Thursday, June 28, 2018

More Art in Alotenango!

Twenty five days after the eruption of the volcano and the situation is still unreal. Hundreds of people are still in the shelters in Alotenango in the public elementary school buildings, so no classes for the kids in the shelters nor for the ones who normally attend this school. The government is working on plans to provide more permanent shelters, but that may take a while.
In the mean time, official recovery efforts have stalled, but inhabitants of the affected villages continue to search for the remains of their loved ones, with the sparse tools that are available to them. The big machinery is occupied to clean up the highway to Escuintla, a road that according to many experts shouldn’t be repaired at all (see my previous post).
Busses still don’t go al the way in to Alotenango. The central park remains in the same state with a space on stage for wakes. The yellow Scientology tents are still up and a sign notifies people can sign up for help. World Central Kitchen has moved out of the tent and into a building on one side of the park.
Upon arrival a funeral procession was just leaving the park. One small coffin covered in white satin followed by three adult ones. No funeral band and but a small amount of mourners following the caskets. A strong contrast against the thousands of people who buried the first victims of the eruption. It’s all very unsettling.

By know we know the drill and Abi and I went straight to the municipality for our required piece of paper and nametags that would get us into the shelter. Previously our confirmed and reconfirmed appointments had turned out to be non existent, but this time we were actually double booked. From 11am-12m in Shelter II and from 11.30 to 12.30pm in the first and bigger shelter. Not helpful. We decided to stick to the second, smaller shelter where we have been twice already and were we know the kids.

We had to wait in line to sign up. Twenty visitors of Scientology were ahead of us. Once everyone was signed in (they now have three lists, for collaborators, visitors and, in our case, “activities”, by far the shortest list.) The sign-up was in the same room as last week, now with noticeably less donations stocked up. Then we had to pass on to yet another table where we received a tag after handing over our ID. We had to sign and then hand over an agreement with rules for visitation. The three page leaflet had some good information and guidelines, but I doubt many people actually read what they sign. I asked for a copy and did get one.

On our way to the shelter a truck full of donations was being unloaded and the stuff brought into the main shelter. A bus from some church was parked in front of the second shelter, surrounded by people. Waiting for donations maybe? I have no idea. But we did get in immediately, waving our piece of paper and name-tags.

Throughout this whole process I was really doubting of being here was a good idea at all. Help is needed, it’s great to see people get together, but this whole circus is definitely leaving a nasty taste in my mouth. But when we entered the shelter, the kids recognized us and ran to us to help set up our work station. By now I know some of their names and they know ours. A relationship has been established and I think that’s a valuable thing.

Several people from Save the Children in bright red vests were around, cleaning up after apparently having played games with the kids, all filmed with professional video equipment. A fancy camera was still standing in the centre, so we set up our table on the very edge of the patio. Within a few minutes are tables were filled with kids and I started to explain the activity of the day, making origami animals and then colouring them to their liking. In the middle of my explanation I was asked by the videographer of Save the Children if I could shut up for just one minute, because they were filming an interview with their representative. I was so baffled that I actually did shut up, but when after four minutes they were still filming, which they could have done anywhere else, I continued my work with the kids.

The kids had a lot of fun and my doubts were gone about whether this was worth it or not. I let them take pictures with my camera and the results were hilarious. Then they asked me to read stories on the storytelling sheet (their words), so we did. While Abi continued drawing with some of the older kids, the younger ones listened to stories and were very vocal about which ones they wanted to hear (again).
While I read the poop story for the umpteenth time, the Scientology visitors came in. Several of them immediately set down at “our” tables and started drawing so in the end we had more adults than kids at the table. Afterward they talked to the kids (“hola”) and then they left. They looked very happy.

We rounded up our activity at noon and promised the kids to be back next week. We made sure we reconfirmed our time slot for next week (a good thing, we again had disappeared from the list). Then off to the bus, heading home. Back next week. In the meantime, we’ll do some more need assessment for art activities in Escuintla this weekend.

Thanks for all who donated towards art supplies, we need it! Today we had, quite strange actually, some more collateral damage and were short a box of oil pastels and a pack of coloured pencils. I hope they will be used well, although I doubt it, because unsupervised art activities tend to get rather messy, as we observed here too. Anyway, thank you all for your interest and support! If you wan to help, you can donate through PayPal (carinsteen at or my Dutch bank account NL95 ABNA 02540313 74.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Art Workshops in Escuintla (Volcano Eruption Art Relief)

For the people living on the south flanks of the Fuego Volcano, Escuintla, the capital of the state with the same name, is the nearest  big city. So after the eruption on June 3rd, logically a lot of aid came from this direction and many of the wounded and displaced ended up in hospitals and shelters in Escuintla. Others ended up in the smaller town, right at the foot of the volcano of San Juan Alotenango, the municipality with the worst affected villages and hamlets. The two towns are no longer connected by Ruta Nacional 14 since it was (and still is) covered by lava and other debris. Reconstruction might take a while and will cost an estimated 230 millions of Quetzales (roughly 30 million US$). Just to get an idea, the Guatemala government made the amount of 192 million Quetzales available for disaster relief.
A group of national and international experts argue that the road shouldn’t be repaired at all because it will most definitely be destroyed again. A slight to moderate rain can cause 15 million cubic meters of volcanic material to slide down. With heavy rain, the expectation is up to 60 millions of volcanic debris.

Normally the trip to Escuintla takes about 45 minutes, but the only alternative route took us a full 2.5 hours. When we got out of the car a humid wave of heat welcomed us, a reminder that we made a steep descend from the mountainous area of Antigua. Here, at the outskirts of Escuintla, surrounded by sugar cane fields, we easily found the modern Catholic church building that now functions as a shelter for a few hundred people that lost everything during the eruption.

Although most shelters have been taken over by the Guatemalan government and are now run by the local municipality, with soldiers keeping people in and others out, this shelter remains firmly run by the church, no soldiers allowed. It seemed to be smoothly run. The access wasn’t as restricted the shelters in Alotenango. Although the gate was guarded, volunteers could go in and residents go out. World Central Kitchen has set up a cooking area where people can get their breakfast, lunch and dinner. A huge tent provides shade with a few dozens of tables and chairs where people can eat or just hang out. The main building of the spacious church now houses hundreds of people with their few belongings orderly stored on their mattresses or field beds.

We were directed to the children’s area, divided in a space for young children (about 100) and one for adolescents ( about 50) where they are being entertained by psychologists of World Vision and other volunteers. One psychologist is in charge of coordinating all activities and the toys, books and art supplies. Despite our “appointment”, we were not expected, but were told we could do our activities anyway. For future references we were given a sheet with contact info and a set of very reasonable rules (1 hour activities maximum; keep the kids in the designated areas; make an appointment; keep the area clean and tidy; and only healthy snacks allowed, no candy or cake).

I set up a painting area (a mini-mural and free painting on big sheets) while Jessica Hoult prepared the art activity of the day (a “Chain of Love”) at the tables. José Carlos Barahona, who was so kind to drive us, set up a story telling corner.

Despite everything being so organized, I had a lot more trouble keeping control over the kids and supplies than in Alotenango. There was one specific boy, maybe 3-4 years old, cute as can be, but he needed a LOT of attention and was driving me quite mad. So I was glad when he finally left for the other activity (Jessica told me later that everything went quite well until this small boy joined her group, driving her quite mad. Hah, it wasn’t just me!) Anyway, the painting was fun, even when the kids decided to start mixing colours. Not on the paper, but in the jars. So now I have about 20 jars of diarrhea coloured paint. The mini-mural turned out quite nice and the psychologist asked if she could keep it to put it up somewhere. (Yes, of course, that was the whole point.)

Jessica and José Carlos did fine, although Jessica did report that a girl came running up to the table, snatched a pack of markers and disappeared in the crowd. Well, that happens. Some crayons also disappeared into thin air, just collateral damage. So all in all, it was a good experience although on the way back we evaluated the situation and haven’t yet decided on how to continue. Those kids obviously had plenty of activities going on and for us to drive 4-5 hours a week for a one hour activity just doesn’t seem to be worth it. Or necessary, for that matter. So we’re looking into other shelters that might have more need for some distraction.
It’s still very difficult to evaluate the situation. The government is planning on building 250 temporary units in the next few weeks for about a 1000 families, on a government owned piece of property in Escuintla. It can take years before those families will actually have a chance to move into a new home, built either by the government or NGOs. I think that once the people are installed in the “temporary permanent” shelters, there might be more to be done for us, especially if the attention and aid will wind down with time. From previous experience (after hurricane Mitch) I know the value of art activities for kids and teenagers to express their anxieties, besides having some plain fun. I’m also thinking of activities that can create a sense of community (painting the temporary homes in individual designs?) or for example a carpentry workshop where people can learn and make their own furniture, according to their own need and taste.

So for now, I’ll be going to Alotenango once a week and probably to Escuintla too. What the future will bring, we’ll see, but as long as I can contribute with my art, I’m determined to do so.

Thanks so much, everybody who has pitched in so far. If you want to contribute, now or in the future, please let me know! (PayPal: carinsteen @ Dutc bank account: NL95 ABNA 0254031374)

Friday, June 22, 2018

Volcano Art Relief

Two and a half weeks after the eruption of the Fuego Volcano. The central park of Alotenango is still set up for receiving and giving aid, but there are no longer huge crowds of people. The three yellow tents of Scientology are still standing in a corner, but unmanned. World Central Kitchen continues to prove thousands of meals a day to the people in the shelters, firemen and other volunteers.

Two weeks ago I went with Abi Ruiz, the administrative assistant of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango and three of her friends to one of the shelters for an art workshop. The kids loved it and we were asked to come back. But last week we couldn’t get permission since access has been even more restricted after one of residents was arrested for sexual assault on an 11-year old girl. This week we were granted a mere hour, not much but better than nothing.
But upon arrival it turned out we were not on the list. And the kids were busy anyway, we were told. We had to go to the Municipality where staff and volunteers were trying to coordinate activities and help offered from a room that was filled up to the ceiling with classified donations. Initially we were told we couldn’t go into the shelter, but Abi happened to know the coordinator’s sister (the coordinator, by the way, was a different one from the one from last week who was a different one from the week before). Anyway, we got permission, got the required piece of paper and nametag. We even got two whole hours instead of one, although we lost half an hour getting the permission in the first place.

The shelter was visibly less busy than last time. There was also no activity at all going on for the kids, just some church thing for adults in one of the dorms/classrooms. The kids remembered us and were happy to see us. We made a “Chain of Love” that we put up for decoration. Colouring and drawing were also an option, as well as story telling. “Can you read the poop story again?” Yes, The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business is a popular one, as is The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. But I had brought many more books this time, thanks to Sarah Peller who lent us a whole box full of the good stuff.

The approximately 35 kids had a good time and like last time, were very concentrated. We were disrupted only once by a young pair of tourists who asked if they could interrupt the activity to hand out some donations. I asked them if they could wait three minutes to finish my story, which they didn’t, so why bother asking at all. They handed out knock-off Croc sandals (but not enough for all the kids) and a few balls (there is no space to play ball in the shelter) and then hang around for a while to take photos and talk with/to the kids. They must feel really good about themselves now that they have helped those poor kids.

Anyway, with the kids we made plans for next week. We have permission already, that is, if they don’t change coordinators in the mean time. The shelter will probably open for another two weeks before people are moved to a more permanent temporary home. Until then we’ll continue weekly workshops, and most likely later on as well. In the meantime I’ll be checking out one of the shelters in Escuintla to set up a long term art workshop over there.

Many thanks to the people who have donated towards art supplies so far (Wendy Russell, Ineke de Smidt, Debbie Pate, Judy Sadlier, Maureen Mack, Will & Cees Griffieon and Colour4Kids). I haven’t done much of fund raising yet for an ongoing art program because the situation is still so unclear, but I hope to have more information soon. (But donations are welcome! Paypal ( or deposit on my Dutch bank account NL95 ABNA 0254 0313 74.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to bring some fun to the kids as much as we can!

Friday, June 8, 2018

Art Workshops at Alotenango Shelter

Fuego Volcano

Arrive, unpack, set up and go! It’s been a few years for me since this was my routine, but some things are just like riding a bike. Within minutes the kids were completely engaged in painting and drawing, completely oblivious of the chaotic world around them.

We were at a shelter for volcano victims (I almost wrote hurricane victims, I’ve had so many flashbacks to the time after Hurricane Mitch in 1998!) in Alotenango. There are two shelters at the central park, one in the main building of the elementary school, the other one in the smaller extension of 6 classrooms that momentarily houses about 120 people, among them approximately 70 children. Abi Ruiz, the administrative assistant of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango had gotten us permission to entertain the children for a few hours in the latter. No small feat, considering the government’s bureaucracy. But actually the coordinator was happy to squeeze us in because so far the only entertainment for the kids had been people bringing piñatas. Since the government has taken over most shelters, access is extremely limited in order to coordinate the relief efforts and at many shelters donations are even being refused. This has angered a lot of people, especially since the Guatemalan government doesn’t have a very good reputation to start with and has been preposterously lame in responding to the crisis. There are even many rumours and some documented cases of the military confiscating donations in order to, what? Handing them out in name of the government? I can’t tell for sure, only that when we arrived and while we there, a LOT of donations were still coming in. Elsewhere at the central park people were unloading tons of stuff and storing them on a rooftop. Right in the middle of the central park another Centro de Acopio was receiving donations, manned by both civilians and soldiers.

In the few hours we were there, the children received so many candy, juices and cookies that they were completely saturated. They left their goodies half eaten or would give them to us. A guy walked up to me, told me he was from Columbia and had candy and snacks for the kids but wasn't allowed to hand them out. He asked me if I could help him to get permission to get his donation in. I told him I couldn’t, that I was there to paint and draw with the kids only. I asked him, watching the kids receiving their umpteenth bag of goodies, if he thought it was necessary. No reply. When we left I saw him bringing in his boxes.

There was a snack in the afternoon (ham-cheese sandwich and more juice) and for the adults as well a constant flow of donations of clothes, shoes, diapers, toilet paper, underwear, cleaning supplies and food. I have no idea if this is the case in other shelters too and whether, for example, the people will actually receive breakfast, lunch and dinner. But my impression was that there is more than enough stuff coming in and I think that help should be focused on long term investment in housing, jobs, education and future disaster prevention. But then again, that’s just based on a few hours of observation.   

But back to the art workshops. We (me, Abi and three of her friends from Alotenango) were actually not the only ones there for the kids. A few representatives from a Guatemalan NGO (shamefully I’ve already forgotten its name!) were there to entertain the kids with games. We divided the forty something kids roughly in groups and they did a great job with about a third of them while we entertained the other ones. The kids loved painting on the floor on big sheets of paper. Others were totally into drawing with oil pastels and markers. We had brought adult colouring sheets (I mostly hate the colouring pages for kids, think they’re an insult to their abilities) and they loved those too. We even had a bunch of moms joining us.

I read a bunch of stories, which were well received. The only thing we had planned and didn’t do was a bit of yoga. It was just too crowded and chaotic for such an activity.
So all in all we had a lot of fun! I even forgot the reason why we were there, but that was just the purpose. For a few hours, the only reminder of the disaster was the occasional funeral march passing by the building and the big stack of donated coffins in a corner.

We were asked to come back and we will.
Thanks so much to everyone who donated (towards) art supplies, to Abi’s friends who did a great job and especially to Abi.
We’ll be back!

And in the meantime, yeas, donations are welcome. Next week we’ll revisit this centre and next Saturday I’ll be painting a portable mural with the kids at the main shelter as part of an ongoing activity that will last as long as needed. And of course there are (memorial) murals planned once the communities will have been rebuilt. 
If you want to make a cash donation you can do so through Paypal ( or deposit on my Dutch bank account NL95 ABNA 0254 0313 74.
Thank you all. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

After the Eruption

Student Diego helping out!

Last week I started painting two small murals at a new pre-school in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, an initiative by the NGO CreatingOpportunities for Guatemalans. The pre-school is just a small classroom on the roof of the building where the organization has its office and after school program. Eight of the cutest kids come to school every day to learn the alphabet, numbers (I even learned a new number while I was there: twenty-eight, twenty-nine, twenty-ten!), enjoy books and receive a healthy snack. The request was to paint something that incites kids to read and together with the teacher and director we came up with some ideas. The initial plan was to paint just the outside wall, made of plywood, but I thought the interior could definitely need some colour too. If the staff would whiten the bare cinder blocks, I’d paint something to cheer up the place.
Outdoor, result
I started outside and painted both sea and land animals in a Central American folk-art fashion. I included letters and numbers for the kids to identify. For the inside I came up with a colourful design full of geometrical shapes. With the teacher I discussed the activities that can help the kids to learn colours, shapes, numbers and letters. The kids can also make up their own stories based on the painted animals on the outdoor wall.

All in all it’s a great improvement. Last week I finished the outdoor wall in two days and had planned to come back on Monday to finish inside.

Interior before...
But around noon on Sunday ashes started to fall down. Amazement and awe quickly turned into annoyance having to sweep the stuff up. A few hours later the annoyance was replaced by total shock when we learned what horrific damage the volcano eruption had caused. The images that appeared on social media were truly horrifying, the loss of lives devastating. We’re all used to the constant eruptions of the nearby Fuego volcano, but this was beyond anybody’s imagination.
Teachers sweeping up ash and sand. On the back ground the Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes.
It felt strange to go back to work on Monday. Like so many people I felt the strong urge to do something. But what? There were already plenty of volunteers and the little I had to give would make no difference at all. I decided to stay put for the moment, realizing that this disaster was far from over yet and I’ll surely able to make myself useful in the near future.
Inside, result
So off to work I went after having confirmed that the office would indeed be open (although all classes were cancelled in the affected provinces.) The road was quiet and dusty. Sounds were strangely muffled by the thick layer of ash and volcanic sand that covered every possible surface. The bright colours of the Guatemalan countryside now looked like a post apocalyptic landscape. The sky was grey and so was everything else.

 When the bus arrived in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, men and women, their mouths covered with mask and handkerchiefs, were already sweeping the road. Although closer to the volcano than Antigua, the amount of ash even seemed to be a bit less.

While I started painting, the NGO’s staff started sweeping the rooftop. It was a surreal sight, seeing all the neighbours on top of the roofs, small puffs of dust rising towards the sky. I finished painting early after noon and after a very dusty ride home, I spent a few more hours sweeping my roof and street until blisters formed on my hands.

We’re a few days further now and slowly an image of the destruction is forming. The death toll will keep rising and much help is needed and will be for a long time. I’ve decided to help with what I do best, and that is the arts. It doesn’t heal the burns, It doesn’t replace homes, but it does distract children from the trauma they’ve been through. It will help them express their fears and anxieties; it will facilitate their communication and the art of creation might give them some much needed hope for the future.

I’ve been in touch with several local organizations, educators and artists. We’re all willing to contribute by offering art workshops, story telling, yoga classes, theatre and other activities to relief the burden of the children that are currently in the shelters. I have already received some donations for art supplies and am ready to go.

The problem so far is that we’re not allowed into the shelters by the military in an effort to keep things organized. We have to go through official channels to get permission so help will be evenly distributed where needed. That’s an honourable goal, but it might be very ineffective in Guatemala’s bureaucracy and it excludes many organizations and individuals that have valuable services to offer right NOW.
Donations received so far. Thanks so much Wendy Russell, Judy Sadlier, Debbie Pate and Ineke de Smidt!
The permission has been requested and if granted, we’ll be able to go to the shelter in Alotenango next week on Saturday. That’s 9 days from now and we have no idea what kind of activities are being offered to the 200 kids right now, if at all. Only next week we’ll be able to assess the situation and start planning for long term art therapy and other activities, until the last kid has left the shelter.

So what to do now? Following local NGO Educarte’s example I’ll go to the central park in Alotenango tomorrow to offer art activities to the children there with the help of volunteers from the Carpentry Project in the same town. The central park is the place where people gather in search of missing loved ones and where wakes are held for the recovered victims. There will be many kids around, some directly affected by the disasters, others just confused, scared or disorientated, especially since the schools are closed. It seems to be a good place to start.

To be continued. In the meantime, donations for/of art supplies are welcome…