One woman's effort brings aid to Guatemalan village

After visiting her native Guatemala, Jazmin Carrillo knew she had to do something. The 24-year-old Mattituck resident has created Programa Sueños, a nonprofit to raise awareness and funds for in-need schoolchildren in the Central American country. In January, she is to deliver shoes, backpacks, school supplies and small birthday presents for 150 students at a school. Videojournalist: Randee Daddona (Dec. 27, 2013)

After nearly a decade living on the North Fork, Jazmin Carrillo returned to her native Guatemala for the first time a year ago not knowing how it would affect her. She soon found out and returned with a passion to help those less fortunate.

"Kids were walking to school with no shoes, no food in their belly," recalled Carrillo, 24, of Mattituck. "I knew the situation, but it's different when you see it. It was shocking."

The village of San Antonio el Angel is about 90 minutes north of the capital, Guatemala City. Its 900 residents are mostly families who raise corn or else look for work an hour away. During her visit, Carrillo met an 11-year-old boy who dropped out of the village's only school to help support his family after his father left.

The school, which looks every bit its nearly 100 years age, had missing and broken windows, paint peeling from the walls and was overcrowded with children.

"The school was just forgotten," Carrillo said. The children were still happy, which she marveled at during that November 2012 trip while sitting outside with her grandfather, Eusebio Ochoa Oliva, 83, an activist who had been persecuted during the country's long and bloody 36-year civil war, which began in 1960. But the adversity they faced still tugged at her.

When Carrillo returned two weeks later, she started a scholarship for 10 children, using the money she had saved from her job as manager at Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck. The money went toward school uniforms, shoes and supplies for the students.

"The first thing she did, I think, was the most amazing thing," her sister, Laura Carrillo, 25, said of her sibling's effort. "We don't have a lot of money."

After another trip to the village this past summer with Laura and younger sister Cristi, 22, Carrillo decided she would do even more.

"When we went back, we all said we have to do something," Laura said. "She was the only one who stepped up and really did something."

Carrillo spoke to her mother, Laura Ochoa, a former activist in Guatemala, and friends. They encouraged her to form a nonprofit. In November, all the paperwork was completed, and Programa Sueños was born.

The nonprofit has a seven-member board that includes marketing professionals, attorneys, those with nonprofit experience and restaurant owners. It has raised $7,000 in less than a month for educating children in the village Carrillo grew up in. Carrillo returned on Jan. 2 to deliver shoes, backpacks, school supplies and small birthday presents, like soccer balls, for the village's 150 prekindergarten through sixth-grade students.

Carrillo, who is studying business administration at Suffolk County Community College, knows the students appreciate her efforts, as do her friends and restaurant patrons, who have donated to her cause.

"I'm not getting paid, but I am getting this," she said, leafing through a binder of photographs and letters that students have sent her.

Community support

Programa Sueños has grown through word-of- mouth, Facebook and the community of loyal regulars at Love Lane Kitchen. Supporters have dropped off pencils, pens, crayons and notebook paper for Carrillo to take to Guatemala. Donation jars have been put out at the Mattituck restaurant and at Lola's Great Food-To Go, a Riverhead deli that Laura Carrillo bought in December with her husband, Santos Palencia. Both the restaurant and the deli offer bracelets with the word "sueños," which means "dreams" in Spanish, on them.

"The community has been wonderful," Carrillo said. "Everyone in Mattituck wants to help."

She recalled that one regular customer came in and paid $20 for four of the bracelets, which are woven in Carrillo's native village. He bought them for his children, and came back the next day with a check for $500, she said.

Another longtime customer, Steve Berger, donated $1,000 to provide Internet access to students after a Guatemalan business offered used computers.

Jen Lew, a board member of Programa Sueños, got to know Carrillo and her two sisters when they worked at Love Lane Kitchen, where Lew does marketing. She said Carrillo's work, and her success, are not surprising.

"Jazmin has that undeniable spark about her," Lew said. "If she wanted to sell you a car, you'd buy it from her. If she wanted to become an actress, you'd go, 'Oh yeah.' "

 

Difficult years

Carrillo, a 2007 graduate of Riverhead High School, said her mother and father, Lucilo Carrillo, moved the family from Guatemala in 2003 for better economic opportunities. But the adjustment was difficult.

"I didn't speak any English, and no one spoke any Spanish," she said. Her parents had picked the East End because there's a sizable Guatemalan community. Carrillo joined the soccer team to force herself to learn English faster.

She and Laura sometimes wanted to go back, missing friends and extended family.

"We cried a lot," Laura said.

They would tell their mother they wanted to go back to Guatemala, to their grandparents. Their mother would tell them that there were better opportunities here -- they could go to school if they wanted, or go to college.

There have been moments of bitter disappointment, though. The siblings, who include brother Luis Palencia, 30, could never get driver's licenses because they didn't have Social Security numbers, and Laura and Jazmin had to turn down college soccer scholarships for the same reason. Cristi, 22, said she had a job offer rescinded when she couldn't produce a Social Security number and her tax ID number was insufficient.

In 2012, when President Barack Obama announced that his administration would not deport immigrant children who had been raised here, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Carrillo was able to make her first trip back to Guatemala.

She said the federal action has been a blessing for her and her siblings. Not only has it allowed her to travel back to Guatemala, but it made it possible for her to attend college.

Laura, who also worked at Love Lane Kitchen, and her husband own a landscaping company. On Oct. 27, 2012, Laura got her Social Security card. Her first driver's license came in March 2013.

"When I saw my face on that license, I couldn't believe it," she said. "It might be silly, but I couldn't believe it."

Her brother works for a marble contractor in the Hamptons, and sister Cristi is studying nursing at Suffolk County Community College.

Carrillo left recently to deliver the school supplies to Guatemala, and took along three Programa Sueños board members. They'll work at the school and visit families in the village for 10 days, after a five-hour flight and a car trip over dirt roads.

When she returns, Carrillo plans to raise $80,000 to help build a new school. Her team is going to begin an online Kickstarter campaign.

Despite her efforts, bumps in the road appear. Late last month, Carrillo got word that the government has threatened to stop paying the upper-grade teachers at the school.

Eventually, she'd like to expand Programa Sueños to help communities throughout Guatemala.

Lew figured as much. "She not only sets achievable goals for herself, she meets them and sets another goal."

For Carrillo, the trips back to Guatemala allowed her to realize everything she has in the United States and living on eastern Long Island.

"The farms, the food, the community -- the wine," she said with a laugh and a nod to the East End. "I'm grateful to be here. Why not give a little of everything you have back?"

 

Donations to Programa Sueños can be mailed to P.O. Box 398, Mattituck, NY 11952. Checks are made to Programa Sueños. Donations can also be made through the group's website, programasuenos.com.

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