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‘Guten Tag, Durango’

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Sophia Medrano, 16, and nine other high school students from Guatemala City spent 10 days in Durango as part of an exchange program with the Durango High School Interact Club. Medrano and her classmates visited the Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County on Thursday to organize and take part in games with the kids there. From left are Medrano and 7-year-olds Alondra Cruz Mendoza, daughter of Carlos Cruz Garcia and Jeamileth Mendoza; Emily D’Aleo, daughter of Jon and Amanda D’Aleo; and Jackson Dreyfuss, son of Adam and Julie Dreyfuss.

By Ann Butler Herald staff writer

The sounds of German rang through the streets of Durango as a group of students from Guatemala, members of Interact, the high school version of Rotary International, spent the last 10 days here on an exchange with a group at Durango High School.

You read that right – German. The students attend Instituto Austriaco Guatemalteco in Guatemala City, which was founded in 1958 by Austrians. Most of the students have attended the school since they were young.

“We speak three languages: Spanish, German and English,” Interact President Marco Flores said in quite good English. “Our classes are mostly taught in German.”

The students spent their time here exploring and participating in a number of service projects. The concept of Interact and Rotaract (which is Rotary for young adults ages 18 to 30) is to get young people into the spirit of community service, giving back, because the club’s motto is “Service Above Self.” And it seems to be working with these young people.

Which begged the question: Doesn’t Guatemala, which still is recovering from a decades-long civil war, need people to go there to help? Why are they coming here?

“It’s about the exchange, giving them the experience and seeing how service works in other places,” said Michael Peitler, a teacher and the students’ adviser.

The Guatemalan students are here as part of an exchange with the Durango High School Interact Club, which visited Guatemala in spring 2013. Peitler organized a busy visit while they were there, with our teens working on their signature service project, installing stoves in indigenous Mayans’ homes. They also visited a school, taking shoes for the students, and volunteered at a turtle hatchery.

So the pressure was on for the Durango Interact adviser, Heidi Holland, to create a similar experience for our Central American visitors. In addition to some of the must-dos – the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, Mesa Verde National Park and the Bar D Chuckwagon Supper Show – the group has done quite a few service projects here.

In La Plata County, the DHS and Guatemalan students spent an afternoon at Wildwood Wolf Refuge building fences; picked up trash one morning on the Animas River Trail; played games and gave the kids at the Boys and Girls Club of La Plata County a taste of their home; built trails at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort; and helped build Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Colorado’s 2014 home in Bayfield. It’s a natural fit, because for several years, the DHS Interact Club has held a garage sale to benefit Habitat.

“Its a wonderful cultural exchange, and we think these kids rock,” Habitat Executive Director Rachel Taylor-Saghie said about the Durango students. “Not only did they consider others in going there last year, but they considered those individuals coming here to experience their world.”

The Guatemalan students and their club raised the money to come here, and the Durango students raised about $4,600 to cover their expenses once they arrived. Part of that money will go back to the Guatemala club’s stove project.

They didn’t just stay in La Plata County. During the weekend, they traveled to Fruita, where they camped and visited the Dinosaur Experience, and toured Black Canyon National Park near Gunnison and the Colorado National Monument. They also took an afternoon to do service work up there, in this case, removing tamarisk, an invasive species, at James M. Robb State Park.

Budding philanthropists

“I am in love with Rotary and all that it does all over the world,” said Kevin Oliva, who will spend the next year as the liaison for all the Interact clubs to his district, District 4250, which includes Belize and Honduras. A second district encompasses the rest of Central America. “My dream is to be the district governor and ultimately unite all Interact Clubs in both districts in one big project.”

Peitler clearly is proud of his students on many levels, including the fact that their German is fluent.

His students are equally inspired by him.

Peitler was named Guatemalan Rotarian of the Year. In addition to sponsoring his students in the Interact Club, he advises a group of young adults in a Rotaract Club while also being active in his own Club Rotario de la Ciudad de Guatemala, the oldest club in Central America.

Solving a key health problem

“There are a lot of places in Guatemala without running water and with dirt floors,” said High Noon Rotary Club President Mac Curtis at the club’s meeting June 3, when the students visited. “But there are cell towers everywhere.”

Guatemala has more than 20 indigenous Mayan tribes, each of which speaks its own language. They live in small houses, primarily made of adobe, sometimes of wood, almost all with dirt floors.

“Because of the rain, after a big storm, the roofs would come down,” Marco said. “An organization called A Roof for My Country builds new homes like Habitat does here, but it doesn’t equip them. They have to figure out where to sleep and cook.”

Most families are cooking over an open fire inside their homes, leading to respiratory problems and frequent burn injuries.

So the Interact Club, which has 38 members, began the stove project in the Tecpán area, where Peitler feels the students will be safe from the violence and crime prevalent in many areas of the country. The stoves, complete with chimney and two burners, solve both problems and use 30 percent less wood.

“They have to train, and then bring the stove, which is really heavy, up to the mountains,” Peitler said. “They have to hike them in on building teams of four or five people.”

Each stove costs about $100, and the club so far has installed 20. Sometimes, in collaboration with the Rotaract Club, they also install a clean water filter, for a combined cost of $450.

Auf Wiedersehen

The students, who were interviewed to see who would come to Durango – with points given for punctuality – have written their thank-you notes and headed home.

What will they remember of their stay in Durango?

“People are so friendly, and Durango is so beautiful,” Marco said. “Sometimes, in the morning, it was a little cold for us, and a lot of dry weather. The train ride (the students took a round-trip to Silverton) was a little long, but the views were very impressive.”

abutler@durangoherald.com

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