Amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carly Kabot (SFS ’23) found solace in her weekly Spanish language lessons, where she would have hourlong conversations with Rosaura, a mom who works at a landfill in Guatemala City.
“It’s been a constant hour of just hope and light and positivity, and a chance to connect with someone whom otherwise I would have never gotten to know,” Kabot said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya.
Kabot is involved in Project Olas, a language-learning and social-justice-focused organization run by Georgetown University students. Project Olas “moms,” mothers employed by the organization, are paid to help students practice their Spanish through conversations over WhatsApp, and since March 2020, Rosaura and Kabot have had conversations every week on a variety of different topics from family traditions to the coronavirus, Kabot said.
“It’s moved away from just, ‘What’s your favorite food?’ or, ‘What’s the weather like in Guatemala?’ to talking about everyday life things and checking up on each other’s families, who we’ve gotten to know quite well over the past year,” Kabot said.“That’s what’s really special because you are forming a genuine relationship with someone.”
But beyond its power to form cross-cultural connections, Project Olas is so effective because it provides a safe and stable income for Guatemalan women who otherwise have few opportunities for employment outside of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, where they endure dangerous working conditions for little pay, according to Kabot.
Founded by CEO Rebecca Cox (SFS ’23) in March 2020, Project Olas has worked to give Guatemalan women opportunities to support their family while working from home as the ongoing pandemic has made many jobs in Guatemala City unviable. As its first year as an organization comes to a close, Cox’s group has expanded into a national organization of students advocating for social justice and women’s rights in Central America.
Learning Language, Creating Connections
While in lockdown in March 2020, Cox began to reflect on her time living abroad in Spain and the impact that her host mom had on her experience learning Spanish.
“I lived abroad for what was going to be one year and I met my host mom, Isabel, and that relationship with her really changed my life. So it was a cross-cultural connection,” Cox said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “She basically taught me Spanish. But it also had something really almost magical, that maternal love in my journey, and that had a huge impact on my life specifically because my mom passed when I was a kid.”
Cox said that her experience working as an English tutor in Spain, combined with her relationship with her host mom, helped her to begin to conceptualize Project Olas, and in March 2020, Cox was finally able to bring to life her vision of cultural exchange.
Cox chose to work with Guatemala City both because COVID-19 made many jobs there inaccessible, and because she was familiar with the work done in Guatemala City by Safe Passage, a nongovernmental organization based out of her hometown in Maine.
“Our partner NGO is actually based in Maine and Guatemala, so I grew up hearing about the work of Safe Passage, and we ended up partnering with one of their programs. So I had heard the story of the community surrounding the Guatemala City Garbage Dump job for all my life,” Cox said.
Now, a year later, Project Olas is a fully student-run organization that employs 15 moms who live in the community surrounding the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, according to Project Olas Director of Communications Rishma Vora (SFS ’23). (Full Disclosure: Vora formerly served as a news writer for The Hoya.)
Project Olas focuses on Guatemalan women because the organization’s founders believed moms are the central support system of Guatemalan families, and any benefits they receive from Project Olas will also aid their families, according to Director of Marketing Chloe Morris (COL ’23).
“The reason we focus on moms and women is that we believe that with a mom comes a family,” Morris said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “By providing a sustainable income to a mom, you are providing it for her whole family.”
Prior to its founding, Project Olas moms worked at the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, the largest landfill in Central America, infamous for its dangerous conditions where people scavenge for any products worth selling. Getting injured or dying on the job is not uncommon, and workers are forced to breathe noxious fumes.
Typically, workers at the Guatemala City garbage dump earn less than $5 per day. By working for Project Olas, however, these moms earn more from an hour of tutoring than they would have earned from working in the landfill for an entire day, and they also make over three times Guatemala’s minimum wage, according to the Project Olas website.
The opportunities that Project Olas offers go far beyond providing a stable, liveable income; they also provide the moms with intangible skills and benefits, such as increased technological literacy, according to Morris.
“It’s not just monetary compensation — it’s also building tech literacy, financial literacy, self-worth. The moms are even regarded as teachers in their communities, and it gives them a lot of pride to say that,” Morris said.
The 15 moms currently employed by Project Olas are now tutoring over 400 students, according to Morris. The Hoya was unable to interview the women employed by Project Olas.
To sign up for lessons with an Olas mom, students can fill out a survey outlining their language level on the Project Olas website; they are then paired with an Olas mom and a curriculum tailored to their language level, according to the Project Olas website.
Expanding a Presence
As students working from the United States, the Project Olas founders decided that it was essential to partner with a local organization, Creamos Futuros, to understand the environment they would be working in, according to Vora.
“It was very important to not go into a community and assume their needs and their wants, but rather give full agency to our partner organization, Creamos Futuros, to understand the cultural context,” Vora said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya.
Creamos Futuros is a Guatemala-based nongovernmental organization that runs financial literacy and educational programs, focusing on providing safe and reliable income opportunities for women living in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump area, according to the organization’s website.
The organization has also helped the Project Olas founders easily develop relationships with Guatemalan women, according to Vora.
“Creamos is essentially our source for moms because they already work with the community, because they know the moms so well. Moms that are a part of Creamos can easily be a part of Olas,” Vora said.
While Creamos Futuros provides connections in Guatemala for Project Olas, the founders of Project Olas have turned to American students for some of their fundraising efforts by establishing Club Olas, a high school and college club affiliated with the organization. Club Olas sponsors the Olas Scholarship Fund, which allows students to take lessons regardless of any financial constraints, according to Kabot, who is the manager of the Club Olas national chapters.
Currently, Project Olas is self sustaining, funding the salaries of its participating moms through the costs that individuals pay for lessons. Project Olas has also received some funds from entrepreneurial competitions, such as Bark Tank, a student business pitch competition that seeks to fund business ventures created by Georgetown students. The funds that Project Olas received were directed to the expansion of the Project Olas program and the funding of salaries, according to Cox.
Club Olas also allows students to learn about social justice issues in Central America and support the mission of Project Olas outside of weekly lessons, according to Club Olas President Sarah Mihm (COL ’22). (Full disclosure: Sarah Mihm previously served as a human resources director for The Hoya.)
“Just as students began their lessons, they became really interested in language, social justice, women’s rights and Guatemalan history,” Mihm said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “Club Olas was then formed out of the desire to facilitate and augment the students’ experience with social impact and language immersion.”
Club Olas now has 28 chapters at high schools and universities across the country, including Duke and Cornell, as well as at several high schools in the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, according to the Project Olas website.
Additionally, Club Olas runs workshops to teach club presidents and their chapters across the country basic skills in topics like project management, fundraising and marketing, according to Kabot.
“We like to think of it as a mentorship program. All of us on the Club Olas team are always doing our part to make sure they have the tools they need,” said Kabot.
For Kabot, what makes Club Olas so engaging for students is that, in addition to being free and open for anyone to join, it connects language learning with service work in a way that’s difficult to achieve in the classroom.
“At school, you have language clubs and social impact clubs, but you rarely get to express them in the same way,” Kabot said.
Making a Difference, in and out of the Classroom
As it has expanded, Project Olas has also been able to extend its influence into a Georgetown classroom, with Spanish professor Maria Morena integrating the Project Olas moms into the curriculum for her class, “Spanish Sociolinguistics.” With the addition of the Project Olas moms, Moreno and her class were able to both discuss social justice issues in Guatemala and help students improve their conversational Spanish, she said.
“Project Olas was one of those serendipitous moments,” Moreno said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “I immediately thought of my class, because one of the case studies we cover is Guatemala, and I realized the potential benefit of having my students talk directly with women from there was enormous.”
The Olas moms also help to provide an alternative to the traditional structure of a Spanish class, placing less of an emphasis on grammar and writing and more on conversational aspects of language learning, according to Vora.
“Spanish is often taught very rigid and formally,” Vora said. “What having the Olas moms in the class does is it takes academia, and you are supplementing it with experiences in the real world. In class we may do all these long readings about the civil war in Guatemala, but then we get on a video call with our Olas mom and talk to her about her life and how she personally may have been impacted by the civil war.”
Beyond technical aspects and language learning, the Project Olas moms also help foster authentic discussions on social justice issues, such as women’s rights issues, based on firsthand experience. This experience, as a result, greatly enriches the students’ learning experience, according to Moreno.
“Pedagogically, what is important for me is to talk about oppression, and the women who are experiencing oppression are the ones who have the authority voice there,” Moreno said. “Because of our system of privilege in the university and this academic context, those voices cannot be heard directly. They are only heard via documentaries or textbooks. It’s very indirect.”
While some of the benefits of Project Olas, such as the enhanced classroom experience for students or increased economic security for the participating moms, are tangible, much of the value in Project Olas lies in the intangible benefits, according to Cox.
“I think it has impact on all sides. I think for students it’s a chance to learn conversational Spanish and it’s really hard to get that in the classroom,” Cox said. “On the moms’ side, I mean the obvious is the economic benefit of Olas, as well as work that’s quite a bit more reliable. But then, I think what I hear most often from moms is actually the emotional impact, that there’s something really special for them about having that connection with students, getting to learn about their students’ cultures and being in that role of teacher.”
This article was updated March 19, 2021 to reflect the correct spelling of Rosaura and the confidentiality of the women employed by Project Olas.