle and I ended up at their home again with my benefactor tile.

 

AmySignWhen the trip came to the end, saying goodbye felt bittersweet. In about a month, the families would be able to use their new cookstoves. However, I had gotten to know them and my fellow volunteers so much more personally that I began missing everyone before we even left! I wasn’t ready to part with the beautiful land up in the mountains or the sense of inspiration the soaring skies gave me.

As we shuffled off the van and into the airport, I thought about how much Guatemala had changed me on the outside (I tanned due to my refusal to wear an adequate amount of sunblock and made friends with mosquitos) and on the inside, as I would walk out of LAX a completely different person.

When visiting a country on a volunteering basis, there are more opportunities to see the raw, unedited lives of real people. I went into the trip with the mindset of helping others, but I now feel that Guatemala helped me much more. Children were constantly laughing and found more reasons to beam than frown. They saw so much happiness in life and seeing them reminded me that choosing to view a situation in a positive light isn’t so hard. Even if we didn’t understand what anyone was saying, everyone we met showed us that a smile was the universal language for friendship.

It was a tough decision, but we eventually settled on thumbs up over peace signs. #girlsruntheworld

It was a tough decision, but we eventually settled on thumbs up over peace signs. #girlsruntheworld

There are different connotations associated with the word “neighbors.” Some immediately shiver at the sound of this two-syllable word, as recollections of controversial views and ancient tensions regarding the Your-Golden-Retriever-Desecrated-My-Garden war of 1930 resurface. Others beam fondly as they reminisce about the many “welcome” pies received upon moving into the neighborhood. Still others ponder, “Neighbors? What neighbors? The nearest store is a two-hour drive.” However, when I see the word “neighbors,” I think of people who may not know you very well, but are willing to share their stories with you.

During my experience in Guatemala, volunteering with Good Neighbors taught me much more about being a neighbor than I ever expected. So, from one neighbor to another, I urge you to challenge yourself to seize the day and change someone’s life- you never know, you might even change your own in the process.


Amy and her team completed a total of 13 new stoves, drastically improving the  living conditions and lifestyle of these families. Our neighbors in Guatemala who encountered this team will never be the same. But there is more work to be done! If you want to spend your summer like Amy did, email us at volunteer@goodneighbors.org for info on our upcoming trips!

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#GuatSquad & Ladrillos: My Week in Guatemala

Last month, we sent a group of high school volunteers to Guatemala to support Project Cookstoves,  an initiative that builds new, energy-efficient cookstoves for families and allows us to promote education, health, and environmental protection! Read below for Joy’s account on this amazing, eye-opening trip. 

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By Joy Gursky

A couple weeks ago, I found myself in Guatemala City with a group of twelve other volunteers from different high schools scattered throughout the United States. Waiting for our ride to the hotel from the airport, all of us were exhausted and hoping we had made the right decision in deciding to travel to a foreign country with a group of people we had never met before. We were strangers with one common goal: we wanted to improve the lives of the less fortunate, and we were going to accomplish this by building energy-efficient cookstoves for families in rural Guatemalan villages with Good Neighbors. So, after resting in the hotel, we were off to our first volunteer site. The drive to Patzicía was long (a few hours!), and we were all excited, nervous, and unsure of what to expect.

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Building stoves is, as one might imagine, very difficult work, and there are many preliminary steps. First, all the bricks (or “ladrillos” as they’re called in Spanish) need to be soaked in water for at least a minute to ensure that they don’t just break apart when you lay them down. Dirt, water, and cement need to be mixed separately to put in between the bricks and ensure everything sticks together and the smoke and flames won’t escape. The terrain where the stove will reside needs to be evened out; in some cases the stoves were built in the kitchen, but in others they were built outside under some sort of pavilion.

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Once all these steps have been taken, it is finally time to start laying down the bricks: cinder blocks at the bottom, and the traditional red bricks at the top. After laying them down, the chimney (a cylindrical, hollow, and very, very heavy block made out of cement) needs to be installed. Thankfully, since our team was so large, we were each able to work on the different steps simultaneously to make sure that everything was completed on time.

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Constructing the stoves wasn’t the most fun part of the trip, though. The best part was getting to know the native Guatemalans and the rest of the high school group (we eventually very cleverly named ourselves the “#GuatSquad). The families in the homes we visited didn’t speak any English, but on that first day, all of us so desperately wanted to interact with them that we were willing to walk right up to them and introduce ourselves in the bits and pieces of Spanish that we had learned  forgotten in school years before… even if our American accents were awful. Nevertheless, we tried our best, and by the end of each day we had learned the names of the family, their ages, and where they had been born – all while working together to build the cookstoves. And by the end of the trip, we were having basic conversations with local families and children.

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One thing that I’ve taken away from our journey is that at home, we really have it easy. In the U.S, we’re fortunate to have microwaves and ovens that heat up our food, pipes that deliver hot water straight into our sinks and bathtubs, and heaters installed into our homes to keep us warm in the winter. For many people in the U.S, it’s difficult to even comprehend not having any of that, since it’s literally in every home; but for people in developing countries it’s a reality. Many Guatemalans who don’t live in the city rely on fire for everything from heating their bath water to cooking their food. This dependency doesn’t come without consequences. Smoke inhaled by families who use fire as a means to survive regularly leads to several health risks including emphysema, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer–and claims 4 million lives each year, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

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If you’re considering volunteering abroad but are having qualms about doing so, my advice to you would be to just do it. Volunteering in a foreign country is a life-changing experience, and your perspective on just about everything will be altered forever. Take some time to read up on the country and culture you’re visiting before you leave. Bring your own hygienic products because you never know when you’ll need them. And most importantly, have fun!       

Thanks for joining our summer volunteer  trip to Guatemala, Joy! Learn more about our Project Cookstoves here, and how to volunteer with us here

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Club Day at Van Nuys High School

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Written by Amanda Kaufman, Treasurer of VNHS Good Neighbors Club

Van Nuys High School holds an annual “Club Day,” a day for different clubs to fundraise by setting up booths in the Quad selling food, snacks, and drinks. For most students, what defines Club Day is the wide selection of good food available for students to purchase; however for the students helping out at each booth, Club Day is a responsibility that promises rewards beyond just the food but also publicity (and with publicity, new members), and more funds for the club.

The wonderful members of Club Project Cookstoves working hard! (From left to right: Sean Kim, Nicholas Lee, Sung Lee (awesome dad!), Bea Aguillan, Joe Lee

The wonderful members of Club Project Cookstoves working hard! (From left to right: Sean Kim, Nicholas Lee, Sung Lee (awesome dad!), Bea Aguillan, Joe Lee

Our club, Project Cookstoves, organized a booth selling Korean Barbeque. Members of the club brought pans and grills to cook the meat onsite. To bring attention to the booth and to attract more customers, members of the club walked among the crowd of students and teachers while holding up posters promoting Project Cookstoves. In addition, next to the food was a box for donations.

Poster made by student Xena Peterson

Poster made by student Xena Peterson

Overall, it was a successful event for Project Cookstoves. Our club raised over $200 from both selling the food and obtaining additional donations. The apron-clad students behind the tables experienced how hectic things could get, so they should definitely be commended for their hard work, diligence and efficiency! A special thank you goes to the parents of Jae Chung and Joe Lee, who provided a lot of the food. We look forward to more opportunities to raise both funds and awareness for Project Cookstoves in the future.

Thanks, Amanda, and everyone at the Project Cookstoves Club at Van Nuys High School! You guys are awesome and we appreciate all your hard work and dedication to spreading awareness about this project! Visit our website for more information about Project Cookstoves.

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