Roots & Wings Intl. Volunteers Help To Educate Others

by Killeen M. Gonzalez

Tammy Chiang remembered fondly her most memorable volunteer moment as being when she received a “thank you” for her help in getting disaster assistance for a Guatemalan community after a fire caused great damage to it.  Chiang got the community help by sending out press releases to potential donors.

As for Anna Heatherly, her most memorable volunteer moment occurred on one mother’s day when she was asked to sit down and share a meal with some of the women and their families that she had helped tutor.   “Growing up, we never really had family dinners at home, so it was a really memorable experience (for me)” Heatherly recalled.

It was those moments and others like them that cemented helping other people as being part of both Tammy Chiang and Anna Heatherly’s nature.

Tammy Chiang, an online marketing consultant, is fluent in three languages, has a B.A from the University of Singapore and a MBA from Santa Clara University of California.

Anna Heatherly has a BA degree from Bowling Green University and works as a Digital Strategist for Virilion, a full-service interactive agency in Washington, D.C.

Although both women maintain different career paths, they remain united in their passion for Roots and Wings International, where both women volunteer on an average of 30 hours a week.

When asked why she decided to engage in volunteer work, Heatherly points to a specific moment in her life.   It was when someone told her “be the change you want to see in the world”.

Having never forgotten those early utterances when Heatherly got old enough she started planning neighborhood clean-ups, organizing fundraisers for various charities and tutoring younger children.   “Life has awarded me many gifts Heatherly said, (and) “helping others seemed like the only way to say thank you!”

“One reason I have been able to put in as much time on RWI projects is due to the strong support my husband gives me.   Without that support, I don’t think I would have done as much for RWI” said Chiang.

Chiang, a Singaporean Chinese native believes that it was her university education that “opened doors and contacts” which she believes she otherwise wouldn’t have obtained and cites this as one of the personal reasons she volunteers and is so passionate about RWI.

Roots & Wings International is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to provide scholarships and promote community development as defined by locals themselves.   They have offices in both Washington, DC and Southwest Guatemala in the mountains of Boca Costa.   Though an independent organization they do work in tandem with a Guatemalan founded, sister non-profit called Raices y Alas Guatemala.

Roots and Wings International, in Erik’s words, was founded on the idea that “education was the best tool to empower indigenous communities”.

“The whole idea of education is to promote development, but my goal isn’t to define development, my goal is to promote education so people can define development based on their own culture and life experience,” Erik said. Erik Swanson, a Washington, DC law student, founded the organization in 2006 after spending two years in rural Guatemala as the director of a senior and junior high school.

Both Chiang and Heatherly point out that Roots and Wing’s name reflects both it’s commitment to valuing the culture of their students (roots) and the opportunities that become available with quality education (wings).

Last year Roots and Wings provided 17 scholarships for students to attend local universities. Through tireless fund raising on the behalf of volunteers like Chiang and Heatherly, RWI raised approximately $25,000 in 2008.

Though primarily operated by volunteers, RWI does employ three indigenous Guatemalans who come from the same communities and socio-economic background as those they serve. These three employees not only assist with all the groundwork done in the rural Guatemalan communities, they also serve as college counselors, tutors and general office administration.

Chiang, Heatherly and the other volunteers work with those three employees on a variety of initiatives such as scholarship requirements, development meetings, and fund-raising.

In terms of scholarship requirements, RWI students are expected to maintain an 80% grade point average.    If a student drops below 80% they will be placed on academic probation, receive academic tutoring and will be encouraged to bring their grades back up the following semester or face a reduction in the scholarship amount.

All students are required to attend monthly development meetings where they are given a forum to discuss their struggles and their aspirations while also providing an opportunity to apply their education to development issues in their communities.

Furthermore, the students are expected to find employment to cover the cost of books, supplies, transportation and registration fees.   Swanson explained “This is a very intentional aspect of the scholarship program.

The skills gained by working in a business setting – keeping track of money, serving customers, learning about business finance and operations, etc. – help our students learn how to set goals and prepare for their own future.”

RWI has two fund-raising programs that keep with their mission to develop areas based on community needs; sales of coffee and weavings.

In the region where RWI is located there are dozens of coffee-producing communities.   It was this proliferation of coffee-producing communities coupled with the high international demand for shade-grown organic coffee, that RWI decided upon helping the Guatemalans sell their coffee world-wide.

“Because we believe that it is important for communities to have ownership over their own development, we believe that it is appropriate to reinvest coffee proceeds back into the communities that grow it (thus) the communities are truly investing in their own future” Swanson explained.

Furthermore, all RWI scholarship winners are required to produce one traditional Mayan weaving per semester.   These weavings are then sold by the organization and the funds are re-applied directly into the scholarship program

“Over 90% of RWI’s funding goes directly into programs in Guatemala” Chiang remarked and one of the other things she cites as admirable is that “RWI recognizes that to help the community, its people need to learn to help themselves”.

Finding enough funding is a constant cause of struggle for RWI volunteers, especially now that the U.S is in the throes of a depression.   It is more so the “knowing that we can do so much more if we have the funds” that is the part that bothers Chiang.

However the women did note one positive side to the recession, and that is that they have been getting an increasing number of volunteers who have been able to put in more time volunteering and thereby allowing RWI to make a more significant impact on the populations that they serve.

In addition to the other programs, RWI started a 25 station computer lab in May of 2009.    The purpose of the computer lab is to assist the elementary tutoring program, provide computer access for scholarship winners and to give computer classes to the general public.

The after school elementary tutoring center is for children ages 5 to 11 years of age.   The center currently has 250 students but is looking to expand to 550 students by sometime next year.   Chiang and Heatherly are both working on obtaining more computers for the lab.

RWI founder Erik Swanson has plans of building a university preparatory school in the rural region of Nahula.   “We are focusing on university scholarships now to have an adequate labor pool of indigenous K’iche’-speaking professionals to make up the staff and faculty of the school we build.

We believe that it is important for students to receive an education based in their own culture and imparted by teachers who speak their own language.” said Swanson.

Scholarship winners such as Manuela Tzep Lòpez and Herlinda Guadalupe Cochojil Itcep are just two examples of young women helped by Roots and Wings International.

Nanuela Tzep Lopez - of Roots and Wings Intl.24 year old Manuela Tzep Lòpez is in her second year at University Panamericana, studying social work.

She is the first in her family to study at the university level and one of the first women in her region to do so.

Herlinda Guadalupe Cochojil Itcep of Roots and Wings Intl.19 year old Herlinda Guadalupe Cochojil Itcep is another example of the way Roots and Wings helps provide education as well as foster community.   Itcep received a RWI scholarship.

Currently studying at the Mesoamerican University in Quetzaltenango, Itcep’s ultimate goal is to open a clinic in her village which currently is devoid of medical facilities.  She is particularly interested in using the proposed clinic as a means of providing prenatal care and preventive medicine to lower the village’s high infant mortality rate.

Both women agree that volunteering up to 30 hours a week while juggling other obligations can be difficult.   Heatherly readily admits that she is “really addicted to adrenaline” and loves to push her self to limit.    Her tip for avoiding burnout is to “put good food and water into (her) body and spending time with people who make (her) feel good about herself.    The women have also learned to recognize when they need a break and to allow themselves some time for exercise related activities like yoga and rock climbing.

To be a volunteer, Chiang and Heatherly recommend that you bring with you a lot of life experience, a passion to learn and try new things, patience, communication skills, the ability to multi-task, maturity and a good sense of humor.

For those that want to become a volunteer Chiang recommends that they “Find a cause that (they) can identify with, work or volunteer with a non-profit doing what you know best, and give yourself time to learn how the organization is run”.   Following these steps Chiang believes that volunteers will discover how to best assist their chosen non-profit further its cause.

As for Heatherly, she believes that  “some of the greatest advantages to volunteer work is that you get out so much more than you put it. Not only does volunteering teach you discipline, commitment, teamwork and efficiency, it’s also a great creative outlet!” and she encourages all those who are contemplating volunteer work to just go ahead and “do it!”

As for their future plans, both women want to continue their work with RWI, including assisting with the opening of RWI’s university preparatory school in 2010 as well as possibly expanding their work to other impoverished regions.

Chiang ended the interview by saying that “I think the most important factor in people’s lives is the ability to make a difference if they want to.

Education is one of the most important means to creating that opportunity (and) if I could change one thing in the world, it would be to give every child an opportunity to receive an education”.

Heatherly echoed her sentiments and added that as human beings “the best we can do (in this life) is simply to believe in change… it is possible!”

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