JBU's Connection with Latin America

By Marquita Smith, photos by Heather Charise
Friday, December 21, 2012

A Better Look at the JBU-Guatemala Partnership

Antigua - Photo by Heather ChariseThe man was led to a pair of feet jutting from pile of filth, cardboard and paper. Two Guatemalan boys, thrown together as brothers and left defenseless on this night, needed to find a more secure place to rest. Too many police patrolled the area. Gently, the older sibling pulled apart the bed to uncover his younger brother, who slept despite the harassing noises and passersby.

Picking up the sleeping child, the man followed the older brother to a small enclave next to a garbage dump. The brother signaled for the man to stop. After placing the small boy on a bed of boxes in the protection of a child guardian, the man forced himself to walk away — there was nothing more he could do.

That day was 1993 and the American, Joe Walenciak, associate dean of the College of Business, describes it as pivotal moment in his life – the time when God renewed his spirit and gave him new purpose and passion. His prayer: “Kindle a new passion in my heart. Give me your passion for something.” His interests: the street kids in Guatemala and tPhoto by Heather Charisehe indigenous people in the nation of more than 13 million residents. With extremes of wealth and poverty, and few people in the middle, Guatemala is the largest nation in Central America.

Connections with this nation have formed on campus. Over the years, John Brown University students, faculty and staff frequently travel to Guatemala either to study abroad, go on short-term mission trips, visit friends, live with host families to study the language or to simply explore the beautiful country. JBU’s connections in the country have grown rapidly, and the university shares a special bond with the people of Guatemala.


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Photo by Heather ChariseWhy Guatemala? More than 200,000 of its people were killed over the course of a civil war that began in 1960 and ended with peace accords in 1996. The legacy of brutality contributed to massive human abuse, drug problems, and other violent crimes in Guatemala. The needs are tremendous, said Walenciak, who served as the Students In Free Enterprise (now known as Enactus) Sam Walton Fellow for JBU for 11 years.

During his sabbatical in 2003, Walenciak, who speaks Spanish fluently, taught at Guatemala’s most prestigious university, connected with many JBU graduates in the region and served as a volunteer for many children’s charities. He said his time there helped to intensify the JBU-Guatemala partnership, through which countless projects have blossomed over the years. Among them: 

Clean water: The project was completed in Chajul in May 2012 (see page 20 for full article). On his blog he posted: “History will probably never remember that clean water came to Chajul, Guatemala, for the very first time on May 22, 2012. But the people of Chajul...and a group from John Brown University...WILL remember this day.”

Stove Initiative: In 2005, after learning about the desperate conditions of typical family kitchens in rural Guatemala, the SIFE team got involved and replaced open, indoor fire pits with safe, clean and efficient concrete and cinder block stoves. SIFE partnered with Helps International to clean up the kitchens in the rural Guatemalan village of Santa Cruz in Baja Verapaz. Since then, the stove initiative has expanded to include several villages, with more than 1,200 stoves provided.

Hydroponics: In 2009, Andrea Marroquin started a project called Hydroponics Optimizing People’s Endeavors (HOPE), which helps Guatemalan farmers grow tomatoes. The crop allows farmers to help feed the nation plus earn a living.


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Annual mission trips to Guatemala have become more common among JBU students. Various projects or visits are often led by staff, faculty or through a connection in Guatemala. No matter Photo by Heather Charisethe cause, each trip usually includes a visit to the dump. The Guatemala City garbage dump, situated in a ravine, sprawls across 40 acres of land in the nation’s capital. 

This landfill, one of the largest and most toxic in Central America, houses over a third of the country’s waste, including trash, recyclables and discarded food items. Medical supplies, including used syringes, toxins emitted from discarded gas tanks, as well as other biohazardous materials contribute to the dangers. Animal corpses deteriorate amid the waste, adding to already poor sanitation conditions.

The area surrounding the landfill is so heavily populated that it has become a municipality. The nation’s poor are allowed to build temporary houses or structures bordering the landfill; the ravine and surrounding properties are public land. An estimated 8,000-13,000 men, women, and children live in the squatting communities, scavenging in the dump for personal items, food, and anything they may be able to re-sale on the open market.

Walenciak said he never anticipated becoming deeply involved with the people, missions and organizations in Guatemala. “I would have laughed in your face if you said I would be traveling five times a year to Guatemala.”

But God always knows what’s best for us. God’s plan is what must lead and guide us, whether people realize it or not, he explained.


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Ron Johnson’s office resembles a typical family room in a suburban home. On this particular Friday, several students from Central America enjoy coffee and doughnuts, a nice break between classes.

“I get to know them and it makes it a much more personal relationship,” he said. “I know their stories. I have been into their homes. I understand their struggles.” Photo by Heather Charise

Johnson, director of the Walton International Scholars Program, spends much of his time recruiting and selecting Walton Scholars from eight countries. Out of 60 students, 20 percent generally are from Guatemala.

“Guatemala, it’s unique,” he said. “People are warm and friendly. They sing when they talk. And people have gone through some hardship with the civil war, but yet they are hopeful and inspirational.”

Ernesto Lopez, a sophomore engineering majoring, sat on a couch near Johnson. The native Guatemalan smiled as he compared his home to Siloam Springs. They both are beautiful with beautiful people, he concluded.

Even away from home, new students still feel connected to Guatemala. Lopez has worked on the water project in the mountains (article on page 20). He said he was totally surprised at how much love his classmates have for his native land.

“I find all of the multiple projects amazing,” he said. “I was impressed. I knew if I came here to make a difference in my country, I was going to get a good start.” The road that Christians must travel is never easy, of course – whether they’re working for Christ in Westernized nations or in the developing world.

In August, History Professor Preston Jones taught a seminar about “The Examined Life”, a book by John Photo by Heather ChariseKekes at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala City. Jones discussed the way the book guides readers to have a better life by applying self-examination techniques that crystallize personal goals, values, relationships and interests. Jones, who has traveled to Guatemala often, described his relationship to the nation as surpassing passion and romanticism.

It is, he explained, “a duty.”