At first glance, Chuacruz, Guatemala, is an idyllic place. Green and gorgeous, it is tucked into low tropical hills strung with neat rows of crops. Children freely roam the streets, with little to fear from strangers (there aren’t any) or cars (there aren’t any of those either). Cattle and pigs wander among people. It is so quiet you can hear chickens clucking from neighboring yards.
But not all is perfect. There are no indoor toilets, and in some cases, no outdoor ones either. Water is drunk unfiltered from wells. Cooking is done on wood-fired stoves that fill homes with heavy clouds of black smoke.
The team and a local family after completing a stove together.
In July 2014, Akiko Ikegami, a senior manager at Viacom Media Networks, traveled from New York to Chuacruz to help change that. Working as part of Viacom’s Give and Take program done in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, she spent five days installing water filtration systems and building outdoor toilets and safer stoves for eight families.
Viacom’s Give and Take allows employees who work through the program to receive five vacation days back when they commit to a one-week Habitat build. “I’ve been so lucky in life that being able to give back is important to me,” Ikegami, who had previous Habitat experience on a demolition project in her native New Jersey, says. “One thing I absolutely love about Viacom is that they support anything to give back. That they would actually help me go and do something like this was really motivating.”
It is not a free ride. Ikegami had to raise money to cover the costs of her trip – hotel, supplies, ground transportation – in addition to paying for round-trip airfare. This is in keeping with the spirit of Habitat, which does not simply hand out housing, but asks the beneficiaries to pound nails alongside its volunteers.
This was the case in Chuacruz. When Ikegami and her 12-person volunteer team – a diverse group ranging from recent high school graduates to retirees – arrived, the villagers had already dug 20-foot-deep holes for the latrines and hand crafted blocks for the stoves from mud and water.
Even rain couldn’t stop the team from putting up this outdoor latrine.
The experience was transformative. While Ikegami has traveled widely – her passport includes stamps from Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Costa Rica, and broad swaths of Europe and the Caribbean – Chuacruz was a new kind of adventure. An hour down a rutted jungle path, the village is so remote that its indigenous residents do not communicate in Guatemala’s official Spanish, but a local language called Kaqchikel. Yet, even with this isolation and lack of basic infrastructure, what most defined the community on Ikegami’s visit was the constant sound of laughter.
“I came back a different person,” she says. “I feel much more open-minded now, with a clear understanding of what’s important in life. I’ve become a lot more relaxed and realize that life could be a lot different.”
The trip was not easy, requiring the volunteers to rise at 6 a.m. for demanding, sometimes dirty manual labor. One day, their access to the village blocked by a protest, the volunteers had to move tons of cinder blocks more than a mile, bucket-brigade style. The poverty was dispiriting at times. But Ikegami made lifelong friends, learned local Guatemalan culture, and built solid home additions that will improve the lives of Chuacruz residents for years.
Ikegami had traveled to Guatemala partly to fill a 2014 New Year’s resolution, but she was so inspired by her Habitat experience that she’s continuing her efforts. For her 30th birthday, she rallied half a dozen friends and family members to help clean, organize and run a Habitat for Humanity furniture center in Trenton, N.J. for a day.