Q? Why call it the Sienna Project? A. Sienna was the Reverend Marlin Lavanhar’s three year-old daughter who died suddenly and unexpectedly in May of 2006. Her grandfather, Martin Lavanhar, Martin’s (second) wife Caroline and Sienna’s uncle Derek Lavanhar decided to memorialize her by building schools in indigenous villages in Guatemala in her name.
Q? How did the Sienna Project get launched? A. Several serendipitous events came together to help launch the Sienna Project. The Juvenile Education Awareness Project of Passaic, New Jersey received two foundation grants to fund an educational human rights program. The Peace and Justice committee of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey decided to help with fundraising. At that time the Lavanhars were looking for a way to memorialize Sienna. With the confluence of the above the Sienna Project was launched.
Q? Are you a religious organization? A. The Sienna Project is a family project. it is a non profit, 501(c)3 corporation. We have been fortunate that much of our funding has come from Unitarian Universalist congregations. Neither any of them nor our family has placed any religious conditions as requisites for contributing money or building a school.
Q? Why Guatemala? A. Sienna’s Uncle Derek, an expatriate living in Guatemala has construction experience and very good language skills. He can speak and understand some Quiche, the local indigenous language, that allows him to have a wonderful rapport with the Mayan villagers.
Q? What makes the indigenous people so special? A. The indigenous people of Guatemala suffered through a three decade civil war, which ended about twenty years ago. Our CIA had a hand in the war on the wrong side, where tens of thousands of Mayans were disappeared. Although we cannot help those who never came back: we can help their children and grandchildren in these communities.
Q? How do you raise funds? A. Most of our funds come from individual donations. We have run several fundraisers and apply for and have received several foundation grants. We ask people to take advantage of matching fund programs from their employers, if available. We approach fraternal organizations, churches, and local groups to plan a fundraising event. We ask churches to take a special collection or a share the plate Sunday for the Sienna Project. This is a wonderful project in which to involve children. A child inspired to help Mayan children, working collectively, can make a significant difference. We are working with Sunday school classes, Brownies and Cub Scouts.
Q? How do you find communities that need schools? A. Derek presents us with several villages for consideration; each with different needs. We choose one and sometimes two. The communities must have teachers allocated by the national government for every classroom we build. The villages must have no classrooms or more potential students than available classrooms.
Q? How many volunteers go to Guatemala? A. We can normally take 11 “Gringos” to Guatemala. We are limited by the size of the van we use to travel to and from the building site. Twice we have taken more, as many as 18, utilizing two vans on those trips.
Q? Do the villagers help? A. We actually help the villagers. Most villages have a community service requirement for their young men. The elders supervise them and they usually are hard workers. The Gringos help dig footings, perform other mostly unskilled work and help when “tall” is needed. The Indians are generally quite short. It helps when someone with construction skills and experience volunteers.
Q? Are there local building codes? A. No. We have written our own standards, which must be agreed upon by the elders as a prerequisite. The villagers want their buildings to last, so they are conscientious about how things get done. This is an earthquake area, so construction is done with that in mind.
Q? What are the buildings made of? A. We prefer prefab construction using precast concrete columns and panels with rebar inclusion. This method of construction meets high earthquake resistance standards. The construction is similar to the sound barriers used along many highways in the USA, but smaller in scale.
Q? What tools do you have to use? A. Tools are primitive compared with what we see in the States. Cement is mixed on the ground, carried in buckets. The heaviest duty earthmoving equipment is a wheelbarrow. It’s all done with manual labor, picks, hoes, shovels and muscle.
Q? How much does it cost to build a school?
A. That will vary. Our first school in February 2007 cost about $13,000 for a two room school for about 90 children. We now include latrines and playgrounds and now build three classroom schools. So far we have not exceeded $20,000.
Q? Where do you stay? A. We stay in typical Guatemalan hotels in Chichicastenango. We may stay in other towns depending on the locations of the school sites.
Q? Do the volunteers do anything other than work?
A. Chichicastenango is an interesting place to wander around in the evening. It is a market town and we spend Sunday visiting the market and other points of interest. On our way back to Guatemala City, we take an extra day and have gone to Antigua and visited Lake Attitlan, which is a beautiful place in the shadow of several volcanoes.