Arlaine Cervantes had an epiphany while driving down a desert highway.
Though she was running a successful bed and breakfast in Baja Mexico at the time, Arlaine suddenly realized she was destined to create a camp that would alter the lives of underprivileged children in Guatemala. Her most meaningful experiences during her childhood had occurred when she was at summer camp in the woods of Oregon, and her vision is to create a safe, healthy, natural sanctuary where children can feel safe, happy and cared for.
Today, over ten years later, Arlaine’s project, Niños del Lago, is thriving. The construction of its facilities on a six-acre site in San Andres Semetabaj is over 60 percent complete. When fully operating, the site will host retreats for groups of up to 75 kids per week for seven months of the year, in addition to occasionally hosting more privileged Guatemalan and international youth and serving as a unique retreat center for private events.
The heart of the camp is El Nido, which consists of a two-story dining hall and kitchen with locker rooms and an infirmary, as well as the Creative Mind Center with spaces for meditation, art and music—connected by the “Bridge to the Future.” Lodging consists of twelve cabins with names like “El Amor” and “La Compasión” in which up to eight kids can bunk, and an adjacent room for the camp counselors, or Mindful Mentors, trained graduate students from Guatemala City.
Arlaine and her team have designed the place and program to be eco-friendly, sustainable and replicable. The eco-friendly center utilizes solar power, a well water system, composting toilets and a biodigester for waste treatment. The cabins are constructed from local river rock and adobe, and the entire camp features wide stone paths and shade provided by towering trees. The four-year mindfulness program has been developed, implemented and evaluated by experts in the fields of education, child psychology and social work.
The core of the project is the Journey to the Forest program, in which disadvantaged youth from ages nine to 12 will come to the camp for a week each year, for four consecutive years. Niños del Lago has partnered with 12 western Guatemalan NGOs (so far, with plans to continue developing partnerships) that run primary schools. Kids from those schools will come for week-long retreats in the forest and have opportunities to learn about, practice and experience mindfulness, compassion, love and kindness. They’ll be given various duties, including gardening, recycling and working in the plant nursery and go on excursions like a hike up the San Pedro Volcano.
Future plans for the site include tree houses, suspended bridges, a game room, zip lines, a petting zoo, cottages and a house for Arlaine herself. The entire facility is wheelchair accessible and the program is open to children with physical disabilities.
Arlaine is seeking out potential donors in Guatemala City and working to secure funding for the completion of construction. When it opens, Niños del Lago’s staff will include at least 10 employees on site, all hired locally in San Andres Semetabaj, a town about 15 minutes from Panajachel.
According to their website, “Niños del Lago’s camp is a special place that nurtures self-respect, self-awareness and cultural pride… where children are empowered to carry on positive traditions and learn new ways to help their communities, their country and our planet.” Arlaine’s vision is becoming a reality, and it’s a beautiful sight to see. To learn more or get involved, visit Niños del Lago.