REACHING OUT- Red Deer resident Maria Mihok spends some time with children in the village of San Jose de las Lagrimas

Local woman in ‘Top 30 Under 30’

A Red Deer woman who embarked on a life-changing journey to raise funds for projects in Central America has been honoured by a campaign focused on folks under 30.

Maria Mihok, 29, is one of 30 people from Alberta and around the world being honoured for their commitments to positive change as part of a campaign called ‘Top 30 Under 30’.

In partnership with A Better World Canada and Project School Supplies, she has helped to raise awareness and funds to build a school in San Jose de las Lagrimas, Guatemala.

“I was surprised, because I didn’t even know I was nominated,” explains Mihok of the recognition. “To be honest, I felt a little bit shy about it because I know of so many other people doing these great things.”

The 30 selected from Alberta and the global south are contributing to social justice and international cooperation. Members of the group have been profiled in the Top 30 Under 30 Magazine.

Mihok was a rural community awareness coordinator with the Red Deer-based Central Alberta Refugee Effort. During her time with CARE, she also collaborated with the Olds Elementary CARE Club and Free the Children to support building a school in India.

Meanwhile, Mihok’s friend and mentor Carol Brouwer returned from Honduras last June with news of a village across the border in Guatemala in need of a new school, and Mihok knew she had found her calling.

Hope Cycle 3000 was born – in partnership with A Better World and Project School Supplies. Originally she was going to ride her bike to the Mexican border to raise the funds. It’s a staggering distance of 3,000 kms.

Mihok’s goal was to raise $15,000 ($5/km) as she followed the Pacific coast from B.C. through Washington, Oregon and California to the U.S./Mexico border. She began her journey on Sept. 15, 2011. To date, the campaign has brought in $17,500.

The funds were for building a two-room school, latrines, a washing station, providing classroom furniture plus school and teaching supplies for 90 children in the small village of San Jose de las Lagrimas, Guatemala.

Mihok originally wasn’t going to bike down to Guatemala, but later decided to cross the Mexican border with a group of cyclists she had met in southern California. She later traveled with a man heading south in his RV, and he took her from Mazatlan to the south of Mexico. From there, she traveled with another small group of adventurers to central Guatamala.

She then caught three buses to the community of Capon where she met up with her friend Carol Brouwer last month. The pair then visited the village of San Jose de las Lagrimas, and besides the educational needs it was clear that a tuberculosis treatment program was necessary as well.

After a short trip back home to Red Deer, Mihok left for the community earlier this week.

Her first experience in working in developing countries was during a trip to Nicaragua back in 2008 with Canadian Union College. “I came back home and was overwhelmed by the excess we have here. So every year since, I have returned to Central America to explore and learn.”

She’s also been inspired by the folks in San Jose de las Lagrimas. Back in the 1990s, many were kicked off their land during years of intense civil strife. When they returned, they worked hard to rebuild their lives as subsistence farmers but were forced to pay rent for their land.

But their determination to regain possession of their land wasn’t diminished. They held protests, invited the media and even landed the support of lawmakers.

“Just this past October, they learned they had regained official title to their land,” says Mihok. “It’s a story of strength and courage in light of some really dark circumstances.”

She’s excited about what the next chapter holds.

“I look forward to trying to make the community healthier and working daily in the community. They are such gracious people.”

Over the years, Mihok has learned plenty about reaching out. And she’s seen profound changes in herself along the way. “I used to feel very overwhelmed by the need, but now I realize I can do my little part. If we all did our little part, we really could help to change the world.”

She’s also all the more grateful for the blessings of living in Canada, where opportunities abound. But there are things we could learn from the strong and resilient people Mihok will be working with.

“Up here, it’s often ‘go, go, go’ and sometimes we lose touch with our relationships,” she says. “Down there, they really try to find the time to nourish their relationships. Community is a daily thing.”

Mihok welcomes donations for the ongoing projects in Guatemala. Those interested in learning more can visit www.a-better-world.ca and Mihok’s blog at mihok.ontheroad.to/makeadifference.

Perhaps an entry on one of her blogs best captures this young woman’s heart for a faraway land she feels such a passion for.

“That pretty much sums up the beautiful mess that was my 12-day experience in Honduras and Guatemala, where stark contrasts – joy and sorrow, progress and disaster, beauty and darkness permeate the wet, tropical landscape,” she writes. “There’s something about being in the thick of these extremes that makes one feel truly alive. Never knowing what to expect, dealing with it as it comes. You’re forced to be in the moment. I can’t wait to return.”

editor@reddeerexpress.com