When Mateo Santiago traveled back to his native Guatemala last summer to help poor villages build restrooms and reroof a school, he brought more than $2,000 in donations from people around the Archdiocese of Seattle.
“I was really surprised,” Santiago said of the money that came in after Northwest Catholic profiled him in January 2018. A member of Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair, Santiago was 18 when he came to the U.S. in 1999, looking for a better life. For the past two summers, he has been giving back to people in his native country.
After totaling the donations from local Catholics and the Belfair-area community and proceeds from sales of Christmas wreaths at Prince of Peace, Santiago returned to Guatemala in 2018 with $15,000 to provide assistance.
“I feel blessed with help I get from people in the community,” he said.
Villagers of La Crinolina, San Pedro Soloma, Guatemala, gather to receive the reroofing project for their school. Money for the new roof was raised in the U.S. by Mateo Santiago, a member of Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair who grew up in Guatemala. Photo: Courtesy Mateo Santiago
Santiago, Hispanic ministry coordinator at Prince of Peace, also took with him 100 rosaries from his parish to give to villagers. “People were so happy about it,” he said.
The money he brought enabled completion of four projects: restrooms in two villages; a new roof for a school in the remote village of La Crinolina (home to about 500 people); and backpacks with school supplies for 71 students in Floresta, a remote village of about 350 people.
“They were so happy,” Santiago said of the students in Floresta, who got a new school in 2017 with Santiago’s help.
Last summer, one of the restrooms was built for the school in Santiago’s home village of Yincu, San Pedro Soloma. He had to use nearly half his funds to purchase a quarter-acre of land for the project; the plan is to connect to the neighboring village’s septic system about a mile away (the pipe is already in the ground).
The other restroom was built for the school in Buena Vista, a village of about 200 people, and the poorest of the three mountain villages Santiago visited. Although the village has running water, “they had outhouses, and it was in really bad shape,” he said. They also want to build a new school, one of the projects he has in mind for this summer’s visit.
All of Buena Vista’s residents are Catholic, Santiago said, but they are visited by a priest only three to five times a year. It’s a six-hour drive, and then a couple of villagers arrive with a horse for the priest to ride up the mountain. The villagers could use Bibles and rosaries, Santiago said.
Mateo Santiago, right, a member of Prince of Peace Mission in Belfair, meets in Guatemala with school principals who will receive computers this year through a global Rotary Club grant. A friend of Santiago’s, a member of the Rotary Club in Gig Harbor, connected Santiago with other Rotary clubs to obtain the grant. Photo: Courtesy Mateo Santiago
On March 1, he is returning to Guatemala for a week to help install computers at 15 schools. The work is the first year of a three-year, $100,000 Rotary Club global grant obtained by Rotary clubs in the U.S. and Canada. When the project is completed in 2021, 70–75 schools in Guatemala will have computers for their students, Santiago said.
“Hopefully they can get a better education, especially [with] the computers,” he said.
Education is important to Santiago, who after arriving in the U.S. learned English, then got a GED, an associate’s degree and his green card, and a job as a school-district interpreter.
“The money I’m raising is for education to build schools,” Santiago said, noting that more educational opportunities in Guatemala would mean that “we don’t have to go to the U.S. and risk our lives.”