Almost Fearless

Changing Lives in Panajachel (Creating a Sustainable Eco-friendly Learning Center)

If you’re ever traveled through Guatemala, chances are that you visited Lake Atitlan and Panajachel. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, but often what’s so heartbreaking is seeing the children selling bracelets on the street, the adorable little kids who should be in school but instead are pressing you for a few coins.

What do you do?

If you’re new to traveling you might give them money. If you’ve been traveling a while you know better because hand-outs often make the situation much, much worse. Even volunteer programs and charities who have been in the area long term struggle to make a meaningful impact. Sometimes volunteering itself is more of an exercise in educating foreigners than actually providing aid.

Why is that?

The real development work that needs to happen in places like Panajachel has to come from three things:

A) Understanding their true needs

B) Giving them to tools to improve their life themselves, sustainably

C) A long term commitment to the area

I rarely get involved in charity work (I am trying to change that) in part because I’m not in the area long enough to understand what is needed, and while donating food or clothes can help, it’s often a band-aid solution. Sites like KIVA.ORG which do microloans are great but the administrative overhead and the repayment structure gives me pause — also what if they can’t even begin to fathom what kind of project to start if they have never seen another way and they are so consumed with just trying to run their farm? So when I saw this project, trying to raise $30,000 for an education center in Guatemala, I was BLOWN AWAY. It’s really rare and beautiful the way they have structured this and I felt strongly that I needed to share it.

The main staple in Guatemala: corn.

Here’s what’s amazing:

1. There’s a desperate unseen need for nutritional changes in Guatemala. There is poverty but people aren’t going hungry. The problem is they are only eating corn, and it’s making it so the children, even when NGOs come in and provide schools, can’t concentrate in class. Without education the cycle of poverty continues.

2. Raising corn crops is non-sustainable and very time consuming. So everyone has to work very hard just to make their farm work, and then as we can see, it’s barely enough to keep them alive. It diverts them from doing other life-improving tasks.

3. The two families involved in this project live in Panajachel. They have done this on a smaller scale with a local family and it worked. It changed their lives.

4. It’s sustainable so the project keeps on giving. They are teaching them how to farm with fish ponds, raising small animals like rabbits and pigs, putting nutrients back into the soil by composting and so on. But even more importantly, as one family is taught how to do this, those animals have new babies, which go to another family. The surplus food can be sold to raise funds for more education. The project doesn’t need endless money poured into it, it just needs the seed money to get it started.

I recently got to interview Rachel Denning about this project. You can go to the fundraising page here. (Go watch the video it’s really well done but also quickly outlines the project). They are already off to a great start, but it takes hundreds of individual contributions to pull off something so big. I hope you’ll feel inspired to give what you can.

The founders of The Homestead: Greg and Lucy Jensen & Rachel and Greg Denning

Here is my interview with one of the co-founders Rachel Denning:

This project was really launched because you worked with this one local, who you call the Presidente (I love it), and helped him shift from his failed crop to a more sustainable form of farming. How did that come about? Did you have any experience with this before you came to Guatemala?

We’ve had experience working with other humanitarian projects in other countries (DR, India), but not with farming/permaculture. What started it was that we began studying these topics on our own because we were considering purchasing land. We were learning about raising animals, vermicomposting, solar and alternative energy, composting toilets and permaculture and started to see how all these techniques could really help the local people. We were friends with the Presidente, and when he told us about failed tomato crop, we wanted to help. We approached him with the idea of setting up a mini farm, and he said it was something he’d been dreaming of for years but never saw how it would be possible.

Before then, we’d already installed a composting toilet at his house, and solar hot water, as well as a smoke reducing stove, to help improve their living conditions.


What I really love about this project is that you’re taking that concept — what do these people need right now to have better life — and going a step further, in making it self-sustaining and educational. When I was in Guatemala I was really struck by the poverty and at a loss at how to help. Maybe you can talk a little about why this kind of work is so much better than say, simply giving them temporary aid, like a supply of food.

Exactly! With is project, we helped him set it up, but now he’s totally on his own, running it and making plans for expansion and growth. There are a lot of NGOs and other organizations here (and around the world) that want to help… but in our experience, we’ve seen that the wrong kind of help can actually be detrimental. You can start to hurt the people when you give handouts or ‘bandaid’ solutions, because they start to become dependent on you, other agencies, the government… then when things get hard, instead of looking for solutions on their own, instead of trying to solve their own problems, they look around for someone to bail them out.

We want to create solutions to real problems, but in a way that will help the people help themselves. There is a time and place for handouts. There are people (especially children and elderly) who need to be taken care of. But those who can care for themselves need to be introduced to new ideas. In most of those situations — people who are capable of caring for themselves but remain in poverty or look for handouts — what they really lack is ideas, and maybe capital. Given those in the right combination, they can change their own world… for generations.


As travelers, we’re often confronted with that in the form of street kids and the fact that giving them money often does more harm than good. One thing I hadn’t thought of with your project is that even when you do get these kids into school they are so malnourished they can’t concentrate. So when you teach their parents how to farm properly, you’re actually giving their children a chance at a proper education — right? It’s actually the most direct route to helping the children.

Right. Many of the schools here mention that a lack of focus is their biggest problem (have you ever tried to concentrate on something when you’re hungry or underfed), so they’ve implemented feeding programs… which is still not solving the problem (since they’re feeding them only tortillas and tamales). Adding to the problem is that many parents keep their children home from school to work in the cornfields, or to help with chores. More good healthy food can be produced with a small family garden than with a field of corn.

Guatemalan people are notorious for being small/short. This isn’t genetic, it’s due to poor nutrition. I have video of a five year old girl playing and chasing my two year old son around. They are the same size (except that he’s chubbier.) The lack of proper nutrition is having a negative effect in nearly all areas of life.


Wow that’s heartbreaking. I’m so glad that you guys are doing this. Will you have room for volunteers?

We’re very passionate about it! Yes, we are planning to invite volunteers to come work on The Homestead and at the people’s homes. We’ll also be setting up satellite programs where we can teach classes and reach more people. We just need to build some volunteer housing first! (In dry season we’ll put up tents, but during the rainy season we’ll need a bunk house)


That’s fantastic! I think that what you’re doing should really become a model for how to do sustainable development work. I’ve learned so much just from reading your website on the project — I’m really impressed with the creativity and thoughtfulness. I think volunteers could learn a lot from working hands on with you guys.

So for those of us who want to do something, but aren’t in a position to do either volunteer or move to a developing country long term, what’s the best way to help you guys make this happen?

Thanks Christine! It’s certainly been a work in progress, as far as the model of helping goes — something we’ve been thinking about for years, ever since first becoming dissatisfied with the ‘handout’ system.

Right now, you can help by supporting our fundraising campaign. Right now, the learning center is just a dream. We’ve purchased land, and we have a few of our own animals, but we need a lot more to make this the educational hub we want it to be.

We plan on having garden boxes (to demonstrate small space gardening), rabbits, laying hens, meat chickens, fish ponds — all great sources of nutrition and income. We’ll also teach about vermicomposting (to improve soil quality), composting toilets (to prevent pollution of the land and the lake), and solar hot water (a nice little luxury — can you imagine never having taken a hot water shower or bath??)

We need the funds to implement all these programs here on The Homestead, and from there, the people can earn there own materials from the supply we build up here. It’s perpetual. Our hens will reproduce, and the locals who complete the ‘laying hen class’ can then take them home. It’s awesome!


I love it! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this amazing project! (By the way, the Two Gregs in the video are hilarious!) I have a feeling that you’ll definitely meet your goal, but I’m going to encourage everyone I know to give and share this project as widely as possible! I’m looking forward to following along as this develops!

Thanks Christine! My pleasure. Thanks for sharing this project with others. (I think the Gregs are funny too, especially the red-headed one.)



Here are some of the cool items you can get if you contribute, and at every level you can see what you’re helping to buy, whether that’s a fish for their tilapia pond or a queen bee for the bee hives:

Woven bracelet ($15 Donation)

Beaded Bracelet ($25 Donation)

Scarf ($50 Donation)

Shoulder Bag (Small) ($75 Donation)

Burlap Coffee Bag ($100 Donation)

Woven iPad Bag ($150 Donation)

Painting (Small) ($250 Donation)

Huipil (Blouse) Pillow Case ($500 Donation)

Painting (Large) ($1,000 Donation)

Leather Laptop Bag ($2000 Donation)


All photos copyright Rachel Denning except the main slider, courtesy of David Cifuentes.

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • Christine, I spent half my morning reading various links/blogs/posts/Facebook page, etc from Rachel and Greg. When Rod got in from work, I said, “READ Christine’s column.” Next thing I know he’s asking for MY Paypal password:)hehehe So I see he’s as moved by their project as I was and we’ll have lots to talk about over dinner. Anyway, fork over that $5:) We contributed $25 — are you taking my word for that or do I need to send you some kind of proof??:)

    • Kate,

      I sent you a private email about this, to see what you mean by agenda and it bounced — did you enter the wrong email or did you use a fake email address?

      Anyway, I don’t think having a certain religion is an agenda, do you?

  • Ah…interesting! I was wondering why there hasn’t been more of a response to this. I, too, had already figured out that they are Mormons and I’ll admit that turned me off at first. I’m an atheist myself. But regardless of religious or non religious views, the project seems to be exactly the helping hand (not handout) that the Guatamalans need. The people are starving and mal-nourished. But now that the issue has been ‘disclosed,’ Christine, what are your thoughts and would Rachel be totally transparent with us and let know: is this a Mormon missionary/conversion project or are the Dennings a family who happens to be Mormon and this is their personal project?

  • Hey Trishia,

    I’ve reached out to Rachel, but I think it’s the latter, it’s a family who happens to be Mormon and it’s a personal project. I’ll report back what Rachel says.

    However, given the way Kate above says “it should be disclosed” can you blame them for not putting that right up front? I’m an atheist, but I don’t have any problem with the Mormons, I have two aunts in the church and I went to temple sometimes with their family and the Mormons I knew were really sweet people. And they do go on missions, but it’s usually church sponsored, not like this. I would frankly be shocked if this had anything to do with LDS. I’ve NEVER heard of LDS raising money this way, their members tithe 15% of their salaries and they do missionaries around the world, constantly, but there’s never any bake sales to send elders to their Mission, ya know?

    I’ll update with whatever Rachel says.

  • What a cool project, and thanks for featuring it! I made a donation… partly because I support what these guys are up to and partly because I’ve always wanted to have a chicken named after me. 😉

  • The Dennings have always inspired me with their travels, honest writing and now their charity work. I have really come to believe (especially in the last few months) that there are really two kinds of people in this world. Those that do good and those that don’t. Because really if you aren’t making the world a better place in whatever way you can, you are making it worse. And these people come from all religious beliefs or non-beliefs, nationalities etc…

    Anyway, I donated $15.

  • Hi Everyone, I am a devout Catholic. If I learned that an atheist family was helping a community overcome poverty, I would do whatever I can to help them and applaud them for their work. I would not make the instant conclusion that imposing their faith must be their main agenda. The question can be asked, for sure, but to jump to that conclusion, is a very bigoted response. Don’t you think?

    I have a child with autism and do a lot of fundraising for his school and raising awareness. I do not, and will not preface each solicitation announcing that I am of the the Catholic faith. That would be ludicrous! Peace, Mary Beth

  • Hi Christine, this is truly one of the loveliest blogs i’ve ever stumbled into. Its perfect all the way. I am adding this one to my reading list.

  • Regarding the question about the Dennings being Mormon, I emailed Rachel and Just got a response from her, and to be honest, I was a little embarrassed to have asked her, because it’s the kind of thing that no one would ask if she was Jewish or Catholic or Protestant. But she was really gracious about it, and just confirmed for me that they are great people, doing really important work:

    “Yes, we are Mormons, but no, this project has nothing to do with missionary work. There will be no religion taught, no preaching of any kind. We fully respect others beliefs, religions and traditions, and have no intention of interfering with that in any way. This project is entirely based on our desire to improve nutrition and increase eco-friendly practices. Religion will play no part.”

  • BTW They are now at the $7871 mark! Things are moving right along, so let’s keep those contributions going! Don’t forget my promise on Tuesday… I’ll match $5 for every contribution, if you leave a comment here. THANKS!

  • Great project, I made a $5 donation for although I support a few other non-profits, I’m a big believer in ‘every little bit’ helping. I mean if everyone just gave $5… thanks Christine!

  • What a wonderful project! I can pledge $5 – wish it was more but I’m on maternity leave and quite skint. I can understand why people might be suspicious of religious motives but even if the Dennings were religiously motivated (and it seems they aren’t anyway) which would be better – a village suffering from poverty and malnutrition or one which can feed and educate itself and has converted to a certain religion? I’m an atheist myself but believe that if religion inspires the changing of lives, it’s not to be sniffed at. Anyway, it’s academic, but just wanted to put my two pennies in!

  • Forgot to mention we made a $10 donation. Wish we could have done more! This sounds like a fantastic project and I wish them lots of success!!

  • I’ve followed the Dennings blog for awhile but haven’t looked recently. Your post reminded me to check them out again. There cause is a really good one that will help many people. I donated $15 to it.

  • Christine, I’m so glad to hear I’m not the only human in this world who is critical of band-aid help.
    While I was traveling through Nicaragua last year I stumbled upon a one “laptop per child” project that really left me questioning the program’s motives. When I communicated my worries on an instagram picture I got flooded with North Americans who I doubt have ever left their home town basically calling me a heretic for even questioning an aid program. Who was I to hold back these little boys and girls from technological advances. It really left me perplexed.

    This looks like a really well thought out wonderful project. I hope to be able to visit one day. I think the Dominican Republic could value from similar projects.

    As per the mormon thing, in response to Mary Beth, while I have no problem with any religious I don’t personally believe in missionary work, and when you see a particular religion attached to a project it makes you question the motives. Atheists don’t usual go around trying to convert people to atheism, so the little alarms bells don’t usually go off. It’s part of a normal critical process to make sure there are no hidden agendas behind aid, be it political, financial, or religious.
    From what I’ve read of this project it doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Have a good one!

  • Christine –

    Thanks so much for bringing the work the Jensens and Dennings are doing to light! What a terrific alternative to the bandaid and handout programs. One can only hope that with the success this program will have, changing the lives of families in Panajachel – making them self-sufficient – will one day be replicated across the globe. Thanks too Christine for your generous pledge to kick things into high gear. Here’s another “Atta Girl!”

    P.S. Oops! My donation tonight was anonymous…a little habit 😉