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MSU Alumnus Launches Nonprofit in Rural Guatemala

Published: Wednesday, 16 Mar 2016
Author: Joy M Whitten
Department: Latin American Studies Center

A Michigan State University alumni who has launched a nonprofit organization working to help women and children in rural Guatemala is returning to campus in March to speak about how his education at the university prepared him for running a nonprofit in a third-world country.
Kody M. Gerkin graduated from Michigan State University in 2006 with a degree in International Relations from James Madison College. He also earned a specialization in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.  His early years in the program weren't easy, and he was tempted to quit school altogether.

"When I first started studying at James Madison, I was very, very angry about what I was learning, especially about the role the United States has played in the modern history of Latin America," Gerkin said. "I wanted to drop out. But one professor, retired Professor Emeritus Michael G. Schechter, wouldn't have any of it." 

The persistence paid off. Gerkin graduated in May 2006 and joined the Peace Corps immediately after, where he served in Guatemala from 2006 until 2008. 

Tucked away in the landlocked mountainous province of Totonicapán, the municipality of Santa María Chiquimula was Gerkin's home for two years during his Peace Corps service. Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and Totonicapán is one of the poorest areas in Guatemala. The rates of poverty are a staggering 75 percent (residents living on less than $1.50 per day), while only 10 percent of the families in the area where Gerkin served have access to a toilet of any kind in their home. Indigenous Mayan women suffer from multiple forms of discrimination, and their children are the most malnourished children in the Americas.

At first, the poverty and living standards were overwhelming, but Gerkin also noticed how close-knit the community was.
"Not to sound too cliché," Gerkin said, "but I remember noticing right away how important family and community were, and how often I heard laughter."

Gerkin's primary project was an agroforestry and efficient wood-burning stove project wherein rural women planted trees to receive a cook stove. Prior to the project, these women cooked over open fires inside the home. Through a collaboration with the international aid organization CARE, Gerkin was able to build nearly 500 stoves for indigenous families in Guatemala.

Post-Peace Corps, through the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Gerkin attended the Josef Korbel School for International Studies at the University of Denver. There, he earned his MA in International Human Rights with a Concentration in Gender and Sustainable Development. He also met his wife at the University of Denver, and upon graduating they moved to the Middle East together where he worked for several years as a Lecturer at Stenden University in Doha, Qatar. Kody and his wife Melissa were always keen on returning to Latin America; and after a short stint living in Peru, they returned to Guatemala in 2014.

"I have had this dream of founding a nonprofit in Guatemala for years, and I am so thankful she is supportive and has volunteered time and money to support my dream...even though it means we've dealt with power and water outages, bacterial infections, parasites, bedbugs, basically you name it, since we returned to Guatemala," he said.

Once again, the persistence has paid off. While working as a part-time consultant with the Ministries of Health in Guatemala and Belize throughout 2015, Kody used his free time to found Mujerave, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and public charity for which Kody serves as the founder and board president. Mujerave launched pilot projects in February 2016.

"We built a greenhouse large enough to hold 200 tomato plants for a family living in extreme poverty, and we installed 5 efficient wood-burning stoves as well," Kody said, "I couldn't be more proud of the work that our board (sixty percent of which is composed of Michigan State University alumni), our volunteers, and our Guatemalan partner organizations put into this project."

Mujerave is just getting started and hopes to raise upwards of $30,000 in 2016 to build another ten greenhouses, 60 more stoves, and improve the infrastructure at two schools by installing bathrooms and hand-washing stations. Mujerave carried out a comprehensive needs assessment in 2015 that details how they prioritize need in Totonicapán to decide what projects to focus on. It is available for download on their website, www.mujerave.org.

"So much of what I am doing, the language I am using, the understanding I have of how development works, that all began at Michigan State," Kody said. "The Gini coefficient, for example, is one tool to measure economic inequality. I was learning about these things at Madison in 2004, and now I'm living in Guatemala, one of the most unequal countries on earth. I got the theory at Michigan State and through my courses at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and I'm living in it now."

Kody will be on campus to discuss his path from Michigan State to founding the nonprofit in Guatemala on Thursday, March 24 at the James Madison College Library on the third floor of Case Hall at 4:00pm. He hopes to have a chance to interact with students and faculty, and discuss the challenges and rewards of founding a nonprofit in the developing world. He will also discuss how Mujerave contributes to achieving progress on development and human rights objectives through women's empowerment in Totonicapán, Guatemala.