If every third person in Panajachel is a volunteer, it seems like every third volunteer is with Mayan Families. I have only once heard a criticism about this diverse 501(c)3 and that was that they promised more than they delivered. This last weekend, word went out that the NGO needed help preparing 1,500 food baskets in time for Christmas. So, curious, I volunteered.
The staging area was once home to the founder, Sharon Smart and her husband, Dwight Poage. Like many people in Jucanya, they were subject to the tormentos; so, one day, this place had to be abandoned to inclemency. But, on this sunny Sunday morning, the courtyard cradles six wrapping tables with ribbons and colored cellophane, at the ready, while sacks of carrots are stacked in a sixty foot square cube under the stairs.
I sidled along a narrow path and wedged myself into the large but cramped workroom. Five others were already pivoting and weaving around a pineapple mountain and ceiling high boxes of supplies. The “Tamale Basket” packing list called for cooking oil, powdered consume, marshmallows, medallions of chocolate, a pound each of sugar, rice, an enriched drink, coffee, beans to be topped off with a loaf of bread, a box of cookies and a pineapple. Stewing chickens would be distributed separately to the basket recipients.
Except for a young woman from Gainesville everybody was staff or a veteran volunteer from Hurricane Agatha or, perhaps, further back. We were so harmonious that we were shortly cranking out about 100-120 baskets an hour despite logistical problems and breakdowns that stalled us. The wrappers in the court yard ran out of space in the first hour. So, we stopped to allow boards and cinder blocks to pass overhead. After this, the four instant shelving guys became a ubiquitous third team.
Mayan Families knew to expect long lines on distribution day, Monday. And, I went back to see how the crowds were handled. At the crest of the hill, I met a volunteer safety guard, who was slowing vehicles ahead of the jam below. There were double parked tuk-tuks and women cued up for four blocks on both sides of the dirt road. Dwight walked along the cordon greeting and cajoling. Inside the ropes, women waited patient and dusty; with babies on their backs and hips. The older children played in the small areas away from the road. On the sunny side stood the mirror image — ladies in worn traje draped with kids… except, these women had no claim tickets.
I switched video on and began recording and (to my great surprise) crying. –For the first time, I had to chide myself to be tough; a New Yorker. But, the hard fact was that the shady side families would have a Christmas dinner while the women in the sun would not. The unlucky half was stuck with “Esperanza” — meaning they would endure waiting and hoping.
I crossed the barrier into the courtyard expecting to find chaos. Instead, all hands that weren’t grooming and bundling carrots were preparing the registration tables. Yesterday’s packing room had been transformed into today’s rummaging area and people were about unpacking pounds of clothing. Sharon stood in the middle of the already milling children and explained that everybody got two pieces to wear and one pair of shoes for each child in hand. She added a restriction that women in traje did not get garments for themselves.
Recipients of clothing and those at reception were photographed with their goods or Tamale Basket while holding an erasable white board with a number (perhaps keyed to individual donors.) The courtyard was quite full of exhausted grandmother drooping in the chairs and groups at the dutch door waiting their turn at dress up.
By any measure, the Mayan Families Tamale Basket operation was well ordered and far from being “over-promising,” it was scrupulously gentle.