Humans of La Puerta Abierta

A glimpse into the lives of the students, teachers, parents, volunteers and friends who create community at our center.



Last week Zabdi’s kindergarten class received a visit from friends of la Puerta Abierta who talked about their careers as doctors and caregivers. They asked our students what professions interested them and Zabdi shared:

“I am a green leader, a profession that even kids can practice.”

I asked him to explain what a green leader is/does. In his own words:

Green leaders pick up trash and take care of the Earth. We remind our friends to make good choices about the environment like watering the plants in our school garden and using cloth bags instead of plastic.


David is our PE teacher and a team member of our traveling library.  He is a true Renaissance man…dynamic, fun, intelligent, patient, inspiring and kind.

In his words:

Throughout my years as a teacher at la Puerta Abierta, the most important message that I have received is…play is essential to learning when working with children. In all of my activities either on the basketball court or in the classroom, I try to make learning fun and dynamic. I most like to teach balancing and tumbling exercises with the students at la Puerta Abierta. We all have a good laugh when the classroom teachers also participate in the exercises and realize that they can still summersault and cartwheel!


Six-year-old Mia comes to garden club every week with her caregiver Emilsa, sister Anina and neighbor Thelma. Her favorite activities at garden club are playing with her friends in nature and creating art projects with plants. One lesson she’s learned is that you can plant stems of plants in water and they will grow roots! Emilsa also loves coming to garden club and has learned how to prepare a nutritious organic potting soil with a mixture of cow manure, compost and soil.


Cesia loves art class at la Puerta Abierta, and she considers herself most talented at drawing people, especially the mothers, aunts and grandmothers who cook and prepare food in her house. She shares that the trick to drawing the human figure is to “start with sketching the body, then add the neck, carry on with the head, and lastly add smaller details like hair, eyes and feet.”


Juanita, our beloved school director begins her day at 5:30 AM and makes mental lists of her daily goals while she showers. She’ll flag down a flete (collective pick up truck) and hop into the back with others heading to town. She’ll hop off as the truck approaches La Puerta Abierta Atitlán. Juanita is the first to arrive at our center at 6:50 AM and opens the gates and doors for students and staff who will show up soon after.

She shares, “I realize that while I have a to-do list with a million tasks on it, I accept that I will not accomplish even half of my goals, and, that’s OK.”

Most afternoons Juanita is the last to leave our center. The school day ends at 12:30 but she’ll carry on meeting with parents, writing emails, reviewing plans. She’ll lock the office doors at 1:30 and hop onto a new flete to join her family for lunch.


Last Monday morning I walked into the Puerta Abierta office and I found 150Q (roughly $20) on my desk. Below the small stack of bills was a note:
“A donation to the future Puerta Abierta School, a portion of my earnings from a weekend birding tour.”

In addition to being father to Eric Cruz, a delightful 1st grade student at our center, Cruz Senior is also a local guide and leads birding and walking tours through the cloud forests behind our village. He works hard to provide for his family and continues to study botany and birds to steadily improve his knowledge in his profession.

And yet what struck me most about his gesture was his sense of generosity to give back to our school and his act of reciprocity for the education his son is receiving.


I first met Chonita in the early days of La Puerta Abierta. In fact, she is our most veteran teacher and has collaborated with our center for the entirety of our existence. During our first encounter, I could feel that Chonita was open-minded, positive and energetic…all traits that we value at La Puerta Abierta. I also knew that she was expecting her first child when I hired her and I wondered if at some point soon after she began working, she would choose to leave La Puerta Abierta to fully commit to a life of household responsibilities.
Over a decade ago, women in Atitlan were just beginning to find balance and acceptance as both mothers and professionals.

To my great surprise and delight, Chonita (with the support of her progressive husband) chose to return to our center just weeks after the birth of her first daughter, Lea. I should mention that Lea returned with her. Chonita created a little nest of pillows and blankets for baby Lea in the office and in between attending children at La Puerta Abierta, Chonita would cradle and nurse her daughter.

In truth, Lea grew up amongst books, music and art. Lea is now 11 years old, and is an avid reader and talented artist!

Chonita has stepped into many positions at la Puerta Abierta including librarian, mothers’ artisan coordinator, reading mentor, early stimulation coordinator and kindergarten teacher.

Chonita is now the mother of two radiant daughters who both attend La Puerta Abierta, and she continues to show up with confidence, grace and enthusiasm for both family and work.


Henry arrived at Puerta Abierta Atitlán as a four-year-old and joined our second class of preschool students. Like many new students entering into a school environment for the first time, Henry was shy and observant. Henry lives in the rural community of Tzanchaj and Maya Tzutujil is his first language. While we honor and celebrate indigenous languages at La Puerta Abierta, our common language at school is Spanish and Henry’s first months at our center were a blur of new experiences and new languages. Each year that has passed, Henry has grown in confidence. He is smart, kind and hardworking, all qualities that I admire. However, what I most love about Henry is his perseverance. He tries, even when math is hard, or the road to school is muddy. 


Magdalena has been a part of La Puerta Abierta community for 8 years. When her son was just 3 years old, she recognized the importance of early childhood education and chose to enroll Jeremias in our first formal preschool class. 

Magdalena wakes at 5:00 AM every morning to prepare snack for our 110 students at La Puerta Abierta. She ensures that her food is prepared with love and nutrients and she supplies our school community with healthy snacks such as tamalitos, tostadas and rice and beans.

She arrives at La Puerta Abierta with her mobile restaurant and serves our children with smiles, kindness and gentleness.

Jeremias is a scholarship recipient at La Puerta Abierta sponsored by BEAMS in Guatemala. We believe that every child should have the opportunity to study at our school, and we are true to the idea of creating an exchange of support between our families and our school. Some families contribute with a small financial contribution, while others exchange services such as Magdalena.


In the words of Juanita our school director, “11 year old Katy is the role model for her generation. She is confident, clever, open minded, curious and full of dreams.”

In a discussion with our 5th grade girls, we asked,  “What rights should ALL girls be entitled to?” 

Katy led the conversation. She and her classmates declared the following:

  • Girls have the right to achieve their dreams and speak their minds without the limitations of others telling them that they can’t because they are girls.
  • Girls have the right to prepare themselves professionally to be able to reach their personal goals. Parents need to value their daughters’ education on the same level as their sons’.
  • Girls have the right to be supported and motivated by adults in their communities (parents, teachers, community leaders).
  • Girls have the right to dress as they like, without criticism or comparison.
  • Girls have the right to say what they think without fear of receiving violence for speaking their minds.


Meag is a friend, Puerta Abierta volunteer, certified Forest Kindergarten teacher and founder of Chavitos Nature School in Washington State.

In her words: La Puerta Abierta is a buzzing hive of creativity, story telling and hands on learning. This is so rare in the education system of Guatemala and also in so many places in America now a days. I love entering the school and seeing students eating snack in the garden with paper bunny ears on! Later I’d learn from my son that they had practiced a song in Tzutujil (the Mayan language spoken in Santiago Atitlan) about bunnies. Daily, the teachers model curiosity and engagement. They have a magic touch and way of bringing art into all aspects of the students’ studies. You will walk into a class and hear them all practicing Twinkle, Twinkle on their recorders or see a lesson on eclipses with a model of a paper mache Earth, moon and a brilliant light bulb. Students are engaged and encouraged to touch, smell and taste the lessons around them. As a Montessori trained teacher, I know that students learn through their hands and that is exactly what is happening every minute in the magic of La Puerta Abierta. Everywhere you turn, learning is happening and, little by little, changing this future generation of children to be agents of change.


Jose is originally from El Quiche Guatemala. For the past two years, he and his family have been living a rhythm of six months in Santiago Atitlan and six months in Tacoma, Washington. He has two sons enrolled at la Puerta Abierta and while they are learning, he volunteers as a jack of all trades. Everywhere one looks, there is evidence of his handy skills and hard work. From the little lending library posed in front of the kindergarten to the spiral garden beds in the new school space to the wooden crate book shelves in sixth grade, Jose has woven his skills into our school community.