Kenan Scholar Contributes to Sustainable Solutions in Guatemala

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

By Nikita Billman (BSBA ’21), Kenan Scholar

My eyes well up as a warm hand clasps mine. It is a humid day in the “eternal spring” of Guatemala and fumes of drying paint linger in the air. We are in the rural village of Las Flores, just outside the city of Antigua.

Maria, a mother of 10, and I hug each other because she now has the key to her first locking door. After a week of cinder block stacking, concrete mixing, and painting, Maria’s family now has a safe and sturdy home. She tells me in Spanish, “”You’ve made my dream come true.” It’s connections like this one that I live for.

This spring break, I volunteered in Antigua, Guatemala to contribute to the mission of From Houses to Homes (FHTH): to provide sustainable housing, health care and education to Guatemalan families in rural villages. Curious to learn more about the country’s traditional culture and apply their conversational Spanish, eight UNC-Chapel Hill students joined me to raise funds for and build two new homes in Las Flores.

As FHTH Executive Director Oscar Mejia explains, “Guatemala is rich in nature and spirit, but among the poorest countries in living standards.” FHTH has built more than 1,400 13-by-19-foot cinder block homes to empower Guatemalan families to break a generational cycle of poverty. The school and clinic they built provide free education and health care to families.

During the key ceremony, Maria relates how a different group had promised to help before. The group had asked for money; Maria and her husband sold several animals to pay for the building of a house. But the group took their money and left without helping. Tears now slide down into the creases of Maria’s smile as she jingles the keys to the safe new home that her children will now sleep in.

A high school service experience with FHTH inspired me to found a new student organization at Carolina, From Houses to Homes UNC-Chapel Hill. I became determined to provide opportunities for students to broaden their worldview through experiences with Guatemalan culture, language and tradition. FHTH UNC-Chapel Hill hosts cultural events like history lectures by Guatemalan natives, provides traditional lunches to UNC students and works to offer a capstone experience in Guatemala during spring break.

This spring break trip marked our first trip to Antigua as an official student group. I’m grateful to the Kenan Institute and Kenan-Flagler Business School for supporting me throughout these endeavors and helping me further develop my cultural competence. The institute and school’s commitment to expanding UNC’s global community through cross-sector collaboration is unmatched.

Unfortunately, Guatemala is still struggling with a poverty rate that hovers around 60 percent. On behalf of Maria and her family, I ask you to help us in the battle against this disheartening statistic. From Houses to Homes cannot empower new families without donors. Please consider donating to From Houses to Homes here. You can also help fund a scholarship for a student’s spring break trip by emailing me at Nikita Billman. You can make a difference. You can help empower mothers like Maria to provide a safe, secure home for their families.