The story behind Ak’ Tenamit
Prior to founding Ak’ Tenamit in 1992, Steve Dudenhoefer owned a successful landscaping business in South Florida. In 1990, he decided to visit Guatemala to discover why many of his employees, Mayans from Guatemala, had immigrated to the US to work and sent every penny they earned back home. He met people who lived on $1 a day, children without schools, mothers without vital medicine for their babies. Deeply affected by this experience, he returned home, sold his businesses and started Asociación Ak’ Tenamit in 1992 with the help of local village leaders. Today Ak’ Tenamit is run entirely by the Q’eqchi people, and Steve remains involved as Chief Technical Adviser, assisting managers and the Board but concentrating on fundraising and networking.
In the same year that Ak’ Tenamit was founded, Steve’s friends and family founded The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund to create a mechanism for raising funds for the project.
Asociación Ak´Tenamit – 30 Years
In Guatemala only 5% of indigenous girls and 10% of boys finish high school.
1991–At the beginning — it all started with a vision. Steve Dudenhoefer, owner of a Florida based landscaping service company noticed that many of his Guatemalan workers send a significant portion of their earnings back home to their families. His curiosity aroused, Steve elected to sell his business and travel to Guatemala’s Rio Dulce region. He found that young Guatemalan’s universally face crushing poverty and have almost no opportunity. Steve met Stephen Morgan and Jon Carr, two British volunteers that were also aware of the hopelessness of these remote indigenous villages that lack even the basics: passable roads, electricity, and clean water.
1992–Respecting the local’s Q’eqchi Mayan traditions, their language, and their native upbringing, Steve, Stephen and Jon agreed to ask the neighboring villages to join together and establish an association with a Mayan Board of Directors, named “Ak’ Tenamit.” This is “New Village” in the Q’eqchi Mayan language. With village labor and local materials, a health clinic is built and the local school is expanded. In return, the three promised that they would recruit volunteers and raise financial support to provide health care and to educate the local children in school.
1993–Joe Dudenhoefer, in Tequesta, Florida, helps raise funds for his son’s project and founds “The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund (GTF)” a non-profit, non-denominational 501(c)(3) volunteer-staffed charitable organization headquartered in Florida. Meanwhile back in Guatemala handicraft co-ops are formed and more than 300 women are producing at home and selling their products.
1994–Due to the cultural pressures against girls pursuing education beyond the first few years of elementary school, most students initially were boys. To fight this trend, Ak’ Tenamit introduced the “We Must Educate the Girls” program which still works to help girls to stay in school. A donated houseboat is also renovated as a mobile dental office.
1996–The “We Must Educate Girls” campaign spreads to 70 village schools. Using Q’eqchi culture as the background, AAT produces and provides visual educational materials that promote positive images of girls and women towards education; improving both the family and the community’s image of primary school education for women. Five Q’eqchi health promoters trained in Western and Mayan health practices work in 70 villages to improve their health and nutrition.
1997–Rotary work teams cooperating with local villagers and students build a middle school “Básicos” for 17 Mayan boys. Using donated funds, a brand new 30′ x 60′ school building and adjacent dormitory are finished. This boarding middle school is the essential step in helping these first students to continue past a 6th grade education. Students donate 2 hours daily for chores and building our school.
1998–Disaster strikes during the last week in October as hurricane Mitch devastated the region resulting in extensive flooding and an unbelievable loss of food, farm animals, and crops. A new health crisis of diarrhea, illnesses, cholera, typhoid fever, malaria, respiratory infections along with skin diseases plummeted already suffering communities. Two health teams visited all 31 villages we serve over the next three weeks. Our village health promoters gave talks on sanitation, clear water, and distributed bottles of chlorine. On the positive side, our new Básicos school is growing… now with 26 students…18 boys as boarders and 8 girls… a “first” for girls where most indigenous girls drop out after the 2nd grade
1999–AAT started this year off by dealing with the aftermath of hurricane Mitch. Only with the unbelievable assistance of many friends, personal donations, and sizable gifts of food and medical supplies were we able to provide needed assistance and continue our programs. Our first six girls from remote villages enter AAT’s middle school as boarding students, utilizing the new girl’s dormitory just recently built. AAT continues its well-drilling program along with its home vegetable garden efforts.
2001–In response to growing demand for education. Ak’ Tenamit buys land where students and parents build a vocational high school, named for American priest Father Tom Moran. Girls and boys cleared the land with machetes, graded the building site using pick axes and shovels, carried gravel, cement and building blocks up from the dock at the river to become expert cement mixers and bricklayers. All the students boarding at the new center performed these daily tasks to pay for their education. This center opens with 134 students, 35 of which are girls, in grades 7-9.
2002–Our 10th Year. The World Bank and the George Soros Foundation select AAT as one of the 10 best non-governmental organizations in Guatemala. We also won a $15,000 prize and were nominated by the UN Development Programme as one of four best sustainable development programs. A 10th grade is added to the Fr. Moran Center. Ak’ Tenamit opens a restaurant, Buga Mama, where students gain valuable job training.
2003–AAT’s growth allows the transfer of our primary school to Barra Lámpara fulfilling our long-standing goal of local residents managing their own school. In addition, AAT is educating more than 220 students from 38 villages attending grades 7,8,9,10 and 11 along with 25 teachers and staffers. The health team visits 20 villages every six weeks caring for 6000 patients. AAT trained midwives now total 56 serving 27 villages. AAT’s Fr. Moran Center combines traditional academics with practical hands-on training to enable our students to lead productive lives with sustainable agriculture, healthcare, income generation and community development to become leaders in their home villages.
2004–Three girls and 11 boys are the first to graduate from 12th grade at Fr. Moran Center. AAT introduces a combined academic and sustainable tourism curriculum. For every two weeks spent in classroom, one week is spent in eco-tourism working in a restaurant, gift shop, tourism center, and working at our Buga Mama restaurant at nearby Livingston.
2005–Our school is now serving 170 boarder’s on-site working towards full-time employment.
2006–Hurricane Stan struck Guatemala just as the major storms of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma hit the USA. Consequences were severe… flooding, crop loss, rampant illness, over 1,200 lives lost, 1,500 schools demolished, 800 bridges destroyed, and extensive road damage.
2007–Our 15th Year. Our innovative vocational high school now serves 320 students – 38% of them girls. This year we will graduate 22 students. Our “We Must Educate the Girls” program now is helping a growing number of Q’eqchi’ Mayan girls. In 1998, just 8 girls enrolled in the vocational high school; by 2007 there were 133 girls studying both academic and hands-on subjects in AAT’s restaurants, shops, handicraft center, and school farm along with community health education services.
2008–This year 26 students graduated from our Fr. Moran Center with many of them already employed. For the 2009 academic year, some 600 students are already enrolled with 93 on track to graduate. These next year graduates are hard at work refurbishing and expanding the dorms and building school furniture, all to accommodate more prospective students. Our health program is expanding to 125 villages serving 26,500 villagers with visits once every 3 months. AAT’s health promoters now total 54 in addition to the 86 midwives that serve in the local villages. Some 42 village health posts are open while our main clinic treated 6,500 patients. AAT ran 170 ambulance trips to the nearest hospital across the bay – a dangerous trip especially at night.
2009–AAT suffered an economic crisis this year – with donations down almost 30 percent. Personnel cuts were made reducing our expenses with our international volunteers and the 2008 graduates who donated one year of service filled the gap. For 2009, 42% of our school’s student body are female. Our annual “We Must Educate the Girls” workshop day was completely filled with 5th & 6th grade Mayan girls visiting from local villages.
2010–AAT continues to struggle with funds to cover teacher and staff salaries, purchase food, medicine, gasoline, and basic school and building supplies. A special effort is underway to increase the money our students and villagers earn to offset the expenses of their room and board, their education and the health and cooperative services that AAT need to continue offering. Ak’ Tenamit has four restaurants and three handicraft shops run by students. By the time they graduate, students have 3,000 hours of job experience. Nearly all Fr. Moran Center graduates are employed – half in community development. 104 students graduate this year.
2011–We suffered the heart-wrenching loss of Catalina Mucu Maas and Alberto Coc Cal, both AAT graduates, in an ambush and murder while returning by boat from the Rio Dulce to their home village. AAT’s new Board of Directors members are 100% indigenous comprised of both staffers and villagers, made up of 50% women and 50% men with an average age of only 23 and representing 100% of the villages that Ak’ Tenamit services.
2014–Rios Guatemala, a mission-driven social enterprise joins forces with AAT and GTF to start the first ever secondary middle school in Seacacar, using AAT’s unique vocational education curriculum and some of our skilled graduates to imitate our successful educational strategies and internship programs. All of our students along with District 6440 Rotarians and Engineers without Borders (EWB) are embarking on a 5-year program of replacing unsanitary pit latrines with modern sanitation systems for collection and disposal of waste alongside a solar-power eco-friendly clean water system. This is part of our ongoing potable water filter and sustainable water system programs. Our 24-hour, 7-day a week Health Clinic is being completely renovated thanks to the efforts of Rotary District 6440 (Chicago) and Rotary International.
2021 marks our 30th anniversary and 2022 starts with over 600 boarding student, 160 seniors who will graduate with 9-months of on-the-job training, and many gainfully employed before their graduation. Compare that to our very first high school graduation class with only 3 girls and 11 boys! Ak’ Tenamit is seen as model nationally and globally for its innovative and highly effective grassroots approach to rural-appropriate vocational education, income generation and health care. Thousands of lives have been transformed and a so much has been accomplished since we started our work in the Guatemalan jungle 30 years ago, and it has all been accomplished because of you, our faithful supporters!
Bantiox! – Thank you! – Gracias!