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The connection between C-U and Guatemala

What does Champaign-Urbana have to do with Guatemala? Though they are 1800 miles apart, our CU community and Guatemala have been impacting one another in a number of ways for nearly a decade now. Whether they are locals, students, faculty, or activists in University programs, CU community members have been working in Guatemala in some capacity for quite some time. Not to mention, the number of Guatemalans living in CU continues to grow, many of which still speak their native Mayan languages.

In recent years the population of Guatemalans living in the CU community has grown steadily. There are now approximately 300 native Q’anjob’al (indigenous language from northern Guatemala) speakers in CU, many of whom do not speak much English or Spanish. Other Guatemalans have made themselves local favorites, such as Obdulio Escobar, the head chef and co-owner of Escobar’s in Champaign and Milo’s in Urbana.


Some CU and University of Illinois community members have made Guatemala a part of their life’s work. One individual in particular, Dr. Peter Rohloff, who received his Medical Doctorate and his PhD in Infectious Disease at the University of Illinois, began working in Guatemala in the early 2000s. There, he found that the majority of the population (nearly 70%) is made up of native Maya. At least 22 different Mayan languages are spoken in Guatemala and many of these speakers still do not use Spanish. Dr. Rohloff found that due to these language barriers, as well as other cultural divides, many necessary services are not reaching these populations, such as healthcare, education, and basic social services. In an already very poor country, these populations bear the greatest weight of poverty.

In order to work with these people, Dr. Rohloff learned to speak Kaqchikel, one of the most widely spoken of the Mayan languages. While learning, he met up with two linguists and an anthropologist/archaeologist. These four friends agreed that no current development organizations were sufficiently focusing on providing services in a community’s first language, and they started a new organization, Wuqu’ Kawoq, in 2007. Wuqu’ Kawoq provides healthcare and human services to Kaqchikel-speaking populations and now K’ichee’-speaking populations and encourages language revitalization in order to increase Kaqchikel resources and records.

Many other members of the CU community have contributed to the efforts of Wuqu’ Kawoq. In 2005 and 2006, before Wuqu’ Kawoq was even an incorporated or a 501(c)3. registered organization, Dr. Malcolm Hill a pediatrician of Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, started working with Dr. Rohloff, seeing patients and bringing medication to those in need in Kaqchikel-speaking populations.

Once Wuqu’ Kawoq was established they started hiring interns to provide long-term program support (at least one year in country). The first two interns were both University of Illinois Alumni. Sarah Messmer received her BS in Engineering Physics from the University of Illinois and now is studying medicine at Harvard. Anita Chary, a CU native, received her BS in Chemistry and Anthropology from the U of I, and is now studying medicine and a PhD in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. During their year in Guatemala (08-09) they worked in the coastal community of Socorro, a very poor, and very unhealthy region. These two fantastic individuals continue to work with Wuqu’ Kawoq in program coordination as well as research.

The University of Illinois has also been very active in our work. For example, a team of Engineers Without Borders collaborated with Wuqu’Kawoq to establish a sustainable water filter program. This program has allowed us to provide clean water to communities, reduce the number of water-borne illnesses and parasites, and therefore drastically reduce the numbers of sick children and adults in these areas.*

In addition to Dr. Hill, three other physicians from Carle Foundation Hospital have volunteered their time and expertise with Wuqu’ Kawoq in Guatemala to provide the highest quality patient care and teach midwife training classes. These physicians include Dr. Melinda Dabrowski, OB-GYN, Dr. Tyrone Melvin, pediatric nephrology, and Dr. Jane Striegel, pediatric nephrology, of whom, Dr. Melvin is also a U of I alumni.** Through Wuqu’ Kawoq, members of the CU community have been able to achieve great things for the Maya populations of Guatemala, and you can help too!

For more information on Wuqu’ Kawoq visit or check us out on facebook!

If you are interested in collaborating with Wuqu’ Kawoq in any capacity please feel free to contact me, Claire Melvin, at or by phone (217) 649-0984.

*For more information on this water filter program and the work that EWB has done with Wuqu’ Kawoq in Guatemala, I will be giving a presentation to the Urbana Rotary Club, highlighting the water filter program, and we will be having a speaker series at the U of I starting this fall. Stay posted for dates and times!

**Our volunteer physicians will also be speaking at this speaker series, detailing their experiences as well as the importance of the work that Wuqu’ Kawoq does.


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