Don Bayron Tobías (left), the newly elected mayor of San Andrés Semetabaj, set to take office in January 2024, mobilized the community's collective efforts; he urged people to contribute their small change. He expressed a strong desire to do more for his fellow citizens and emphasized the need for Tzu Chi Foundation's support. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

Nestled in the Guatemalan highlands lies San Andrés Semetabaj, a town of about 17,000 people and 3,000 households. It is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the capital, Guatemala City. Here, amidst breathtaking scenery, many families struggle with poverty and limited access to resources.

Hardships in the Mountain Village

Paola María Coroxón, a dedicated resident of San Andrés Semetabaj, has tirelessly advocated for her community's needs since 2012. She first participated by visiting Mi Dulce Refugio, an elderly care facility in Palencia. Later she informed Tzu Chi of the needs of the Maya people near Lake Atitlán. In recent years, she has facilitated Tzu Chi's assistance in towns such as Santa María Chiquimula and Pachalum in Quiché.

Tzu Chi volunteers in Guatemala visited impoverished and medically needy families in the mountainous areas of San Andrés Semetabaj. Led by local guides familiar with each village, 18 volunteers divided into seven groups to conduct home visits. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/19

On November 19, 2023, Tzu Chi volunteers visited San Andrés Semetabaj with the guidance of Paola María Coroxón and met the incoming mayor, Don Bayron Tobías. The mayor accompanied the volunteers throughout the visits, on a mission to understand the community’s challenges firsthand. Divided into seven groups led by local guides, they visited numerous households in the mountainous areas. The Maya indigenous villagers living in the mountainous region of San Andrés Semetabaj have less education, with over one fifth illiterate.

Tzu Chi volunteers were led by a local woman, Francisca, from the village of Barrio Tzantziy Bajo, as they hiked through the narrow mountain trails. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/19

Led by Francisca Comez, a woman from the village of Barrio Tzantziy Bajo, the volunteers hiked through mountain trails. They noticed barren fields due to the winter season. The corn crops had already been harvested, leading to a period of agricultural inactivity and income loss for farmers.

The first household they visited was a 64-year-old widower with nine children; one, a 34-year-old daughter, had intellectual disabilities and required constant care. His weekly income ranged from 200 to 300 GTQ (less than US$38). Another household consisted of 63-year-old Mario, who suffered from diabetes, and his 41-year-old wife with four children, all attending school.

Julia, a 47-year-old single mother working as a domestic helper, had three children in school, and a 21-year-old daughter balancing work and studies. There was another family where the father worked as a security guard while the mother cared for their two-year-old son recovering from liver surgery; this has created a challenging transition period for the family. There was also a 29-year-old single mother with two children, earning about 500 GTQ (approx. US$63) per month. Seeing how they lived in a disorganized and untidy home; Tzu Chi volunteer Jasmine Chang (張素欣) suggested to the mother to prioritize her children's health and allocate time to tidy up the living environment.

The head of the Tzu Chi contact office in Guatemala, Feng-chin Ko (柯芬卿), visited 86-year-old Victoria Cumes Can, who lived alone, had diabetes, and weak legs; fortunately, she was supported by her three children.

Ophelia Maria Cumes Matzar, an elderly woman with dementia, had two children; their livelihood depended on assistance from nearby relatives. Carlos Suy Tuc, 34, with three children, had a 17-year-old unmarried daughter with a child and a son, Kevin, who dropped out of school in the third grade due to the family's financial struggles.

Summing up the volunteer visits, Ko noted that most male heads of households in the mountain areas worked as day laborers or did hard labor in the fields; they earned less than US$10 per day, barely making ends meet. The issues the volunteers highlighted included challenges in the education of children and adolescents. Although school enrollment was free, the additional costs of stationery and notebooks were beyond their means; this led many children to give up education. As a result of these difficulties, the Maya indigenous villagers living in the mountainous region of San Andrés Semetabaj are not so well educated; over one fifth are illiterate.

Mayor Seeks Tzu Chi's Support

After understanding the situation, volunteers immediately started to plan a distribution. With the arrival of supplies on November 26, volunteers gathered at El Hormigo School in the city center of San Andrés Semetabaj, the chosen distribution site.

The women receiving the aid were dressed in traditional attire, while the men wore suits. After participating in a simple yet solemn ceremony, they earnestly prayed for all hearts to be pure, harmony in society, and a world free from disasters. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

The volunteers organized the supplies neatly and eagerly awaited the arrival of local residents to collect them. For this special occasion, the recipients came dressed in their best, the women in traditional attire and men in smart suits. They arrived punctually and followed the volunteers' guidance to their designated seats, their faces beaming with joy. Some elderly people spoke only in the Maya dialect; volunteers kindly assisted them in finding their seats.

With everything in order, the distribution ceremony began. Volunteer Li-wen Liu (劉立文) shared the origin of the "Bamboo Bank Era." Mayor Don Bayron Tobías, after presenting a certificate of appreciation, addressed the attendees: "As a mayor elected with the support of the people, I am dedicated to the city's development, striving to address the needs and living conditions of the people. I hope to receive support from Tzu Chi because there is much to be done with limited resources!"

Mayor Tobías mentioned that, a week ago, he and the volunteers visited different places to learn the needs of the poor. That day they received food donations from the Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan for those in need in San Andrés Semetabaj. The supplies provided by Tzu Chi included sugar, noodles, oil, and blankets, and benefited many families in need. The mayor expressed gratitude on behalf of the people of San Andrés Semetabaj to Tzu Chi Foundation and its volunteers for the generous donation. He actively participated in the distribution, turning his gratitude into practical action. He not only encouraged people to contribute whatever small amount they could but also personally assisted in the distribution. He reiterated: "Thank you very much, Tzu Chi. We hope to continue receiving your support."

During the winter distribution at Almigo School in San Andrés Semetabaj, supplies including rice, pasta, cooking oil, sugar, biscuits, as well as eco-friendly bags and blankets, were provided, benefiting 635 families in total. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

After the mayor's presentation, Ms. Paula presented a set of traditional Maya clothing to Master Cheng Yen; it was accepted by volunteer Jasmine Chang. Following a simple yet solemn ceremony, the community engaged in heartfelt prayers for all hearts to be pure, harmony in society, and a world free from disasters. A fundraising activity for charity followed, and despite facing difficulties in life, the residents joyfully participated, contributing to the accumulation of blessings.

The residents of San Andrés Semetabaj joyfully received the essential supplies they needed. Even after they left the distribution site, their expressions of gratitude continued to echo in the air. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

With utmost gratitude, respect, and love, the volunteers presented the supplies to each villager. The volunteers worked as a team with some at the forefront of distribution, while others took on the responsibility of replenishing supplies from the back. The venue remained orderly; as residents received their items, they expressed their gratitude both on-site and beyond.

New Volunteer Finds Joy in Helping Others

The Secretary of the Overseas Community Affairs Council, Hui-jun Dong (right), participated in Tzu Chi's distribution event for the first time and expressed great joy. He hopes to have the opportunity to participate in Tzu Chi activities again in the future to help even more people. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

Secretary Hui-jun Dong (董惠鈞) from the Overseas Community Affairs Council, R.O.C. (Taiwan) participated in Tzu Chi's distribution event for the first time, assisting in distributing packets of pasta. He expressed his fulfillment: "I am honored to participate in this charity work with everyone. I look forward to more opportunities to join Tzu Chi in the future and continue helping more people."

Antonieta Martzar expressed gratitude for Tzu Chi's strong support in providing assistance to the people of San Andrés Semetabaj who need it the most. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

The warm smiles of the volunteers eased the spirits of those waiting to receive supplies; they also assisted elderly and weak women in moving the distributed items. Antonieta Martzar, a village committee member, expressed gratitude for the large-scale distribution. She said: "Thank you Tzu Chi for supporting the people of San Andrés Semetabaj. We are also grateful to the kind-hearted donors who contributed to transporting the goods. Their donations have made a profound impact on those in need."

Guatemalan Tzu Chi volunteer Ana (second from the left), checks the distribution list for San Andrés Semetabaj alongside her daughter, Mishell (first from the left), giving with love and care. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

Local volunteer Ana Roguel de León, dressed in grey uniform and with extensive experience in distribution work, said: "I am a part of the Tzu Chi Foundation, and I can't remember how many years I've been with Tzu Chi. I invited my daughter, Mishell De León, to join because there are too many people in need. We are willing to help others, but it requires the power of a team. Children can show love and affection towards others. Through helping others, I've accumulated many beautiful experiences."

Inspired by the compassion of giving, this is the third time that Zhong Shi (施忠) has volunteered. He said: "We visited a family with three elderly members, all quite old. There was also a household where the husband had just passed away, and a woman was taking care of two children aged three to five. It made me feel that this place really needs assistance."

Unlike the previous distributions, volunteers not only prepared rice, spaghetti, cooking oil, sugar, biscuits, and other food items but also blankets donated by Mr. Xing-yuan Huang (黃星元) and purchased locally. They added Tzu Chi eco-friendly bags made from recycled PET bottles, presenting them to 635 families in need of humanitarian assistance.

Yaozhuo Ling, accompanied by his son Gabriel Ling (on the left), participated this time. From setting up the venue and hanging the Tzu Chi flag to learning Tzu Chi’s etiquette and distributing supplies to each family, both father and son were deeply engaged and dedicated. | Photo by Citian Wu | San Andrés Semetabaj, Guatemala | 2023/11/26

Volunteer Yaozhuo Ling (凌耀灼) participated with his son, Gabriel Ling, this time; they set up the venue, learnt Tzu Chi’s etiquette and passionately distributed supplies to each family. Volunteer Ya-chi Chen's (陳亞琪) entire family also came to help, including Yuan-yu Chen (陳遠裕) and Yun-jie Chen (陳允婕). Thirteen-year-old volunteer Anali Tiul (施麗霞), fluent in both Chinese and Spanish, expressed her love for Tzu Chi's work and participated with her parents. Trainee volunteers Shunchang Lin (林順昌) and Nianci Tan (譚念慈), a married couple, took part. One distributed blankets and the other sugar; despite the heavy load, they respectfully handed over the supplies to villagers, leaving behind touching scenes.

In the land of Guatemala, Tzu Chi invites virtuous people from all corners to create a heart-warming world. Although the number of certified Tzu Chi volunteers in Guatemala is small, the power of love and the call to aid the suffering attract more and more local people to join. With the guidance of senior volunteers, the seeds of kindness already planted will grow stronger and turn Guatemala into a pure land on Earth.