For the last 11 years, Jo Lori Drake has divided her time between her home in Arbovale and her apartment in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Since March 2, she has been at the home of her mother – Dorothy Sutton – under her own form of quarantine. While most of America has been social distancing and under quarantine since the COVID-19 pandemic reached stateside, things are a little different for Drake.
She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis or MS in 2006. Due to her condition, Drake left her home in Guatemala and returned to Arbovale for her own safety.
“It’s hard, because I can’t do anything,” she said. “I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to because the borders are all still closed. I’m sending money to the two families that I’m closest to because the town I live in – everything relies on tourism, and that’s gone. They don’t have any kind of safety net or unemployment or anything like that. If they’re not working, they don’t eat.”
Drake first began her treks to Guatemala in 2009. A lover of languages, she decided she wanted to learn how to speak Spanish and wanted to immerse herself in a culture of Spanish-speaking natives.
She began with a Spanish program through Northern Arizona University, but it just didn’t have the punch she wanted.
“After about three months, I said, ‘you know what, I’ve studied Latin, Italian and French in college and high school, and never got fluent because I could never afford to go do an immersion program where you have to speak the language all the time,’” Drake recalled.
When she became disabled, Drake sought out a Spanish-speaking country that had mild weather – she can’t tolerate hot weather – and chose Guatemala.
Drake lived with a host family who took her to Lake Atitlan for the first time.
“I fell in love with the place,” she said. “Then, I came back to the states, and I wanted to go back. I started sponsoring a student. She was ten. She’s twenty-two now. She’s one of the families I help out. She has a little baby girl. She works as one of the transit police – a traffic cop basically.”
Drake returned in 2011 for six more weeks and stayed with a new family in Lake Atitlan. From that point, Drake found herself returning for longer periods of time and seeking more ways to help the community and people she loved.
“After that, it was more that the time I spent in the states got shorter and shorter, and the time I spent down there got longer and longer,” she said. “From 2011 to now, basically, I was there much more than I was here.
“I started to volunteer for the organization I sponsored my student through,” she continued. “It’s called Mayan Families. What I do with them is basically computer help. Their main thing is student sponsorship and they also run preschool nutrition centers. One of their issues with indigenous Mayans is that Spanish isn’t their first language. Their first language is their Mayan type of language. There are twenty-two [Mayan languages] in Guatemala.”
Drake explained that a lot of children fail first grade because they struggle to understand Spanish. With Mayan Families preschool program, the children get a year of Spanish immersion to prepare them for elementary school.
Another important issue facing Guatemala is poor nutrition.
“They also help them with nutrition,” Drake said. “People from Guatemala don’t starve. They get enough calories, but they don’t get enough nutrition. So, it has a high rate of malnutrition which is why they are short there. It’s the poorest country in Latin America.”
Mayan Families has multiple programs for children, families and the elderly, as well.
“That first time I went to Lake Atitlan, I heard about [Mayan Families],” Drake said. “Before I went to Guatemala, I thought I knew poverty because I live in Appalachia – but I didn’t. I had no clue, and I came back thinking, ‘Gosh, I want to do something.’
“I started by sponsoring a student.”
One student she sponsored has grown to be a talented young man, and Drake gushes about the accomplishments he has made over the years.
“I started sponsoring him when he was fifteen,” she said. “He wanted to learn how to play music. I had friend who founded the Atitlan Music School where they teach young people how to play music, how to sing and how to read music. I got him a half-scholarship there, and I paid the other half. He now knows how to play drums, guitar and piano.”
The young man is now a teacher at the school and hopes to become the director when he completes his education.
“They love him there,” Drake said. “He is now working on his master’s degree in education administration. He’s just an extra- ordinary young man and he said, ‘My goal is to be able someday to build a compound for my family. That way, they don’t have to worry about trying to pay rent every month.’”
When Drake left Guatemala, due to the pandemic, the young man has been staying at her apartment and taking care of her cat that she couldn’t bring with her.
Being away from Lake Atitlan is difficult for Drake, but she knew she had to come back home because of the pandemic.
“Mom and I both knew it was going to be bad,” she said. “I wanted to stay in Guatemala, but Mom said, ‘Look, if you get sick, I’m going to go crazy with worry if you’re down there.’
“I miss my friends, and they’re like my family,” she continued. “The wonderful weather and my beautiful apartment. It’s tiny, but I love it. And my kitty. I feel like I can’t go back. That’s the worst part – the uncertainty. When are they going to be able to open the borders? If I were them, I wouldn’t be letting anybody from the United States come in.”
While she waits for the restrictions to end to see if she can return to Lake Atitlan, Drake has kept herself busy making non-medical masks for the community.
“I wanted to do some here in the county just to have something to do to help out,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. I haven’t left my Mom’s house since I got here March 2nd. Hopefully people will wear them. They’re not going to make you bulletproof. They’re not going to protect you from getting coronavirus, but hopefully, they’ll reducing the number of droplets that you are putting out in the atmosphere.”
Drake makes her masks with two layers of tightly-woven cotton and two layers of blue shop towels, which, surprisingly enough, have been tested and proven to be the best filters.
“This company in California called Suay, they bought a machine to test what filtered the best and they tried everything,” she said. “They tried the blue shop towels and it’s pretty effective. They’re washable, so they don’t fall to pieces. I’ve bought so many rolls of those things.”
So far, Drake has made more than 120 masks and plans to continue as long as there is a need. At this time, she is taking the masks to the Green Bank Dollar General for customers to pick up.
“Until the demand slows down, I’m going to be making them,” she said. “As long as people are taking them and wearing them, anything I can do to help, I’ll just keep doing it.”
Luckily, for Drake, she has a quilting friend – Amy Coloccia – who has offered to donate as much fabric as she needs.
“I put out a call to see if anybody had fabric they wanted to donate, and she said, ‘How much do you want?’” Drake said. “I’ve already gone through ten yards, so I just messaged her for more and she said, ‘I will flood you with fabric.’”
Drake is not sending masks to Guatemala because Mayan Families has a program to teach women to use sewing machines – a trade of the menfolk – and the women have been hard at work making masks for their communities there.
While she misses her Guatemalan family, for now, Drake is happy to be with her Appalachian family and helping to ensure their safety during this time.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org