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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 23, Number 7, May/June 2011

Mayan Families Canada

By Kathy Silver

In 2005, Robin Pawliuk, a middle school teacher in Parksville, BC, and her daughter, Leigh, a high school student, visited the Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala. While touring several of the Mayan villages, which cling to the hillsides above the lake, the pair was struck by the unimaginable poverty the Mayans live in.

Soon, Robin and Leigh were talking about what they could do to help these people. Robin felt overwhelmed by their needs but Leigh calmly stated that if they concentrated on just one village they could make a difference in these peoples’ lives. And so they founded Mayan Families Canada. From this relatively unassuming beginning it has become a registered Canadian charity that provides approximately $50,000 worth of assistance to numerous needy Mayan families in Guatemala every year.

Robin has successfully combined her teaching career with her passion for humanitarian activities and strives to teach the students in her school and district both social awareness and activism. In this regard, her goal at school is threefold: to increase social awareness in her students, to provide them with a real platform for social activism, and finally, to show them concrete evidence of the results of their endeavours.

“It’s amazing,” states Pawliuk, “how many of our students are naturally empathetic and interested in making a difference in the world. They just don’t know how. I provide them with ways to help. Their response is astonishing.”

However, in every classroom there are always one or two students who don’t want to “get it.” They sit with arms folded, gazing uninterestingly out the window while she speaks of her experiences in Guatemala. Patience and persistence on her part and the excitement of their peers often convinces many of these students to get involved and they can become her biggest supporters. “You can just see the light bulb suddenly turn on and that’s really magical,” states Pawliuk. “That makes it all worthwhile!”

To date, students in Pawliuk’s middle school and in other schools right across Canada have been involved in a wide range of fundraisers.

One of the most successful and well-received fundraisers is called The Wall of Hope. After teachers have given a short lesson on the difference between Wants and Needs, a large banner is attached to a wall in the school foyer. Students can decide if they’d like to give up something they want—like a dinner at McDonalds, or a DVD rental, or a new app for their IPhone, and donate the money they would have spent instead. They write their name and what they’ve given up on a piece of paper and attach it to the Wall of Hope.

Pawliuk feels that this particular fundraiser is so successful because it works on two levels. It gets students thinking about how incredibly fortunate they are, as well as letting them donate money in a way that is truly meaningful to them.

“They’re not just asking for a few dollars from Mom and Dad.” explains Pawliuk. “Instead they’re giving up something that’s important to them in order to help someone else. They feel like they’ve really contributed.”

In the years that Mayan Families Canada has been working in Guatemala, they have sponsored the education of over 28 students, built five houses and repaired many more, assisted in the building of a community centre, installed dozens of fuel-efficient and ventilated stoves, given out hundreds of chickens for egg laying, distributed packs of school supplies, provided food and medical supplies in emergency situations, and distributed suitcase upon suitcase of shoes, clothes, toys, and other items donated by people at home.

Robin and Leigh travel to Guatemala every summer and visit each and every one of the children and families that Mayan Families Canada provides assistance to. According to them, this is one of the keys to their organization’s success because they are able to keep people up-to-date on what’s happening with their sponsored child and with projects the organization is undertaking. They deliver letters and small gifts to children who are sponsored and bring back stories and photos. Pawliuk feels that this is especially important for her students, who are then able to see the direct effect of their fundraising efforts. For instance, they are able to see a photo of a young Mayan boy sporting a huge smile and a brand new pair of running shoes—shoes that they donated.

Added to their already full plate (Robin is presently finishing up her Masters degree and Leigh is now a full-time university student) Robin and Leigh also conduct Humanitarian Holidays to Guatemala. They take up to 15 people to Guatemala with them each summer and involve them in projects such as installing stoves, handing out chickens, and visiting village schools to distribute supplies. Many of those joining them on these trips have been Pawliuk’s teaching colleagues and former students, and everyone agrees that it is the trip of a lifetime.

Sophie Ward, who joined the 2010 trip to Guatemala, is a teacher from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. She states that, “I went down thinking it would be a chance to see Guatemala, experience the culture and help some people who are less fortunate. What I experienced was a depth of humanity that I couldn’t even have imagined. The Mayan people were the most kind, appreciative, and hospitable people I have ever met.” This seems to be the reaction of most people who are involved with a Mayan Families Canada humanitarian trip. What inspires them is not only the humanitarian projects they are working on but the graciousness of the Mayans themselves.

After six years of operation, Mayan Families Canada and Robin Pawliuk have become well known in the schools in and around Parksville. Many of these schools sponsor the education of children in Guatemala and Pawliuk often visits and speaks to the students about Mayan Families Canada projects and shows slides from her trips to Guatemala. As well, other schools across Canada; in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario have come on board and are helping with fundraising. Many of the students are motivated by their ability to make such a difference in the lives of others and continue with social activism throughout their student careers and after graduation.

Although Robin and Leigh began with the simple wish to help just one or two villages in Guatemala, with so many students coming of age with a desire to be involved in humanitarian endeavours, one must conclude that there will actually be many villages around the world affected by these individuals and Mayan Families Canada.

For more information about Mayan Families Canada projects and humanitarian holidays, visit their website www.mayanfamiliescanada.org

Kathy Silver, a retired physiotherapist, helps out with fundraising for Mayan Families Canada and volunteered in Guatemala in 2008.