Rotary hosts fiesta to honor Vashon's special connection with Guatemala

Islanders have lunch at an organic farm in Guatemala during a Rotary trip last July. From left to right: Maximo Mandl, Kathleen Davis, Michael Soltman, Laura Wishik, Tom Soltman and Dawit Tuller-Ross - Courtesy Photo
Islanders have lunch at an organic farm in Guatemala during a Rotary trip last July. From left to right: Maximo Mandl, Kathleen Davis, Michael Soltman, Laura Wishik, Tom Soltman and Dawit Tuller-Ross
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Next weekend St. John Vianney Catholic Church will fill with the sounds of Guatemalan music. Colorful art from Guatemala will cover the walls, and the smells of traditional Guatemalan food will waft through the air.

Organizers of Rotary’s Guatemalan Fiesta say the party will celebrate Vashon’s longstanding relationship with its neighbors to the south, and particularly with its sister city of Santiago Atitlán. 

“It’s part education, part celebration and part recruitment,” said Laura Wishik, who is helping with the fiesta. “But it’s going to be mostly a party.”

In fact, it’s a party two decades in the making.

During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, a civil war swept Guatemala, and Santiago Atitlán, a picturesque but poverty-stricken town nestled between two volcanoes on Lake Atitlán, was particularly hard hit. Its population of mostly indigenous Mayans, who have historically been discriminated against, became the target of state-sponsored violence and hundreds were killed or kidnapped. As the war came to an end, the people of Santiago Atitlán reached out to the United States for help in rebuilding their town and living independently of the Guatemalan government. 

Through a series of happenstance connections, a small group of Islanders sponsored by the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council made a trip south in 1991 to do what they could — delivering supplies, volunteering at the town’s school and medical clinic and simply acting as international witnesses to what occurred there. 

Wishik, who has taken several service trips to the town and adopted two Guatemalan children, said those early visitors to the city were touched by the poor yet resilient and welcoming residents.

“They came back from (Santiago Atitlán) and wanted to forge a connection with Vashon,” she said.

Integral to the new sister city bond would be Islander Jim Stewart, founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee. Stewart visited Santiago Atitlán, got to know the coffee growers there and began a fair-trade business relationship that continues today.

“It’s some of the best coffee in the world,” said Eva DeLoach, who sells the Guatemalan blend at her shop, The Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie. “Out of all the coffee (Stewart) buys, it’s his favorite.”

Stewart quickly founded the Vashon Island Coffee Foundation, a nonprofit that has since funded countless projects in Santiago Atitlán and the surrounding area, including the construction of a school and water system and disaster relief work after Hurricane Stan hit the region.

Vashon’s involvement in Santiago Atitlán faltered for a time when disputes among the town’s residents left Islanders unsure how to proceed. 

“Like many places, Santiago Atitlán had political factions,” Wishik said. “Our folks felt like they weren’t sure how to navigate, and the relationship kind of lapsed.”

But Islanders took notice when, in 2005, the city was once again struck with tragedy. Hurricane Stan caused flooding and mudslides throughout Guatemala, and Santiago Atitlán, located between two volcanic slopes, wasn’t spared.

“A landslide essentially buried one of the neighborhoods,” Wishik said. “Lots of people were killed and children orphaned.”

Islander Carol Ireland-McLean, a retired nurse and hospital administrator, spent almost a month in the worst-hit village, living with the local people and helping them reestablish the town’s medical clinic, which had been buried in the slide. Though struck by the region’s difficult living conditions, a situation particularly hard for a hospital, Ireland-McLean, like those before her, fell in love with Santiago Atitlán and its people.

“It was a wonderful experience. … I would go back in a minute,” she said.

Islander Carolyn Amick, too, gave of her time in the area most devastated by the hurricane. With support from Islanders, Amick travelled south to help with the Weavers Project, which provides looms and thread for the women to continue weaving and embroidering traditional Mayan garments. The project not only helped the village keep their culture alive through the tragedy, but also taught them how to sell their wares for fair prices in the Western market. 

“It was really spectacular to see this community of people who even through suffering want to maintain their culture,” Amick told the Beachcomber in 2007. “It’s easy to look at the conditions and feel sorry for people, but what I experienced was a vibrant culture that has survived centuries of oppression.”

Around this time, the Vashon Island Rotary Club also got involved in the Island’s sister city, as the national Rotary shifted its focus to something desperately needed in developing countries throughout the world: clean water.

Kathleen Davis, a Rotary member who is organizing Vashon’s fiesta, said that through its initial fundraising, the club was able to provide clean water to two villages and 1,000 people in Santiago Atitlán.

“We started there because the Island already had a relationship with Santiago,” she said.

Soon after, the Vashon Rotary received a long-term grant from Rotary International for public health projects in Santiago Atitlán and its surrounding villages. Over the last four years, the club raised additional money and worked with a nonprofit in Guatemala to provide clean water, improve maternal health, offer micro-lending, improve nutrition education and more in the villages.

Each summer, Rotarians visit Santiago Atitlán to see their dollars at work and find out how they can continue to meet the city’s needs, often bringing along other Islanders who wish to experience living and working with the Mayan people. 

“Our relationship is very strong and will be continued. … It’s something that unites a lot of Vashon people,” Davis said.

Davis and Wishik said plenty of Islanders have undertaken unrelated projects in Guatemala, including Leah Mann and Ela Lamblin of Lelavision, who have volunteered at and held fundraisers for schools in Guatemala City. The fiesta is meant to celebrate everyone’s work in the Guatemala, Davis and Wishik said, and many will be on hand at tables at the fiesta to discuss what they’ve done, providing a more complete picture of Vashon’s involvement in the country.

“The connections between Vashon and (Guatemala) seem to have developed on their own in a way,” Wishik said.

Proceeds from the fiesta will go to support Rotary’s projects in Santiago Atitlán, as well as maternal infant health services at the city’s hospital. Giraffe will have fair trade items from Guatemala for sale at the event, and Essentials 4 will sell travel books and other items, with a portion of all sales going to Rotary. During the days leading up the the event, Island bookstores will display books on Guatemala, and the Thriftway deli will sell specially made Guatemalan cuisine. 

“It’s a raise-awareness-about-Guatemala week,” Davis said.

She said that those who are interested in more than just partying at the fiesta will also have the opportunity to learn how they can help with current efforts in Guatemala.

For example, Wishik recently got involved in a program that provides maternal health care and education to mothers in Santiago Atitlán. The mother that Wishik sponsored through the program was so grateful that she named her new baby after Wishik’s father. 

She hopes to see other Islanders sponsor mothers as well, or use whatever passions they may have to help keep Vashon’s sister city relationship alive.

“I think it’s good for people to know that we have these connections and they can be part of it,” she said.


Rotary’s Guatemalan Fiesta will take place at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at St. John Vianney Church. The suggested donation is $25 at the door. For more information or to present a project at the event, contact Kathleen Davis at 463-1734 or 

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