Tag Archives: Guatemala

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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Our LA Marathon Runners: Meet Katrin!


Our Meet the Runners series continues this week and we’re introducing you to the lovely Katrin! Katrin is a fifth grade teacher in Tampa, Florida but she grew up living in Virginia, Kansas, and Indiana. She attended Ball State University and double majored in Elementary Education and Spanish, and earned her Masters’ degree from Nova Southeastern University.  She’s flying all the way out here to run the LA Marathon with us and we’re thrilled to have her on our team—and so glad she had time to answer our top 5 questions:

Q: Hey, Katrin! What made you lace up your running shoes and join our team for the LA Marathon?

It has always been on my bucket list to run a marathon before I turn 30, and since I turn 30 in July, I was running out of time to meet my goal!  My friend Adriana mentioned that she was going sign up to run a marathon and I told her I would love to do it with her. So I signed up and have been training ever since.

Q: How’s your training going so far and what keeps you motivated?

My training is going very well.  At times, it’s hard to get out there and run the miles but I love a challenge, and when I say I’m going to do something, I give it 110%. Training for this marathon is no different. My goal is to run the whole marathon without walking, so that’s what gets me out there every week to do my super long runs.  I just hit the 20-mile mark and it was an amazing feeling to run that far.  It helps that I have a lot of great friends and family from all over that are supporting me and keeping me motivated—as well as Ryan Gosling pictures to look at during my long runs. :)

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

I love traveling, watching sports, working out, hanging out with friends and family, watching my television shows, and reading.

Q: What’s a fun fact about yourself that not many people know?

I’ve been lucky to have visited over 20 countries!  I love to meet new people, see new things,  and gain new and unique experiences.  My big  dream is to one day be on the TV show  The Amazing Race.

Q: And lastly, what drew you to our Project Cookstoves?

Adriana told me about Good Neighbors and their Project Cookstoves, so I looked it up and could not believe the startling facts that I read, such as children spending their days collecting firewood instead of going to school.  As a teacher, this really resonated with me because I believe education is so important. I want to do everything I can to make sure children everywhere can get an education and live a happy, healthy life.  I’m very happy that I signed on to run the LA Marathon as part of this charity team because I really want to help fundraise and support this cause.

Thanks so much, Katrin! To support Katrin, visit her fundraising page here. Check out the rest of our team here and read more Meet the Runner interviews here!

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Meet Our LA Marathon Team Captain, Tony!


We’re less than one month away from the LA Marathon on Sunday, March 9th, and um…our Team Captain, Tony Rodriguez, isn’t nervous at all. Right, Tony? Right?

In all seriousness, our team has been training hard, especially Tony, who is also the web/graphic designer at Good Neighbors. So we sat down and asked him 5 questions to stock up on a little inspiration for the next few weeks:

Hey, Tony! The marathon is just weeks away, how’s your training going so far? And as our Team Captain, any words of wisdom on staying motivated to train?

Aside from a few minor setbacks (mainly catching the flu and dealing with a really sore IT band), the training has been going great! I just hit my 14-mile mark and it felt awesome.  As for motivation, one of the best things you can do is not to think of the daunting 26.2 miles, but rather just take the challenge in smaller chunks of running (1 mile run followed by a 4 mile run the next week, followed by a 6 mile run the third and so on). Another thing that has helped me a lot is having running buddies that have kept me on track even after setbacks.

We keep you pretty busy here at Good Neighbors. How are you finding time to fit training into your schedule?

The great thing about training for a marathon is that it can pretty much happen during any part of the day. Although I hear that getting used to the brisk morning air is a good idea before the actual marathon, so I’ve been trying to run in the evenings after work and early in the morning on Saturdays.

You were in the Marines before joining our organization. What was that experience like?

I have to say it was definitely as much of a life-changing experience as anyone can expect it to be. I’ve gained the closest friends there who are like brothers and sisters to me, gained technical skills that I still use today (including for many of the things I do for Good Neighbors) and have a greater sense of self-confidence that I couldn’t have gained anywhere else. That being said, it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. The process to become a United States Marine alone is a 13-week program that tests the limits of physical and mental endurance. After becoming a Marine, there is a continual amount of training and discipline which becomes an integral part of your active duty life and beyond.

You and your wife, Nika, always go out and do awesome things together. What are some of your favorite hobbies/activities/events/etc?

Where do I start? Coffee. Yes, definitely coffee. Nika and I attend many different events related to the coffee industry, like the San Diego caffeine crawl a couple of weeks ago, where we got to tour the coffee roasting facilities of many great coffee makers. (You can search #caffeinecrawl if you’re interested in attending!) We also love doing movie screenings with our friends—recently, a group of us have been getting together to watch every James Bond movie ever.  We’re close to the end!

The team is running to fundraise for Project Cookstoves. Why do you think it’s such an important project?

The cookstoves we build for families are a great solution to so many bigger problems. A new cookstove for a family means better overall health because they’re not breathing in toxic fumes, children are going to school instead of walking miles to collect firewood, and families form a closer bond because they’re cooking and eating together around the cookstove. It becomes their dining table and a place for community.  Healthy, happy families today equals a better future for everyone. It’s such a worthy cause that I’m proud to support.

Thanks so much, Tony! Support our LA Marathon team’s fundraising efforts and learn more about our Project Cookstoves initiative. And check out our other Q&A with runner Adriana Zyskowski.

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Our LA Marathon Runners: Meet Adriana!


We have some pretty awesome runners on our LA Marathon team and we’re excited to introduce them to you over the next few weeks! Our team will be fundraising on behalf of our Project Cookstoves, which provides families with new, safe, and energy-efficient stoves to improve their health and ensure children stay in school instead of spending their days collecting firewood.

Our first featured runner is Adriana Zyskowski, a Communications and Events Manager at Youth Policy Institute in Los Angeles, CA. We got to ask her our 5 top questions:


Q: Hey, Adriana! What made you lace up your running shoes and join our team for the LA Marathon? 

Two years ago, I sat watching the LA Marathon from a window eating donuts and laughing. Last year, I went to the finish line to see my friend, Katie, who flew in from Pennsylvania run, and still laughed, thinking that 26.2 miles is unreal – why would you EVER want to do that?! This past October, however, my friend Nellie, who’s the Campaign Manager at Good Neighbors, mentioned the organization had signed on as an LA Marathon charity. So I decided that I wanted to try it out and see if I could actually commit to doing it. After another friend from Florida decided she wanted to fly out to LA and run it with me, there was no turning back!

Q: You love surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding–how’d you get into those sports?

I grew up with a group of friends and boyfriend who are into these sports. I’ve always been into unique activities and ideas, and I was always drawn to these sports. I think they’re fun, and make you feel good!


Q: When you’re not out on another athletic adventure, what else keeps you busy?

I love traveling and am constantly trying to come up with the next place to visit. I also love the beach, reading, and hanging out with friends and family.

Q: How’s your marathon training going so far and what’s keeping you motivated?

I have on and off weeks (and those off weeks are ROUGH!) but I’m keeping motivated for a few reasons: Katie from PA reminded me that I get to run on the beach every day instead of in freezing East Coast weather and so not to take it for granted; I want to prove to myself I can do this; and if my family and friends are going to support me and Good Neighbors, I better make it to the finish line!


Q: Lastly, what drew you to our Project Cookstoves cause?

I’ve always had a passion for supporting projects in developing countries. I am grateful for how I grew up, and can’t imagine living in a place where a stove—something a lot of us take for granted—is one of the most dangerous objects in a household in Guatemala. I’ve known Nellie for over 3 years now. When she told me some of the surprising and sad facts about cookstoves, like how the toxic exhaust leads to 1.9 million premature deaths annually, or that children’s futures are affected because they spend hours gathering biofuels instead of going to school, I knew that I wanted to support the cause. Growing up in a household where my father was a teacher and our entire family values education, I know that it’s not fair that children miss out on an education because they have to risk their lives to live. I want to help ensure that families aren’t dying prematurely and that children have the chance at an education.

Thanks for sharing with us, Adriana! Support Adriana’s fundraising campaign here and check out our other runners here. Next week we’ll be featuring our Team Captain, Tony Rodriguez!

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