The Voces y Manos Story
In 2007, when he was a college junior, Voces y Manos co-founder Michael Bakal volunteered with a Guatemalan partner of the American Jewish World Service, Fundación Nueva Esperanza (FNE). Deeply inspired by FNE’s work promoting social justice and education, Michael returned to Rabinal the following summer with friends and fellow UC San Diego students Amy Yam, Jessica Nicholas, Michael McGuirk and others. This group of college students launched a partnership with FNE and other local organizations that they called “Voces y Manos por la salud comunitaria” or “Voices and Hands for community health”, which they registered as a student organization. Former AJWS president Ruth Messinger, tells the story of how Voces y Manos got started, and why AJWS continued to support their work:
These interactions led the Voces y Manos team to recognize that there was a certain futility in coordinating direct medical services for a community whose youth had the desire and potential—but not the resources—to provide such care themselves. This realization prompted Voces y Manos to partner with FNE to create a scholarship program to help its graduates pursue higher education. This scholarship program was launched in 2009 and currently provides scholarships to 27 high school students and six university students.
The creation of the scholarship program raised a dilemma for Voces y Manos, since not all students wanted to become health professionals. The group’s experience treating the sick, however, had taught them that many of the illnesses from which patients suffered had a common cause: poverty. While medical care could relieve symptoms and at times treat illness, patients ultimately returned home to the same living conditions that caused them to become ill in the first place. Thus, in addition to healthcare, it was clear that the Rabinal community also needed professionals capable of addressing the underlying conditions on which good health depends. With this in mind, Voces y Manos and FNE decided to provide scholarships to allow students to study to become teachers, agricultural technicians, and engineers, in addition to healthcare providers. By doing so, Voces y Manos aimed to empower young leaders to address the underlying social determinants of health.
By 2010, Voces y Manos had entirely phased out its health fairs, concentrating resources instead on scholarships. To inspire students to give back and serve their communities (as the health fairs had done previously), Voces y Manos partnered with FNE to build a six-month youth empowerment program designed to teach students how to implement their own community projects. To unify this youth empowerment program with the scholarship program, Voces y Manos made successful completion of the program a pre-requisite of the scholarship program. Thus, all students receiving scholarships from Voces y Manos have direct experience working on community health projects. This experience is vital to realizing Voces y Manos’ vision of empowering its graduates to become future leaders who transform social conditions in their communities and broader society.
A brief timeline of Voces y Manos
Summer 2008: The Health Fair
During the summer of 2008—the beginning of our formal partnerships—we set out to define our role as a North American organization working in Guatemala. Given the violent history of US medical, military, and economic intervention in Guatemala, we made a conscious effort to avoid giving the impression that we viewed ourselves as “outside experts” possessing the solutions to local people’s problems. The health fairs were instead a grassroots effort. Local organizations, and indigenous community leaders determined what core services would be provided, and publicized the event through their churches and schools. North American volunteers participated in meetings, assisted in publicity, and worked directly with youth in preparation for the health fairs. Local youth who attended the FNE school were trained to be leaders in the health fair.
The Start of Voces y Manos’ Scholarship Program
The youth training—co-sponsored by partner organizations ASECSA and Fundación Nueva Esperanza—left such a big impact on everyone involved that it shifted the entire direction of our work. The planned 3-day workshop metamorphosed into a core group of 15 youth who worked 4 to 5 days per week to coordinate a special youth component of the community health fairs. The youth wrote and performed a skit about the importance of gender equality and home hygiene in preventing sickness.
The experience of playing such an active role in working to transform their communities inspired this group of young leaders. Five of them decided to continue developing independent community projects after the Voces y Manos program formally ended. One of the students from that initial group, Edelman Ramiro Ramirez, went on to serve on a youth advisory board to Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. Shortly thereafter, he accepted a scholarship to study at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana. (He would eventually graduate to become a physician and advisor to Voces y Manos). Witnessing the remarkable dedication of young people like Edelman, Voces y Manos began to discuss the idea of creating a scholarship program to further support the youth in pursuit of their dreams. This scholarship program was formally launched in December of 2008, benefiting an initial group of 5 students to pursue careers in nursing and elementary education.
Voces y Manos continued to expand its impact, both in Guatemala and the US. At UCSD, Voces y Manos started a course through the Third World Studies department at UCSD called “Contemporary Issues in Global Health.” Co-taught with faculty in the departments of Sociology and Medicine, the class provided a venue for students to reflect on international volunteer work within the contexts of global health and North-South power relations.
In Guatemala during the summers of 2009 and 2010, Voces y Manos continued continued its work coordinating community health fairs and supporting youth. In 2009, dental care was added as one of the core services provided at the community health fairs. Meanwhile, the scholarship program continued to grow and improve. At the request of Fundación Nueva Esperanza, Voces y Manos approved funding for weekly mathematics tutoring for all our scholarship recipients in this year.
From 2010-1012, Voces y Manos formalized its work by becoming registered as a a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. The scholarship program continued to grow, and a requirement was added to the program that all students would develop independent community projects as part of their involvement in the leadership program. With mentoring from partner organizations, students developed a wide range of projects including reforestation efforts, community gardens, and trash collection initiatives. These projects are featured on our website.
In 2012, Voces y Manos took the important step of hiring Armando Raxcacó as a full time staff member and program coordinator. Armando, an agricultural expert and experienced teacher, began working to strengthen the sustainability of Voces y Manos on several fronts. He provided expert advise and assistance to students in the development of their community, he provided academic tutoring to students in mathematics, and he strengthened institutional partnerships for greater sustainability. In 2013, another major step was taken when we hired two former scholarship recipients, Jenifer Valey Gomez and Macario Vasquez Reyes to work as program interns. Jenifer and Macario quickly took over responsibility for coordinator the youth leadership program. In addition, they provide academic mentoring and tutoring for students.
As Voces y Manos’ students began graduating from high school, the team recognized a need to support its graduates taking the next key steps in their lives: Obtaining work and gaining a college education. With this in mind, Voces y Manos created a new initiative to provide internships in which graduates of its high school scholarship program are provided with internships to work with local community organizations while attending college. The students earn a small stipend, which they use to pay the costs of college tuition. At present, Voces y Manos is working to expand this college scholarship/internship program to enable more young people to reach their dreams and contribute to the sustainable development and wellbeing of their communities.