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By Dave Money

Hopefully you’ve heard about the wonderful work accomplished by more than 100 Pura Vida volunteers on “the Cornstalk School” in Lemoa. More formally known as Escuela Caserio El Rosario, this primary school consisted of several classrooms with dirt floors and walls and roofs covered only in dried cornstalks, along with a single two-room cinder block building.  Five separate groups of volunteers, starting from bare dirt, substantially completed a new four-room cinder block school house for the 100+ students who, along with their dedicated teachers and administrators, were warm and welcoming, and appreciative of the volunteers’ work.

Escuela Caserio Rosario, Lemoa

The 4 new classrooms at Escuela Caserio Rosario, Lemoa

I wouldn’t have thought that anything could match the sense of fulfillment that I’ve experienced during this and other Pura Vida mission trips to the western highlands of Guatemala — until now.  During our time there in March, we were thrilled to experience a celebration concert given by the John Wesley School Band with its two new directors and 70+ new band instruments, including trumpets, trombones, drums, and a variety of percussion instruments.  The school has only had a band for 2 years, and many of the students’ instruments were rudimentary at best (think “cheese grater”….).  Professional instruction was not generally available.

The new band program is the culmination of a vision that Dr. James Ramsey developed during a prior Pura Vida work trip to Lemoa.  Among other professional capacities relating to music composition and performance, Dr. Jim serves as Director of Music and Arts Ministries at St. Luke’s UMC in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.  Calling on his extensive work in music education, Dr. Jim believed that a more robust band experience could have a positive and lasting effect on the hearts, minds and souls of the JWS band members, their fellow students, and their families.  With generous help from many Pura Vida supporters and others, the JWS is now able to offer its students the opportunity of learning to play a wide variety of high-quality band instruments under the direction of professionally-trained instructors.  This type of educational opportunity is rare in this part of Guatemala—if not the entire country.

Outdoor rehearsal with JWS students

Outdoor rehearsal with JWS students

During our trip in March Dr. Jim, ably assisted by St. Luke’s musician-members Dave Rhodes, Ed Coryell, and Gloria Olsen conducted 3 half-day rehearsals with over  50 students eagerly wielding their new instruments—with no sheet music—in an open field or warehouse building near the school.  On Wednesday of that week, in a touching ceremony at the school attended by local church officials and several Pura Vida volunteers, we presented the instruments to the JWS students and administrators–along with the love and best wishes of their friends in America.  The band then lit up the crowd with a rousing rendition—from memory–of “La Bamba” and “Miren que Bueno.”  At its conclusion, the students—crowded around all three levels of the school building—enthusiastically chanted in English: “More of that! More of that!”  They were rewarded with an encore. 

Performance at the John Wesley School

Performance at the John Wesley School

It was a heart-warming and humbling experience that none of us who were privileged to witness will ever forget.

You’ll be hearing more about the new John Wesley School Band Program.  The program will need additional support to continue and grow.   If you’d like to be a part of this wonderful work now, you can make an online donation now (type “JWS Band” in the details field).

In closing, I’d like to share the lyrics of a song written by Dr. Jim in collaboration with several Pura Vida volunteers during that special March trip.  Sung to the tune of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from  The Wizard of Oz, the song beautifully expresses the way that working among the gentle and loving people of Guatemala has touched our hearts.  The title of the song comes from the picture below, which was taken by long-time Pura Vida volunteer Allison Bradbury inside the church in Chontala with its colorful cloth ceiling hangings. Backlit against the door of the church are Dr. Jim and a student sponsored by Allison.

"Under the Rainbow" in Chontala

“Under the Rainbow” in Chontala

“Somewhere Under the Rainbow”

Lyrics by Dr. James Ramsey

Verse 1:

Driving down this bumpy road
Feeling sun’s sweet warming glow
Happy faces can be found
Little shoes that run and hide
and wonder why we’re by their side
love is all around

Somewhere under the rainbow, children play
and the dream that you dare to dream
why oh why can’t they?
Verse 2:

Building lives with sweat and tears
Giving joy that sheds their fear
What future can we bring?
Some day I wish we all could see
the beauty in each soul we meet
I hear their voices sing.


Somewhere under the rainbow, you can see
Angels giving so they can dream
what they want to be…

[ Watch video of song as performed in Chichicastenango by Jim Ramsey and Matt Cummings ]

by Richard N. Ely

My recent trip to the western highlands of Guatemala left me amazed by the changes that have been made by one man’s vision and by the supporters of a small but dedicated organization, Pura Vida Ministries. 

In October, 2011 Pura Vida scholarship sponsors Jana, Ray, John, and I traveled to see our sponsored students graduate from twelfth grade– a significant accomplishment in the mountains of rural Guatemala.  We also planned to tour the nearly completed school funded by Pura Vida, visit other students that we sponsored, interview potential new scholarship recipients, and meet with Pura Vida in-country staff.  While I returned with a picture of how much Pura Vida has physically accomplished since starting in 2002, more importantly, I saw the relationships that have been built between people from two distant and diverse countries and cultures.

Jana visiting with the family of her sponsored student

Jana visiting with the family of her sponsored student

We attended the very first 12th grade graduation of the new John Wesley School in Santa Cruz del Quiche.  The three-story, 12-grade school is being constructed with funds provided by the church groups and individuals who have confidently and generously supported Pura Vida’s primary mission of helping others through education. We shared the excitement of 8 young people – all of them Pura Vida scholarship recipients – as they reached a milestone that is very rare among the indigenous people of the small mountain villages where Pura Vida works. 

At the graduation we saw bright-eyed, confident, young people – ones who now have the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty that traps so many Guatemalan children.  They now have the education to find good jobs and to contribute positively to their communities and their country.  With Pura Vida’s continued scholarship assistance, some will go on to college and could return as business leaders, educators, ministers, physicians, or government leaders.

12-grade graduates

12-grade graduates

Words can’t really convey the sense of excitement, anticipation, pride, and gratitude expressed by the graduates and especially by their family members, many of whom have little or no education and may even be unable to read and write.  Many were the words of thanks, handshakes, hugs, and even tears of joy offered by family members to their sponsors and to Mark and Lesly. 

Cesar with his family

Cesar with his family

The future promises many more graduations with the completion in January, 2012 of the John Wesley School.  The school will have the capacity to educate hundreds of children that are consistently overlooked by the public school system, specifically: children living in extreme poverty, children of poor rural pastors, and children with mental or physical handicaps.

So much has changed since I first went to Guatemala in 1999 with Mark to help build a new orphanage in Lemoa so the two dozen or so children could be moved out of the ramshackle facility in Santa Cruz.  What I saw on this trip was a beautiful new school in place of the old orphanage, rising like a Phoenix from the ashes.  Instead of ragamuffin kids with hand-me-down clothes, dirty faces and runny noses, living in a decaying, barely sanitary orphanage there are now hundreds of bright, healthy children in neat clean school uniforms.

Students at the John Wesley School

Students at the John Wesley School

Pura Vida scholarship sponsors and financial supporters are making a difference every day for the children of rural Guatemala.  I have seen firsthand the fruits of their gifts and their labors.  Sitting next to me on the airplane coming home was a young Guatemalan businessman.  He owned modern vegetable processing plants and exported broccoli and other food products to the U.S.  When he heard what Pura Vida was doing in his country he shook my hand and said “please thank your people for what they are doing for my countrymen”.  Thanks to all of you who are “Pura Vida people”!

Richard with his sponsored student Alejandra

Richard with his sponsored student Alejandra

Richard Ely has been a member of the Pura Vida board of directors since 2002.

By Jennifer Watson

Two red hats sit on a shelf in my home. One has the words “Happy Birthday, Jennifer” knit into the rim. It was made by Manuela, a 12-year-old scholarship student I met through Pura Vida. The second hat was a gift from her mother, which she presented when I visited their village last winter.

Manuela's photo bio from 2009

 I keep the hats where I can see them because they remind me why I’m grateful for Pura Vida and my involvement with it. The relationships I’ve developed since visiting Guatemala with Pura Vida last year have enriched my life, helped me grow personally and spiritually, and broadened my perspective of the world. And all that has happened in a single year.

What specifically do the red hats bring to mind? The first “red-hat” reminder is that generosity has nothing to do with wealth. Ingrid Manuela and her mother lost part of their home in the rains and mud slides last year. Every time it rains now, Ingrid Manuela shivers and prays, asking God to spare them from disaster.  She and her mother have little more than a room with a roof, and losing part of their home was devastating. Yet in the midst of this frightening time, they made a birthday present for me. As a percentage of their wealth it was an extraordinarily generous gift, and I found their kindness humbling. It reminded me that we can live with open hearts even in difficult times.

The second reminder is that the parents of Pura Vida’s scholarship students are an example for all of us.  I provide scholarship support to Ingrid Manuela through Pura Vida, but her mother loses income when her daughter is in school rather than working.  (Pura Vida mitigates the income loss to some extent.) I also think of what it must be like for her to watch her daughter learn subjects she never had the opportunity to study herself. If Ingrid Manuela completes her schooling, her life may be significantly different from her mother’s. It takes courage, faith and sacrifice for her to help her daughter enter a world she has never known herself.

The third reminder is that the world is richer and more complex than I ever imagined. My family is of European descent, and I’ve studied in and traveled to Europe many times. I’d never been to Central or South America before visiting with Pura Vida, however. Because of the interest in Guatemala that Pura Vida has fostered, I volunteered to write an article for a local publication last year about a former Guatemalan president who was in Denver for the Biennial of the Americas. His goal was to advocate for regional cooperation in solving social and economic challenges facing Latin American countries.  That conversation, coupled with what I’ve learned from Guatemalans and Americans involved with Pura Vida, has opened up an entirely new part of the world to me. It’s been fascinating, sad, challenging and enriching.

Pura Vida works on a small scale compared to some global nonprofits, but its limited geographic focus allows deeper relationships to develop among its Guatemalan and U.S. supporters. In one year of involvement, I’ve helped a little girl complete a year of schooling and expand her sense of what life could hold for her. In return, I’ve received two red hats—and a whole lot more.

Jennifer with Manuela and her mother

Jennifer Watson has been a member of the Pura Vida board of directors since 2010.

by Gene Branch

In the spirit of year-end reflection, the Pura Vida community again has many blessings to consider. We have, for example, an unprecedented scholarship class with respect to both numbers of students and communities served. Phase 4 expansion of the John Wesley School is underway, adding a third(!) floor, and nary a brick remains of the single-story structure that started it all. Six teams traveled with Pura Vida to Guatemala this year, adding numerous veterans to the rolls. And Pura Vida now—finally, yeah!—has a full-time executive director and sufficient volunteer strength to meaningfully respond to overwhelming tragedy like never before. Yet even with this tremendous organizational success, Pura Vida’s greatest accomplishments remain individual—one child at a time, one volunteer at a time, one leader at a time. Such was evident during the most recent Pura Vida October project tour.

This year’s October project tour introduced our team of multi-trip veterans (Mark and Lesly Ely, Gary Conner, Dave and Jana Money, and Dawn & me) plus our protection detail (Erica Money, Pura Vida’s most recent trip participant) to many new experiences. Certainly a high point of the trip was participating in three John Wesley School graduation ceremonies. Gary Conner served as padrino, or sponsor, for the kindergarten class, Jana and Dave Money did so for the ninth grade class, and Dawn and I filled this role for the sixth graders. In addition to seeing so many kids involved in what has become a truly Pomp and Circumstance ceremony, I was struck by the notion that the sixth grade class included students we met on our very first visit to the John Wesley School, who were in the first grade then, which was also the first year the school was in operation. I look forward to seeing their ultimate graduation when they’re the first class to progress through each and every grade of the John Wesley School.

Gary Conner participating in the Kindergarten graduation

We had great fun interviewing the new scholarship candidates—all 100 or so of them. Of course Lesly conducted the bulk of the interviewing while the rest of us looked on or tried to evoke picture smiles from traditionally stoic faces, at least when they’re having their pictures taken. Otherwise, they can be all smiles. Judge for yourself whether we were successful as you peruse the pictures of students still seeking sponsors. Amilcar and Fausto, the JWS directors, participated in many of the interviews, with hilariously different approaches to interviewing style. Amilcar could be caught signaling answers when he saw a child struggling, or he would divert attention from their distress by having them sing a song or recite poetry, rather than answer questions. Fausto, on the other hand, ever the Socratic, wasn’t pleased until he’d probed the depth of a child’s knowledge. “What’s your favorite subject?” {In Spanish, of course} “English, huh? Count to 10 in English for me.” <squirm, squirm> “Oh it’s math now?” What’s 5 times 7?” Those two make such a pair… 

Amilcar and Fausto with scholarship applicants

Surely the most sobering part of the trip involved the family of Margarita, a scholarship student killed in a mudslide caused by Tropical Storm Agatha. In all, five members of the extended family were lost, along with their homes. We traveled to Paquixic to assist them in finding a new plot of land to build a house on. Then as part of the Day of the Dead activities, we visited the Chichi cemetery to place flowers on Margarita’s grave.

It was well past dark and too early for the peak of the Day of the Dead events when we visited the cemetery, but even though the crowds were not yet present, the place felt quite different, but not necessarily eerily so. For example, freshly painted gravesites glowed from many candles, and most were decorated, newly painted, or at least freshly cleaned. Small groups of people wandered around respectfully—mournfully—making it evident that the locals take honoring their loved ones quite seriously, especially during this time of year.

The cemetery visit chillingly contrasted with other Day of the Dead events, specifically a spectacular fireworks display, if you can call it that. In the “Dance of the Bull,” taking place in the Chichi town square, one after another “bulls” donned what might be described as “fireworks suits,” only to be taunted by the … well, guys fresh out of the local watering hole, as rockets, sparklers, Roman candles, whirly birds, and every conceivable form of explosive noisemaker showered sparks over the “fearless” matadors. From only a single fuse, the contraptions went off for—no kidding—fifteen minutes in some cases.

The All Hallows Eve festivities ended our stay in Chichi, after which we headed to Antigua for the traditional final night stay. On the drive to Chichi, we stopped off in Sumpango for the annual kite festival. I can’t imagine some of these house-sized kites ever getting off the ground, but if wishes were wind, it could happen.

Whether returning to Guatemala or visiting for the first time, the Pura Vida October Project Tour and Scholarship Trip is a great way to discover the many ways to engage the Pura Vida mission and experience Guatemala’s beauty, especially, of course, our native friends. Put it on your list for next year!

Gene and Dawn Branch

Gene and his wife Dawn with their sponsored student

Gene has been a member of the Pura Vida board of directors since 2003.  He is currently serving as board president.

By Lyle SmithGraybeal

True confession.  I have served on the Pura Vida Board of Directors nearly since its inception (founded in 2003) and my first trip to Guatemala was just this past January 2010.

My excuses for not experiencing the work in Guatemala were many.  Not enough time to do it.  Too much money to spend.  Not enough passion for the organization.  Too much prior exposure to Central America.  (Felicia, my spouse, is connected with a similar organization, Heart to Honduras, that her father founded; I have traveled to Honduras more than once.)  All reasons that seemed important at the time but ended up as dross.

At least three aspects of the trip this past January affected my understanding of Pura Vida and appreciation for Guatemala:

  1. I met Sebastiana Chicaj Gonzalez in person.  I and some work colleagues have supported Sebastiana since she entered the Pura Vida scholarship program at the end of sixth grade.  Sebastiana is now entering college and training to be a teacher, and we get to continue to support her.  If it were not for Pura Vida Sebastiana would almost certainly have ended her studies with the completion of elementary school.  And now she is in university!  May Sebastiana’s life be the life of other Guatemalan girls a thousand times over.
  2. Pura Vida works in the highlands of Guatemala among Central American’s largest population of native Maya (estimated at five million).  In addition to being a colonized community, this people group was caught in the middle of a 36-year civil war (1960-1996) waged between native Maya and government forces, most of which trace their ancestry to the Spanish.  Families like Sebastiana’s fared the worst, as the insurgent forces would recruit the men and kill those that did not enlist and government troops wiped out entire villages for fear they were supporting the opposing army.  It is estimated 626 Maya villages were destroyed and 100,000 Maya people were killed.  In supporting Pura Vida we are helping some of the most historically and recently oppressed people on earth.
  3. There is an intentional emphasis put on partnering with local groups as opposed to Pura Vida imposing it’s own ideas upon others.  First, Mark and Lesly Ely and Pura Vida ask how we can be helpful and, then, make it happen.

All of this has signficantly upped my level of Pura Vida commitment and enriched my own understanding of the world around me.  Too bad it took me so long!

Lyle with the family of his sponsored student, Sebastiana

Lyle with the family of his sponsored student, Sebastiana

Lyle has been a member of the Pura Vida board of directors since 2003.  He is currently serving as board secretary.