As an economics major at Claremont McKenna College, Chris Temple understood the numbers of poverty. He had studied the financial problems faced by developing countries. He knew that 1.1 billion people — about 15 percent of the world’s population — live on less than one U.S. dollar a day. But he had no idea what living in poverty actually felt like.

“I had a really good academic understanding of extreme poverty, but didn’t have any way to connect at a deeper level,” Temple said. “I wanted to put a face to poverty.”

So in the summer of 2010, Temple flew to rural Guatemala along with his friends, Zach Ingrasci, Sean Leonard and Ryan Christoffersen, to experience poverty for himself. Funded by Whole Planet, the philanthropic wing of Whole Foods Market, the group spent 56 days interviewing their neighbors, eking out a crop of turnips from a rocky mountainside and trying not to spend more than one dollar each day. All four were 20 years old at the time.

“It was overwhelming. … You’re living so close to the edge,” Ingrasci said. “But it transformed all our lives being able to live in a community and develop real relationships with our neighbors.”

Temple and Ingrasci made a movie about their experience titled Into Poverty: Living on One Dollar; it will be screened in Gaston Hall Wednesday night. The film follows the stories of three of their neighbors in the small village of Pena Blanca.

Anthony, a 24-year-old working to support his family of eight, was their first friend in the community. On one of their first days in Guatemala, Anthony invited Temple, Ingrasci, Leonard and Christoffersonto his home for a traditional feast — a once-a-year extravagance.

“It was this really impactful moment when someone who has so little was willing to share,” Temple said.

Through Anthony, the group got to know Rosa, also 24, who was forced to drop out of school to work in her family’s fields but is now pursuing a nurse’s assistant degree, and Chino, a precocious 12-year-old who dreams of returning to the school he dropped out of at age 7.

According to Temple, the residents of Pena Blanca were constantly looking for ways to negotiate the constraints of poverty.

“We were amazed at how incredibly innovative and intelligent our neighbors were,” he said. “For our neighbors, a dollar has to be stretched to feed children, pay for education, pay for medicine or an emergency or a wedding. … But small opportunities had a huge effect on people’s lives.”

Ingrasci pointed to Rosa, who was funding her education with the profits from her weaving business, which she started with a microfinance loan.

“She was the best example of [how] microfinance was allowing [members] of the community to change their own lives,” he said. “The people down there … showed us that these are things that can help people empower themselves and bring themselves out of poverty.”

Temple agreed.

“People are really innovative and it’s just the situation they’re in that’s holding them back,” he said. “Microfinance can help change that situation.”

Raising awareness about microfinance initiatives, which grant small loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries, was one of the primary goals for Temple’s and Ingrasci’s film.

“We were really interested in microfinance but realized there was no engaging media around it,”Ingrasci said. “There needed to be something that would inspire members of our own generation … [and] show our peers the tools they need to become an effective change-maker.”

The film is composed mostly of scenes filmed during the group’s stay in Guatemala. Each week, the group would upload videos to YouTube documenting their daily life and the lives of their neighbors, providing insight into the difficulty of living on a dollar a day.

The four rented a one-room home with a dirt floor. They could only eat one meal a day, but each meal required five hours of work — hauling fire wood, building a fire, monitoring the pot of beans as it slowly came to a boil.

“It was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I went to a liberal arts university. This wasn’t a world I’d faced every day,” Temple said. “[Going] to bed hungry every night, [waking] up on a dirt floor covered in flea bites. … You would wake up every morning and not want to get out of bed because you had no food, nothing to look forward to. … But that’s the reality for so many people.”

The experience quickly took its physical toll: Ingrasci lost 22 pounds during the eight-week trip; Temple lost 20.

“The physical elements of it were very apparent and overwhelming … but mentally it was even more challenging,” Temple said. “[In America] I’d spend a dollar whimsically, but here … there’s this kind of element of being so stressed all the time on how we budget our money.”

Aside from the five-hour effort that cooking required, the group spent most of their days interviewing their neighbors, asking about their lives and financial plans.

“As economics majors, we were really interested in the [kinds] of financial services these people had available to them,” Temple said. “We were essentially creating the financial diaries of people’s lives. Where were they saving money? Where were they getting access to loans?”

Temple told the story of a system of “Rosca” loans developed by Anthony and his friends. At the beginning of every month, a group of 12 men would each contribute $12 to a pool of money. Every month a different member of the group would be given the entire $144 pool to spend on school fees or to start a business.

INTO THE JUNGLE Life in the Guatemalan jungle is a far cry from the life of a student at a liberal arts college in the United States. LIVINGONONE.ORG
INTO THE JUNGLE Life in the Guatemalan jungle is a far cry from the life of a student at a liberal arts college in the United States.
LIVINGONONE.ORG

“Seeing how important that lump sum of money was for them, it was a really innovative service,” Temple said.

The group also taught English to local children. They exchanged English, Spanish and Xochical — the local Mayan language — studying in a room dimly lit by candles and flashlights.

Chino, the boy featured in their film, was among their best students.

“He had the most incredible drive to learn,” Temple said. “He was a phenomenal example of a child who was left behind. When he does get that chance, we have no doubt he has the ability to succeed.”

According to Ingrasci, the experience left a lasting impact on the way he views the problem of global poverty.

“It made us realize that we can do something about it, that our peers can do something about it,” he said. “Once you get past that guilty feeling of being ashamed of what you have, you realize that we have incredible opportunities as young people with social media and technology to create a change.”

In addition to producing and screening Living on One, Ingrasci and Temple have become involved in the Student Microfinance Movement, which provides students with educational materials aboutmicrofinance and encourages them to become involved in the effort.

But beyond the numbers-based process of economic studies and microfinance loans, Ingrasci and Temple hope that their film will help students connect to the issue of poverty on a more personal level.

“It’s a story that can really resonate with Georgetown students, who are already so active and have opportunities and a global perspective,” Temple said. “It puts a face on statistics … [and] allows us to realize that every time we talk about these abstract numbers … there are real stories and real hopes and real dreams behind all of [them].”

 

“Into Poverty: Living on One” will be screened in Gaston Hall on Wednesday at 7p.m. The screening is sponsored by The Hoya.

 

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