I n 1991, Steve Dudenhoefer sold his successful landscaping business and abandoned his comfortable surroundings in southern Florida, USA, to dedicate his life to alleviating the plight of an indigenous community in the rain forests of eastern Guatemala.
Dudenhoefer says about 60,000 indigenous Maya from Guatemala are living in southern Florida, many of whom fled to the United States to escape the violence brought on by a decades-old civil war. He observed firsthand the challenges facing migrant workers from the Central American country.
"I was struck by the tremendous sacrifice it was for these men to live in the U.S.," says Dudenhoefer, who became a Rotarian in 1997, when he founded the Rotary Club of Puerto Barrios, Izabal. "It was the only way to ensure safety, health care, and education for their families back home."
Dudenhoefer moved to Guatemala in 1991 to become a full-time volunteer. While working at a local orphanage, he was struck by the needs of the people there, particularly those of the Q’eqchi’ Maya living in the rain forests.
A year later, he helped establish Ak'Tenamit, an indigenous community development organization that promotes long-term solutions to poverty through education, health care, income generation, and cultural programs.
The Ak'Tenamit community has a boarding school that supports 523 students from 100 villages, including 224 girls; a 24-hour clinic that serves more than 25,000 people; a floating dental-care boat; a restaurant for vocational training; and seven women’s cooperatives.
"Basically the idea is to really work on the bottom-up development," says Dudenhoefer. "Instead of experts coming in from the outside to tell people what they need, we help students understand the need to be able to address it. Our students build their own classrooms; they grow their own food. We want the villagers themselves to request latrines, water filters, and to prioritize the education of girls."
After suffering through decades of civil war and military dictatorship -- during which at least 200,000 people, most of them Maya, were killed -- Guatemala found peace with the signing of a 1996 accord.
"Because of the bloody civil war, a lot of rural indigenous people are stuck in a victim mentality that no matter what they are doing, they'll always suffer. So they've developed an apathetic outlook," says Dudenhoefer.
Now Ak’Tenamit -- with help from Rotarians, including Matching Grants from The Rotary Foundation and donations from individual clubs and districts -- is a safe place for them to live and work.
"I've visited a lot of Rotary clubs, and I can't think of when I ever heard a no," says Dudenhoefer. "You know if someone is a Rotarian and you ask them to help our needy people, they're going to say, 'Yeah, what can we do?'"
On a visit to Ak’Tenamit last February, Rotarians from District 6440 (Illinois, USA) left some handiwork behind. They hiked through the rain forest carrying water filters, which they delivered and assembled in remote river communities. They also poured concrete, pounded nails, and lifted framework for a school library.
Dudenhoefer notes Ak’Tenamit’s increasing international recognition as a successful indigenous community project. He was invited to attend the 2010 Summit for Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, along with Lola Cabnal, vice president of the Ak’Tenamit Association, and Jorge Bolom, one of the school’s first graduates. They participated in the indigenous peoples caucus and hope to earn a seat so they can make changes from the bottom up, as they have in their own, now-thriving community.
"I think it's kind of human nature to forget that we can all really make a difference in the lives of others," says Dudenhoefer. "It's my role to help people remember."
Learn more about Ak'Tenamit, and check out its Facebook page.