LS Sophomore Makes a Difference in Guatemala

Stoves_web.jpgVaclav Masek, a Core Program sophomore originally from Guatemala City, recently organized a project to aid rural citizens of his home country. More than 80% of Guatemalans use firewood as their primary energy source, but doing so is linked to high rates of respiratory illness and burns, as well as deforestation. Furthermore, many water sources available to Guatemalans are contaminated, leading to gastrointestinal illness or malnutrition among consumers. To help address these issues, Masek, along with a team of volunteers and HELPS International staff members, spent a weekend during his summer break installing insulated stoves and water purification filters in the homes of five Guatemalan families in an outlying village. Masek, who attends NYU as a merit scholar of Fundación Bolar, spoke with Liberal Studies about this project and how the connections he made during his freshman year at NYU London helped make it possible.

How did you get involved with HELPS International?

I’ve been involved with volunteering programs for more than five years now. My secondary school believes in social responsibility and scheduled one or two of these a year, and that’s how I got to know several ONGs (non-governmental organizations). HELPS was one of my favorites, because of the straightforwardness of its ideals and importance of its mission.

Describe your latest project.

I traveled to Caserío El Porvenir, a small village close to the town of Alotenango, in Sacatepéquez, with a team of volunteers and staff from HELPS International. Upon arrival, we met the five beneficiary families and received an orientation and instruction on how to properly build the stoves. The orientation was conducted by staff members, people who had been working with this particular ONG for more than ten years and had installed more than 500 filters and stoves in several villages of Guatemala.

We then proceeded to divide ourselves into teams. We walked through the cobblestone streets to the houses of the beneficiary families--one-room adobe settlements built in the skirts of the Fuego Volcano. My team built and installed the stove/filter combinations in two different houses. Just 45 minutes after we reached a house, the finished stove was functioning perfectly and was heating our lunch: tortillas!

What is the biggest challenge of this work?
The biggest challenge might be making people conscious of this situation. They look, they listen, but they forget what you’re saying just seconds later. Finding people that have the will to help is not difficult; the challenge lies in keeping a solid, committed, and disciplined group that is willing to help and give from their time without expecting anything in return.

What is the most rewarding aspect of this work?
For me, the most rewarding aspect is when the new stove owner looks at you directly in the eye and says, with an honest and thankful smile drawn from ear to ear, ‘Gracias por su ayuda’. Then, you know you’ve made a significant change in somebody’s life; you know you’ve managed to better and/or eliminate what previously was a burden or a pain. You instantly find yourself with an equally large smile.  

How did NYU London and the LS Student Council support this project?
I installed some posters and donation boxes around the NYU London academic center and presented a slideshow that outlined my initiative and my project to the Liberal Studies Student Council and some administrative staff of NYU London. The Student Council generously donated a sum of money directly to the project.

The funds mean much more than just five stoves and five water filters. They symbolize a quantitative drop in the amount of cardiorespiratory diseases caused by excessive carbon monoxide in the household. The funds will also help reduce the ecological impact of wood consumption, with families reducing consumption by up to 70%. Women will gain the equivalent of two days a week in time saved from gathering wood, allowing them time for social and economic activities. Gastrointestinal illnesses, the second most common death cause in children aged 0-5, will basically disappear; 99% of pathogenic bacteria is eliminated in the filtration process. In general, life will become a little bit easier and more dignified.

What drew you to NYU Liberal Studies and to NYU London?
I could not deny an offer that gave me the opportunity to study in two world cities throughout my tertiary studies. Interdisciplinary and global, NYU proved to be the better option in all aspects: academic, social, and even personal.

What are your plans as you start sophomore year in New York?
At NYU London, I participated in football with University College London. I am expecting to try out for the football team in New York, as well as other sports. After completing the Core Program, my plan is to double-major in Sociology and Politics.

Anything else you’d like to mention about your work with HELPS International or NYU London experience?
It would not have been possible to carry out my project without the inexhaustible assistance of the magnificent NYU London administrative staff and their interest in my initiative and me. HELPS provided me with the necessary tools, investigated where was appropriate to carry out the project, and gave me freedom to do the project as I pleased. 

Pictured: Masek represents NYU pride alongside a stove he helped to build.
Updated on 03/20/2015