Meeting Date: 14 September 2012

Prepared By: Dick Strayer


Rotary Rolling in Guatemala

Guatemala is a country in Central America between Mexico and Honduras. This is a beautiful country with friendly people, perhaps too friendly at the airport. The Guatemala City airport lobby was so jammed with people that it was literally not possible to move. People were generally shorter than me so I could see above their heads. Off in a distance, a 6’4” man was waving at me and calling my name. It was Kurt Valentin Sass, the Guatemalan Rotarian there to meet us. A huge man, it was little effort for Kurt to push through the crowd and lead us outside. Somehow, Kurt produced our luggage and we were then faced with a mass of cars that were moving nowhere. No problem to Kurt, he obviously has been through this before. He parked about 4 blocks away from the airport and we walked out. That procedure took about 2 hours. And that was just the beginning. Kurt took us to a hotel and the next morning we did some touring and picked up two Rotarians from Colorado.

We were headed for Gualan, population 19,000, which was about 100 miles and 2 hours away, normally! Kurt informed us that earlier that day, a side of a mountain slid down and wiped out the only road along with an 18 wheeler. We drove to the slide area where there was a 24-hour truck stop. We ate, talked, walked and waited. About 8 hours later, about 3 AM, the road crew had carved a path through the fallen mountain debris and we were able to move.

Kurt with one of his projects in Gualan

Kurt is a fascinating individual. He is a farmer and Grandson of a German couple that immigrated to Guatemala where Kurt was born. Kurt is fluent in German as that was the language spoken at home. Naturally he is fluent in Spanish. AND he was very fluent in English. He spoke English better than my USA partner, Cesar Zambrano, originally from Mexico. Kurt even spoke English better than me. NO accent! I asked if he had gone to school in the USA. No, he had never lived out of the Rotary District 4250 that covered Guatemala, Honduras and Northern Honduras (now Belize). Kurt studied English at the German school in Guatemala City. He related to us that he watched only English programs on TV and only read English newspapers and magazines.

Gualán is a town of about 19,000 people near the center of the Rotary District. About 125 miles from the Pacific ocean and 70 miles from the Atlantic; 90 miles from Belize and 40 miles from El Salvador; 90 Miles from Mexico and 110 from the Southern border of Honduras and about 18 miles from the northern border of Honduras. Gualan is roughly the center of a Rotary circle with a radius of 100 miles.

Chairs in truck with Dr. Edwin Oliva, Cesar, Samuel León and Kurt

The Project

I previously arranged for a shipment of 550 wheelchairs to arrive before us. These chairs had to be assembled and distributed to the neediest handicapped. Kurt and his Rotary club were way ahead of me. They arranged for other Rotary clubs to take, assemble and distribute 50 wheels each club. That significantly spread the work that is required. Kurt’s club had already assembled their chairs. All we had to do was distribute the chairs. The chairs were in trucks and ready to deliver. The first three were delivered to a retirement location with the mayor and press in presence.

Inside Lady's home

Outside Lady's Home

The next chair was the most interesting to me as it went to a lady that appeared to be living in rubble. The picture to the right is a shot inside of the lady's “home.” The home is about 4 feet high about 3 feet wide and about 6 foot long. She would have to crawl inside to sleep on the floor.

The following picture shows the lady's home from the outside. She is sitting in the wheelchair that we gave her. Behind her, you can see the wheel of her old wheelchair that is broken. The wall behind the wheelchair is the end of her property. On the other side of the wall where the clothes are hanging from the clothes line is the neighbor’s property.

I thought to myself that this is unacceptable. I asked Kurt how much it would cost to build a basic shelter for her. After conferring with his fellow Rotarians, they thought it would be about $1,000. I said, "I can put up $500. Can your club match that?" After another brief discussion, they said yes. I handed them five $100 bills belonging to my Rotary club—the “first instant Matching Grant.” Later this is the result with the lady still in our wheelchair. Kurt is holding the microphone and the District Governor is to the right of the lady. The door is behind Kurt and there are windows in the end of the building. Obviously, the building is wheelchair accessible.

Lady's new home with Kurt and the District Governor

The Rotary Foundation did send an employee down from Illinois to examine the new home.

Fun Time

Enough work. It is now time for fellowship and sightseeing. We timed our visit so we could attend their Annual Rotary Meeting and met Rotarians from all three countries—Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. It was great fellowship, and we really enjoyed the conference. We visited a very large plantation. As the picture below shows, the area near the capital city of Antigua is beautiful. The coffee is grown next to the mountains, right up to the volcano to obtain the best quality—entirely sun dried, roasted, award-winning coffee since 1890.

Cesar in front of Plantation

 Kurt, employee & coffee plants in front of volcano


The coffee plants are placed under trees to protect them from the sun. The first picture below is a brand new coffee plantation in “Finca San Sebastian” Antigua. The trees are planted in circles of burnt organic fertilizer that comes from coffee wastes called Pulpa.

Coffee Plantation at Finca Antigua, Guatemala

This was off-season so the processing facilities were idle. We did walk through and see the process and some beans that were still in the plant. They were in the process of placing plants for the next season.

Potted coffee plants and sun shades rolled back

On to the banana plantation, we took a tour and had a very interesting time.

Blue bags cover the bananas to protect them from bats

Above is a typical grove of banana trees and a rather interesting explanation on how to properly grow bananas.

A monkey trying to steal a banana



Kurt took us to some ancient Mayan ruins called Quirigua where there was a Guatemala National Tree, Ceiba Pentandra. That huge tree made a huge man, Kurt, look rather small.

Kurt (before he lost 115 pounds) with Dr. Edwin Oliva by a Ceiba Tree—national tree of Guatemala

Kurt and I did four annual wheelchair projects through Rotary resulting in 2,200 people in Guatemala receiving wheelchairs. Kurt is a huge man in other ways than size. He is a very special Rotarian and continues to assist his people in other ways. Kurt is a great man, in a great country, doing great humanitarian work with a great organization—Rotary.

Website Sponsors