A Homeschool Dad Tells About His Recent Service Project in Guatemala

A Homeschool Dad Tells About His Recent Service Project in Guatemala

As some of you may know, service and

Typical village home

volunteerism are part of our family’s philosophy. Blair, my wife and founder of SEA Homeschoolers, has previously written about this aspect of our family on her blog and here on SEA. In fact, as I’m writing this, she and our son Sean are in downtown San Diego helping newly naturalized citizens register to vote as they exit their final ceremony with their citizenship documents in hand. I was there with them last month, and it is awesome to see the excitement and enthusiasm on the faces of these new U.S. citizens. Many of them are escaping persecution or poverty in their native countries and are simply looking for an opportunity to create a better life for their children.


Typical rural home
Typical rural home

Guatemala is one of the countries that has been a source of immigrants for these exact reasons. Currently there are around 1,000,000 people of Guatemalan origin living in the U.S. Many of the immigrants, both legal and illegal, were forced to seek refuge from a 36-year-long civil war that occurred in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996. This was a dark time in relatively recent Guatemalan history with unconscionable atrocities being committed by the government and other factions against its people. During that time the indigenous population was the hardest hit. Somewhere around 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared.” The indigenous Mayan population in Guatemala has been persecuted and marginalized ever since Spanish colonization began in the 1500’s. Their descendants still make up around 40% of the population and are some of the poorest of Guatemala’s citizens. The purpose of my recent trip to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity was to help improve living conditions for a few of these families.

Working on one of the stoves
Working on one of the stoves

This was my second Global Village trip with Habitat and it was a bit different than the normal house building project most people associate with the organization. Instead we worked fitting three rural homes with Healthy Home kits (I’ll explain later). It also had an educational component, teaching volunteers about issues facing the poor, especially women, and some of these women’s efforts to improve their family’s situations.

Nearly complete stove, just need to finish vent
Nearly complete stove, just need to finish vent

The Healthy Home Solution: Most rural homes we saw would be considered uninhabitable by our standards. If the family was lucky, they had a concrete floor in some rooms, but many of the floors were simply dirt. A family might have one electrical line for a light bulb but no indoor plumbing or sanitation. Traditionally, the women in these situations are forced to cook on crude stoves with wood they gather locally. There is minimal or no ventilation for the smoke to the outside. You can imagine how unhealthy this is for the women and children who spend many hours a day inside the home. You can actually see the carbon buildup on the ceilings and walls of these homes.

Starting latrine
Starting latrine

Imagine what their lungs must look like after a few years of this. Respiratory diseases are a major problem in Guatemala because of this specific situation. Since there is no indoor plumbing, families either use latrines, outhouses, or simply go out into the forest or field to go to the bathroom. Usually there is a precast concrete sink unit outside the home where the family washes dishes and gets water for cooking and drinking. The water comes from collected rainwater in a community water tank and is gravity fed to the individual homes. Some families are forced to collect water from nearby streams or springs if they are not connected to a water source. Regardless, there is no water treatment in these rural areas so water borne diseases are also quite common.

Finished latrine
Finished latrine

Habitat has a solution to these problems. Called the Healthy Home Solution, it consists of a new more efficient stove that requires half the amount of wood for cooking and vents the smoke to the outside. In addition, it includes a new properly built latrine and a water filter for drinking and water used in cooking. In the days we were on-site we built Healthy Home solutions for three families. Although the work was fairly strenuous and we only had hand tools, no power tools to work with, it was rewarding. You spend the day surrounded by and working alongside the family, and there is plenty of time to interact with them and play with the children. The families are so appreciative and thankful for our efforts you really get the feeling that you have improved their lives in a concrete way.

We brought a few things for the children at the work sites.
We brought a few things for the children at the work sites.
Some of the women from Thirteen Threads

The Women: Guatemala is no different than many other developing countries in terms of women’s position in the society. Although the men in these rural areas work hard outside the home, mostly in agriculture, the women probably work even harder. Cooking, washing, gathering wood, taking care of the children and also working in the field. Guatemalan society is still very paternalistic and the “machismo” factor is always present. There are however, some indigenous women who are trying to change attitudes and improve their family’s lives. We met with women from two different cooperatives who have come together and pooled their resources and talents. They have created businesses that have, at least modestly, increased their family incomes. They explained how their husbands were against their efforts until they saw the money. Now the men are beginning to come around but there is still a lot of resistance overall because of the ingrained “machismo” culture. You can’t help but admire and respect these women for standing up to be heard.

pic10The first cooperative we visited was called Thirteen Threads. They had a store in Panajachel. Panajachel is a town on the east side of Lake Atitlan where our hotel was located. The women in this cooperative make crafts, rugs and baskets. We actually hiked into their village on a walking trail where they showed us how they make their goods. They also made us a great lunch. You can find out more on their website: http://www.oxlajujbatz.org.gt/

Weaving cooperative demonstration
Weaving cooperative demonstration

The second cooperative, Casa Flor Ixcaco Weaving Cooperative, is located in San Juan. San Juan is a town on the west side of Lake Atitlan. It took nearly an hour to get there by boat. It seemed like a long time until it was explained that it would have been a three hour car ride. The women in this cooperative do weaving. They grow their own cotton, hand spin the thread, hand dye the thread with all natural plant dyes and hand weave the products. We were given a demonstration of all parts of the process. We asked if they were open to new members and it was explained that any women in San Juan could join. The only requirement is that she must grow her own cotton. I bought Blair a beautiful woven poncho for $30. The tag had the artists name and said it took 2 weeks to make. I feel like it should have cost more. They also made us a terrific lunch. You can find out more on their website: http://www.casaflorixcaco.com/inicio.html

They work in their own homes; notice the dirt floor
They work in their own homes; notice the dirt floor

About Habitat for Humanity Guatemala: Like all international Habitat locations, pic13there is a local affiliate in Guatemala. They provide assistance like transportation and do much of the groundwork in support of the projects. They choose the recipients and set the local rules for safety and other policies. Habitat has provided nearly 70,000 housing solutions in Guatemala. These include both complete homes as well as Healthy Home solutions. In some special situations Habitat has built complete neighborhoods. Their work in Guatemala has benefited more than 312,000 people, mostly children. Habitat’s work in Guatemala has reduced the country’s housing deficit by nearly 5%. Habitat works in every department, what we might call a state or county, in Guatemala.

End of the week party with families we helped
End of the week party with families we helped

Habitat calls itself a Christian organization, but there is no proselytizing. It is open to those of all faiths or no faith. Many of the people served are of faith so there may be an occasional prayer but that’s it. I have loved my experiences with Habitat for Humanity. Both trips, to Mexico and to Guatemala, provided an opportunity to experience a foreign country in a way no vacation ever could. You work with dedicated local affiliates who live there and help you to understand their culture. There is no holding back and you see the good, the bad, and the ugly. When you leave you come home with a real understanding of the place you visited and the knowledge that you made a positive difference in the life of another human being. At the same time you make new friends from all parts of the globe. When you get to know people while working and playing, you really do get to know them better.
This might be the last Habitat trip I do on my own. Sean turns 16 soon, which means he will be old enough to do international trips with Habitat. I assume the next one will include all three of us. I would recommend Habitat for Humanity for anyone who wants a short term volunteer project abroad. You can get all the information at their website: www.habitat.org

jimJim Lee has been helping his wife, Blair, homeschool their 16 year old son for almost 10 years. He recently went back to college and got his Masters degree in International Relations. When he isn’t at home spending time with family and friends he is working to make the world a better place for others.


Check one of our member’s child’s poem about nature here.

Yellowstone National Park, Montana

Yellowstone National Park, Montana

“There are owls in those trees!” Lower Falls of Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone, Montana

On Silent Wings, Owls

I love owls! Owls get me thinking about the natural selection that must have taken place for a bird to be a successful nighttime predator. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that a bird would evolve to fill the niche of flying nighttime predator. It’s the steps to getting there that fascinate me. What do you think came first silent flight, superior hearing, or the ability to see well in the dark?

The parks we have stayed in had ranger talks every night. The owl talk at Yellowstone National Park was an excellent one. I took notes so I could share the information with you.

Adaptations of a Flying Nocturnal Predator

Nighttime is dark! It is essential that nocturnal predators have excellent hearing so they can hear prey, like mice and chipmunks, move. Owls have several adaptations that give them superior hearing abilities.

  1. Face shape: Owl faces are concave, bowl shaped. This funnels sounds to their ears.
  2. Placement and shape of their ears: Owl ears are flush with their skull, placed just at the top lip of the “bowl”, and offset from each other. Having their ears flush with their skull and at the lip of where sound funnels give owls superior hearing ability. Owl ears are offset from each other, with one being slightly higher on their skull. This helps owls determine the vertical direction, above or below, a sound comes from. For example, if the sound comes from above them, the ear that is higher on their skull will hear the sound first.
  3. Owls can independently move each of the muscles in their face. This helps them move their ears to better determine the direction sound comes from.
  4. Beak location: Bird beaks are analogous to your nose and mouth. An owls’ beak is very low on its face so it doesn’t interfere with the quality of sound as it is funneled to its ears. You nose and mouth would be on your chin if it were placed in a similar location to an owls.

Owls do not just rely on their sense of hearing. They also have superior nighttime vision.

  1. An owls’ eyes take up 70% of its face. That is a lot of face space dedicated to the sense of sight.
  2. Owls have 3 types of eyelid. One is similar to ours. It is for blinking and sweeping debris from the eye. This eyelid closes down. The second eyelid is fur covered (not feather covered – I was surprised by that). This eyelid closes up and it is the eyelid that allows owls to sleep soundly during the day. It functions similarly to a blackout curtain. The third eyelid is a nictating membrane that closes from the inside corner of the eye outward. This membrane is common in many animals, including dogs. It is a clear membrane that gives protection to the eye when moving, like when an owl swoops down through tree branches to catch a mouse. It protects the eye if pine needle brush then net part of the eye.
  3. In the back of the eyes of animals are sight receptors called rods and cones. Cones are important for seeing colors, and rods are important for seeing white, black, and shades of gray. People have an equal ratio of rods to cones. Nocturnal animals do not need to see colors well. Next time you are up late sit outside and think about how much color you see even with all the cones in your eyes. Most of what you see will be in shades of white and black. Owls have many more rods than cones. It has been determined that because of this adaptation they see about 20% better at night than people do.
  4. An owl’s eyes are fixed to their skull. In contrast, you are able to move your eyes in your eye sockets. To compensate for the inability to move their eyes in their eye sockets owls have 14 neck bones (people have 7) so that they can rotate their heads 270 degrees and up and down. This extends their range of sight and hearing.

Silent flight
Perhaps the coolest adaptation owls have is silent flight! Sound travels through the air in waves. Sound waves are heard when the waves reach a target such as an ear. The larger the wave, the louder the sound. If the waves are disrupted, they do not reach the target as sound. The tips of an owl’s flight feathers are tapered and feathered in cone-like fashion in such a way that the tips cut through the sound waves that are generated by the force of motion of the owl’s wings as they fly. By cutting through the sound waves, the waves are nullified and there is no sound wave to be heard. Sit outside at night and listen to how quiet it is. Silent flight is important for catching prey at night.

Catching prey
Have you ever felt a cat’s tongue? That is what the skin on owl feet feels like. An owl’s talons are similar in feel to a cat’s claws. Needle-like talons and raspy feet help owls grab their furry prey without losing hold and ending up with nothing but a talon full of fur.

Better survival of all babies hatched not just the “fittest”
Most birds lay all the eggs in each clutch, litter, one after the other at the same time. The eggs hatch at the same time too. The babies are in direct competition with each other, because they all have the same care requirements, with the largest and/or loudest being fed first and most. This results in a better chance of living to adulthood for the loudest and largest of the chicks born.

Owls use a different hatching strategy. Over the course of a month, owls lay three eggs. The laying of each egg is spaced 7 to 10 days apart from when the other eggs are laid. This makes more work for the parents, but it increases the chance of survival of each chick because the babies are not in direct competition with each other. The parents work together to care for the babies. The female stays with the babies, caring for them and protecting them from predators. Part of her job is to keep track of which babies’ turn it is to eat next. The male hunts tirelessly to feed his family of five. The male and female do spend several hours each day huddled together sleeping and preening each other.

In addition to all the above adaptations it is important that owls be well camouflaged for where they sleep. Owls are predators, and prey animals such as squirrels and small birds do not like predators sleeping where they live. If they find an owl sleeping in or near where they live, they harass it during the daytime, when the owl is trying to sleep, until the owl leaves. If you watch the sky you will sometimes see a larger bird being chased and harassed by smaller birds, maybe that large bird is an owl.

Look online and see if any owls live in your area.

  1. What continents have owls native to them?
  2. What is the smallest species of owl?
  3. What is the largest species of owl?

Check out our post on building the habit of reading aloud here.

1406266378Blair Lee M.S. is the the founder of Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers. When she’s not busy doing these things, she’s busy writing or working on service projects. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Real Science Odyssey Biology 2 and Chemistry 1, http://www.pandiapress.com/publications/real-science-odyssey/. She is currently working on Astronomy and Earth Science 2 for the series.

(Answers: 1 – All continents except Antarctica, 2 – An elf owl, it weighs 31 grams and is 13.5 cm tall, 3 – Blakiston’s fish owl, it weighs 2.95 to 3.6 kg and is 60-75 cm tall