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Proyecto Vida in Coatepeque, Guatemala

Simmarian Dee Smith runs Proyecto Vida in Coatepeque, Guatemala, a hospice for up to 20 patients dying of HIV/AIDS. Just meeting her on her infrequent visits to the UK, you can sense the dedication and love that she gives to these abandoned people.

Her belief transcends the seemingly hopeless situation, giving short term respite to families trying to cope as well as terminal care for others. Additionally, the project's head office provides counselling, medical care, employment and legal services for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Since the worldwide financial downturn, Proyecto Vida has been more stretched than ever. Sources of income, always tenuous, have dried up. But Dee is not one to shy away from the problem. She saw an opportunity to buy a piece of land which could become a market garden and help to make the hospice self-sufficient.

Imagine how she must have prayed for funds of £10,000 required - an unimaginably large sum for her. Her faith was once more rewarded, as an exceptionally generous donation from a member of SHOCC secured the land and the next phase in her marvellous project began.

Kevin Cook's report from his recent visit to Guatemala

"One of the joys of being a SHOCC Trustee is that it involves occasional visits to projects to ‘check-up’ on progress and to see how the money raised by our supporters is being used. Over Christmas 2012, I was invited by Sr Dee Smith (1972-1975) to spend a fortnight with her and Sr Marlene Conlon, both Maryknoll Sisters, at Proyecto Vida on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. SHOCC has been supporting Dee’s work, both originally in Kenya and more recently in Guatemala, for over thirty years and in 2011, we sent her £15,000 to enable her to purchase five acres of land adjoining the project.

"Coatepeque, the location of Proyecto Vida, is a large town lying on the main route across Central America from El Salvador to Mexico. It has a very high HIV prevalence rate and Proyecto Vida works to provide counselling, medical help, testing and respite care. Recent work with one of the large banana plantations (fincas) has involved the testing of over 1000 workers and the provision of anti-retroviral drugs for those in need. The work has taken over a year to complete and Dee and a partner worker were recently invited to Washington to give a presentation on their findings. Dee is now an internationally renowned worker in the field of HIV/AIDS and is gaining a reputation for excellence.

"During my visit I was able to see at first hand the value of a relatively small injection of cash (£15,000) and to see just how much ‘development’ could be achieved in less than eighteen months. Once the legalities of the sale of the land had been sorted out, Dee began by planting bananas, plantains, papayas, tomatoes and chillies, and these have all produced fruit. She has established twenty five hives for bees and has erected a chicken run with an increasing number of occupants. Seven more chicks were born on the day I left. She has developed an area of raised beds for the growing of medicinal herbs and she is sun drying these for local sale and for use in the hospice. Add to this menagerie, her four pet rabbits and two energetic dogs and you can see what a lively place the Project is and what a delightful location for a Christmas break. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned the waste water system she has devised to filter all the waste water from the house for use during the dry season. 

"The two parts of this enterprise that I most wanted to see were the hives (above) and Dee's attempts at making ‘worm tea’. The hives have been a tremendous success and, whist I was there, I joined the bee team to harvest the first honey of the year. The 25 hives have provided 60 litres of first class honey, which Dee has bottled and is selling locally.  Call this 150 bottles, each selling for around £3, repeated four times a year and you get some idea of the profitability of this venture.

"The worm tea is another of Dee's environmentally friendly ideas, and involves providing a cool, wet environment for worms to eat their way through household waste. A valuable bi-product is their urine (tea) and this, when mixed 10 parts water to one part urine forms a highly nutritious liquid fertiliser. It works unless you allow the waste to get too wet. This had happened in Dee's case, but I was able to advise on how to rebuild the container so that the problem should be overcome.

"During my visit, Dee (shown above, in her chicken run) and I had the chance, over Christmas, to chat about the various projects SHOCC has helped over the years. Dee drew my attention to the fact that in probably 99% of cases, our small infusion of cash has resulted in positive development. Few, if any, of our projects have ‘failed'. This is a tremendous achievement for a small charity and is one we can all be proud of.

"I also visited Hospicio Sancta Maria (St Mary's Hospice). SHOCC provided a considerable portion of the funds to build the hospice and, in return, Dee named it after her university. It continues to provide medical care for up to 18 HIV positive patients. Sr Marlene looks after this part of Proyecto Vida.

"Whilst I was staying with Dee, I was invited by the patients to have a meal with them and to celebrate Christmas. They also insisted that I take photos of each of them either in their rooms or undergoing treatment. As you can imagine, these visits were both humbling and challenging. Patients, many very young, were being given a second chance in life, thanks to retroviral drugs and other forms of medical care.

"All too soon the two weeks came to an end and I left the warmth (35 degrees celsius in the shade on some days) to return to the cold and damp of the UK. I am already looking forward to another visit next year to see how this wonderful project is coping with the problems of HIV/AIDS. I also want to be able to thank Dee and Marlene, once again, for their wonderful work."