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Long Way Home: The Organisation Promoting Sustainable Building, Learning and Living in Rural Guatemala

Long Way Home is an organisation in rural Guatemala that works to educate and empower local people to become involved in a democratic process of sustainable development in their community. I recently had the opportunity to interview executive director, Matt Paneitz. Find out more about the amazing work this organisation does and what Matt identifies as the key skill he hopes to instill in young people.

San Juan Comalapa is a municipality in the indigenous west-central highlands of Guatemala. Comalapa exists in a state of relative poverty, with no formal recycling or waste-management system. Refuse material is often dumped in lakes or ravines – contaminating the water supply – or used to fuel stoves for cooking – contributing to the significant respiratory problems suffered by many locals. Long Way Home is working hard to educate the local people about these environmental issues and encourage them to become involved in a democratic process of sustainable development in their community.
Green shoots
Director of Long Way Home, Matt Paneitz, originally arrived in Guatemala in 2002 as a Peace Corp volunteer. After his time with the Peace Corp, Matt decided to return to Comalapa and founded Long Way Home in 2004. The first major project undertaken by the fledgling organisation was the construction of a community park – Parque Chimiyá – that spans five acres of rural land and encompasses a tree nursery, terraced organic gardens, a soccer field and basketball court, a playground, and a community kitchen. The Long Way Home team lived on-site at Parque Chimiyá during the park’s development. Working so closely with the local community on this project, Matt quickly identified the relationship between the local environmental issues and the difficulties faced by the community day-to-day. Recreational facilities were not the priority and so Long Way Home adapted its strategy.


“While the main crew was living in Comalapa, and living at the park, and living with the people, we experienced some of the same pain that they (the community) did. That there’s no water, that there’s no firewood, that there’s no jobs. That the roads suck, the politics suck, the (refuse) contamination is just everywhere, and for the poorest people it’s the hardest. So, the vocational school came because we wanted to expand our impact.”

Matt Paneitz Executive Director, Long Way Home

Expanding the influence of Long Way Home
In January 2009, Long Way Home broke ground on the Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot (CETC) campus. CETC was constructed using a variety of sustainable, eco-friendly methods to directly address the environmental issues in Comalapa. Supporting walls were built using earth-packed tyres and plastic bottles stuffed with rubbish, and then finished using cob – an eco-friendly alternative to cement consisting of dirt, manure and hay. Skylights, made using recycled glass bottles, provide ample natural light, while two rainwater cisterns provide the schools water. Solar panels supplement the schools electricity requirements with the aim being eventually to become completely energy self-sufficient. CETC stands as a monument to green-building techniques with 18 buildings including eight primary/middle school classrooms, four vocational school workshops, an art lab, library/computer lab, mechanics workshop, office, and welcome centre.

The construction of CETC has had a huge impact on the local environmental issues with over 16,000 reclaimed tyres, over 9,000 glass bottles, and over 24,000 rubbish bottles used to date. However, the Long Way Home team recognise education as the key to truly sustainable long-term change. Matt and the Long Way Home team set about investigating what the biggest issues facing the local community are, and how best to educate young people to overcome these issues.


“What we found through our investigation of what the problems are is that the number one reason that people go to the health centre are respiratory issues. They have open flames indoors and they burn Styrofoam cups to heat their tortillas. That’s a huge problem!”

Matt Paneitz Executive Director, Long Way Home

Education in sustainability for sustainable education
CETC is a K-12 campus, covering kindergarten through post-primary education, and delivers the full range of subjects found on a traditional curriculum. At post-primary level (7th – 12th grade), the traditional curriculum is augmented by vocational lessons. Each grade of post-primary education is focused on addressing a unique issue in the community as identified by Long Way Home’s investigation. In 7th grade, the focus is on respiratory issues. Students learn biology by studying anatomy, and how smoke inhalation can cause respiratory disease. Students apply civic and political education by conducting a survey of a small rural village to identify potential at-risk families. Then, they apply their STEM knowledge by building that family a smoke-effective stove. This process is repeated in 8th grade, when students build a water storage “tinaco”. In 9th grade, they build a dry composting latrine. In 10th grade, a tyre retaining wall, and in 11th grade, a cistern. In 12th grade, students combine everything they have learned in the previous five years to build a tyre house for a family in need.


“There are escalating levels of complexity that require some knowledge of what you did in the previous grade in order to elevate to the next grade… We’re not like a school in the popular concept of a school, we’re an educational institution that is investigating these concepts. The students love that!”

Matt Paneitz Executive Director, Long Way Home

Democratic education: The Hero School Model
The traditional curriculum is soon to be further augmented with the upcoming introduction of the “Hero School Model” of democratic education. The Hero School Model is heavily inspired by the work of John Dewey, and is aimed at engaging students, teachers, builders, and volunteers in community action that responds to local challenges. It is Long Way Home’s aim that, by eliciting practical and behavioural changes within the community, and by providing young people with a sense of purpose by providing them with a vocational education, that communities can begin to effect local politics and participate meaningfully in their country’s democracy.


“We are going to start re-writing the curriculum so that we can include the democratic process as the foundation of our entire education. We are going to re-write the entire curriculum, and re-do the entire curriculum, with the teachers. We’re going to suspend school, put our kids in a different school, work with the teachers to make sure that our students leave our school with a theoretical and practical understanding of how to live in a democracy.”

Matt Paneitz Executive Director, Long Way Home

Changing minds and lives
Long Way Home and CETC have had a noticeable impact upon the communities’ litter-habits. Two construction workers involved on the development of the school have since built homes for their families using the same green-building techniques. Admission to Parque Chimiyá is charged in the form of rubbish-stuffed plastic bottles – or eco-bricks –, which will later be used in the next construction project. A portion of the nominal fee for students to attend CETC can also be offset by paying with eco-bricks. Perhaps the greatest impact is that of the increased employability and prospects of the students.


“Well, quite a few are builders that are building with us! They have been hired to do jobs that are pretty well paying. When you green build, you’re kind of doing the hardest version of construction. You have to be really creative, and you have to really think through things, so they’re just considered above and beyond thinkers as far as their jobs go. Also, our first students have just graduated from high-school, and ten of the twelve (graduates) are going to college. In Comalapa, there’s about 1% of age-appropriate students that actually finish high-school. So, we’ve just provided them with a different skill-level and an ability to be a little ahead of the scale.”

Matt Paneitz Executive Director, Long Way Home


Matt, the Long Way Home team and the teachers at CETC intend to continue to make a major contribution in the municipality of San Juan Comalapa, both in terms of the infrastructural needs, and in terms of educating and encouraging the participation of the local people in making viable and sustainable improvements within their community. When asked to name one skill or resource he hoped young people who attend CETC would graduate with, Matt wasted no time in providing his answer: “The ability to participate in the democratic process fully!”


To find out more about Long Way Home, click here!

To find out more about Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot, click here!

To find out how you can participate in Long Way Home’s Green Building Academy, click here!

Written By

David Byrne
Technologial University Dublin

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