December is behind us; the time of year where our senses are inundated with the sounds, the smells, the language and customs of the holidays. And as the decorations come down and the parties end, the meaning of the season starts to fade. Whether we come from a religious tradition or not, many of us share the desire to look deeper and try to reclaim those values and beliefs that made us love this time of year in the first place: the wonder, the love of family and friends, and the desire to live with hope and peace in our lives. Who can blame us for wanting to keep those sentiments alive and at the center of our thoughts? These values became vibrantly real for us a few weeks ago in a very unlikely place. That's when my wife Lisa and I made the trip to Guatemala to review the progress of the Open Wide Foundation Peronia dental clinic project and to get to know some of the people there who have been instrumental in helping to get things moving. This complex project would never have been possible without the enthusiastic support of Edwin Escobar, the mayor of Villa Nueva (including Peronia), and founder of Asociacion Por Una Mejor Guatemala – a foundation whose mission it is to build schools in poor communities throughout Guatemala. We spent a day with Edwin and with Ginna Lopez, the fundraising manager for the Asociacion who is a powerful driving force behind what they do, touring some of the poorest communities in the country. Listening to Edwin describe his goals as the new mayor of a municipality of nearly three million people, and hearing the stories of the work of the foundation, we were profoundly touched.
Hope is an essential ingredient in the work of bringing lasting change to impoverished communities. Few people understand this better than Edwin. He understands that you don't solve problems just with money, and he has an extraordinary ability to inspire people to dream of better things for their communities. What's more, he has the determination and the know-how to show them how to take the concrete steps to turn those dreams into reality. For the past couple of years, Edwin and the Asociacion Por Una Mejor Guatemala have been working hand-in-hand with the people of the poorest communities in Villa Nueva to build schools where they are needed most. But before beginning a project, he always begins by issuing one request to the people in the neighborhood. He asks that each child draw a picture illustrating their dream of what their new school might look like. What happens next is truly inspiring and moving. Box after box, filled with children's dreams, beautifully illustrated on plain white paper, have been delivered to Edwin's desk. In each community where the children illustrated their ideas of what their school would be like, a new school has been built. Through this simple and powerful exercise, Edwin demonstrates to the children – and their parents – the power dreams have to change reality. Next year, 200 schools will be built according to the dreams of the children, and by the hands of the people. But hope, the essential ingredient to change, didn't arise from having a new school. Hope became real for these people when they dared to dream and saw their visions in the drawings begin to take shape before their eyes. Edwin made every child and a parent an important part of the process and showed them – in very real terms – the power of hope. Now Edwin has the people of Peronia dreaming too. By the end of this month, a brand new dental clinic will be completed to serve Peronia's 350,000 inhabitants – most of whom have never seen a dentist. The Open Wide foundation is providing dentist volunteers, supplies and dental equipment. The Asociacion Por Un Mejor Guatemala is funding the clinic construction, maintenance and full time clinic director. The University of San Carlos in Guatemala City is providing one full-time dental graduate to work in the clinic year round. Peronia city leaders are ensuring the sustainability of the clinic by charging the equivalent of $1.50 per patient visit, thereby growing a fund to support future care needs in the community. It is an amazing corroborative effort and it is only the beginning.
This time of year we look for reasons to hold hope for a better world. I now know that we need not look farther than Peronia, Guatemala – yes, a very unlikely place. There, amid the rubble of broken dreams and unrelenting poverty you will find hope in action – a dream in the making; a living, breathing example of what's possible. We know it for sure because we have the drawings of the children to prove it.