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LUSH Hugs It Forward in Guatemala
Valentine’s Day, 2013: LUSH employees arrive in El Retiro, a Guatemalan village perched along a hillside. By the end of the day, all 19 had left a bit of their hearts there forever.
LUSH staff travelled to El Retiro, Guatemala to work with the non-profit group Hug It Forward. Charity Pot—LUSH’s main charitable giving program, has partnered with Hug It Forward to support their direct action in communities like El Retiro, building “Bottle Schools”. Their work focuses on solving problems directly—in this case, a lack of educational opportunities. Because the community members are drawn together in the effort of building the school, and the material used is otherwise inorganic litter on the hillsides, the solutions that Bottle Schools provide are multifold.
The project in El Retiro provided both financial support as well as time and physical effort, while building positive human connections, especially with the kids who are so proudly building their own school. Charity Pot Employee Volunteer Programs (EVPs) like this provide opportunities for staff across the entire business to get involved in projects supported by Charity Pot. For many LUSH staff, EVPs are an amazing bonus to a job already full of perks!
Since 2009, Hug It Forward has finished 22 Bottle Schools; creating genuine educational opportunities for children and families in communities that otherwise struggle for basics. Hug It Forward believes opportunity for oneself is created through education—and are dedicated to enabling communities to participate in that very process for themselves. Groups of volunteers such as LUSH, are put to work on some elements of the school’s construction, but the majority of the work is done by the community itself, working together as one to create something that benefits them all. Each project lasts 3-4 months, each group helps on a different stage of production. Bottle Schools, are not built overnight.
63 children attend El Retiro school, ranging in age from around 5 to 12. Currently, one teacher acts as both their teacher and principal. The schoolhouse itself was built in 1996, and has not seen any upgrades in that time. Children from the community go to school here at the Elementary Level, but older children attend a Middle School about a 40 minute walk away. We were confronted with the fact that only a fraction of the smiling, happy kids we had befriended would continue their education past the schoolhouse at El Retiro.
As a community project, they have been working on these additional classrooms for a while now. The opportunity that comes with this new structure is huge—as they will secure more teachers and funding from the local government. Communities show their commitment to Hug It Forward by stuffing ¾ of the bottles needed before breaking ground on the bottle school. Volunteers arrive on site to pitch in and show support, not to do the community's work for them. A two classroom project requires 6,500 bottles—this meant collecting bottles and stuffing them for weeks ahead of our trip. One person can stuff about 2 bottles per hour, as they need to be very densely compacted into “Eco Bricks” that become the wall’s insulation material. One of the school’s classrooms was entirely filled up with bags of the bottles—Eco Bricks ready for us to start tethering into place. At our welcome ceremony, parents and the school’s principal shared with us how much the project meant to them and to their children’s future, hammering home the magnitude of a project like this.
During our stay, we enjoyed meeting some of the neighboring households. Hug It Forward makes an effort to share community ties with visiting groups to provide context to the visit. Aside from seeing some daily activities of tortilla-making and intricate weaving done by the women, we also had some topics that provided overall understanding of the experience of poverty many Guatemalans face, daily. One man shared his story about migrating to New Jersey in order to improve his family's quality of life, as well as what it was like returning back to his community and home in El Retiro. We were also introduced to an elder in the community who recounted firsthand some of the atrocities he and the people of his village experienced in the Civil War that raged 36 years through Guatemala’s history. His stories are still unspeakable to many in his family; one of the most striking moments of the trip was his recollections of daily terror in the very hillsides we had earlier been planting trees in with the students, the grandchildren of his devastated generation.
The group of LUSH employees was about as vast and varied as the colorful offerings in an Antiqua marketplace—but all of us were united by the opportunity to represent LUSH in action. In our daily work back home, we all interact with Charity Pot in a different aspect of its supply chain. Every LUSH team does something to bring the product and the projects it supports to life. This starts with finding beautiful, fairly-traded ingredients. Fresh batches of the product are handmade and then shipped all over the continent, into shops and available on-line. Gifts like “My Fair Lady” are wrapped with special sizes of Charity Pot, and packed by hand. Window displays and shop feature tables are created, Charity Pot is written about, tweeted about, and webinars are hosted to further involve staff in the Charity Pot process. Retail Staff massage the product into hands and share the causes that are meaningful to them.
Charity Pot is more than just a product that gives back, but one that propels everyone at LUSH forward, headfirst into the work that we believe impacts the world, for the better.