While visiting her family in Guatemala in March 2021, Iris Palencia ’22 (CAHNR) reflected on a dream her parents had about helping struggling families in their native country. Her parents had emigrated from Guatemala to the US for better opportunities, and they wanted to find a way to give back.
After seeing first-hand the housing situations faced by many in Guatemala, Palencia started Proyecto Esperanza (Project Hope). The charitable effort raises money to improve the living accommodations of Guatemalan families by building them more safe and secure houses.
With support from her family and generous donors, Palencia has changed the lives of three families who now reside in new homes build by the organization she founded. And she’s just getting started.
“Shelter is a basic human necessity and everyone deserves a safe, warm house to call their home,” says Palencia, a senior who will graduate this spring with a degree in Allied Health Sciences. “Lending a helping hand can make an unforgettable impact on a family’s life.”
Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America with about 18 million residents. The nation is currently experiencing a housing crisis with millions living in inadequate and unhealthy conditions. Though the country has the largest economy in Central America, Guatemala experiences high rates of poverty and inequality. About half of the population are Indigenous Peoples who disproportionately live in poverty.
Many of these families reside in one-room homes with the kitchen, beds, and living area all sharing the same space. These homes often have dirt floors with no running water, electricity, or indoor bathrooms. They are usually constructed from boards of wood with a tin roof.
In place of these houses, Proyecto Esperanza raises money and arranges to build a new home of concrete with separate rooms and a roof of galvanized steel to prevent rust. The kitchen is built in a covered patio with a new stove installed to reduce smoke and improve ventilation. The houses take about a month or two to construct. New furniture, bedding, clothing, and other items are also donated.
Palencia says the experience with Proyecto Esperanza has enriched her passion for helping others and complements her studies in Allied Health Sciences.
When Palencia first enrolled in Allied Health Sciences, she was interested in becoming a nurse. She soon realized through the range of courses in the major there were other areas of health that appealed to her.
“Allied Health Sciences is flexible in that it not only prepares you for the medical professions you expect, such as physician or nurse, but also conceptual and educational paths,” she says. “I was able to see what I enjoyed and what I’m good at. This allowed me to narrow down what I want to do in the future. It pointed me in the direction of public health and global health.”
Palencia says she was able to put these interests and her studies into practice through Proyecto Esperanza.
“The project encompasses the conceptual and science-based sides of the health care field. With the conceptual, we had interviews and meetings with the families and workers, figured out timing on transportation, and determined and acquired the resources needed for the projects. And I was also able to see the science side, especially after learning about medical conditions like diabetes faced by some of the families we helped.”
After graduation, Palencia wants to get to know herself and the world around her better while continuing to focus on helping people with the work she does.
“I am taking a year to dedicate to myself and travel; to learn more about myself, people, cultures, and places. I have many fields of interest that I am excited to explore. I know this will help me help others in the future.”
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