UPAVIM Guatemala Learning Tour: Part I 

February 25 through March 4, volunteer Kathi Panknen and I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. We headed to Guatemala, one of the 34 countries that The Work of Our Hands gets their artisan products from. I was over the moon when I heard that I would be able to go to Guatemala on a learning tour. Guatemala has been on my bucket list ever since I had fallen in love with the colorful handwoven fabrics and hand beaded products made by Mayan women. We joined two other women from the U.S.A., both of which love to travel and are curious about the world around them.
UPAVIM Crafts, short for Unidas Para Vivar Mejor, which translates to United for a Better Life, hosted the tour to highlight how UPAVIM impacts the lives of women and children throughout Guatemala. The U.S. Director of Sales of UPAVIM Crafts, Alisa Woofter, was our amazing host and guide. She has been instrumental in gaining new clients, such as Coca-Cola to purchase products made from upcycled aluminum cans in the iconic Coca-Cola red.

Our trip started off with visiting UPAVIM in the heart of La Esperanza, a “Red Zone” of Guatemala City. We had to be careful since the neighborhood is riddled with gangs and violence. Once we were safely inside the secured gates of UPAVIM, the tour group was greeted with the smiles and hugs of school children who were celebrating National Cultural Heritage Day. We quickly learned that in 2000, UPAVIM started a Montessori school for K-6 as an alternative to the public school. The school now serves approximately 150 students, some of which are the children of the women who work in UPAVIM Crafts. I was surprised that the children learn English on a daily basis and that they only have the resources to have computer class once a week. The children seemed happy, healthy, and eager to learn. At the end of a busy day visiting each classroom, the tour group had the pleasure participating in an English learning game with 6th grade students.

The next day, we returned to UPAVIM to meet the women behind the beautifully made products that we sell at The Work of Our Hands. UPAVIM is a co-op of 60 women from La Esperanza who are both strong and resilient. We learned of their hardships and struggles and the life change that has happened since working at UPAVIM. Each woman is paid a living wage, has the ability to send their children to school and most of all have the camaraderie of other women who want to better their lives. There was a real sense of empowerment. We learned that all staff positions are held by local women who earned their spot through hard work and determination. The only man in sight was a kindhearted sewing machine repairmen and part-time transportation provider for the organization named Hugo.

Angela, the Administrator of Crafts, oversees the everyday operations. She gives direction to the co-op and is instrumental in the success of the women who work there. During our time in the workshop, we got to see how contemporary designs from the U.S. are tested for production, making sure the quality is up to standards. UPAVIM designs its own fabrics that are handwoven on a pedal loom. It takes one month to get fabric in once it is ordered, so it is essential to be on top of the inventory. You can see examples of these beautiful fabrics in the bowl cozies and cute skillet holders that we sell in our store. A few of my favorite takeaways from visiting the workshop is how Sonia, the production director, organizes all fabric scraps so that there is zero waste. Scraps are used in smaller projects or as fillers. Also, project packet bags are made for seamstresses to be pick up during the day so that  they can choose to work at UPAVIM or from home, whichever is better for their living situation. It was a treat of mine to meet some of the women whose names can be seen on the product tags of items that we sell in the store. For more information at UPAVIM please check out www.upavim.com.
Written by Anna Allen

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