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From Men in Tights to Truly Sustainable Development


If you ever thought that a handful of handsome boys frolicking around a stage in tights had nothing to do with transforming malnutrition in Guatemala, think again.  As a small non-profit, support is welcomed in whatever form it may present itself… even if (and perhaps especially if?) it’s a male beauty pageant. Welcome to our most unique, most creative, most ambitious fundraiser ever. The Semilla Nueva – Kappa Kappa Gamma partnership, combatting poverty one male beauty pageant at a time.


Mr. Whitman contestants with Semilla Nueva Executive
Director Curt Bowen, and a check for $36,000!
A long Running Partnership…
Although the frolicking men in tights may come and go, the partnership between Semilla Nueva and Whitman college is nothing new.  In a way, Semilla Nueva was born out of the social justice principles advocated throughout the hallways of Whitman College.  In his undergraduate years at Whitman, Executive Director Curt Bowen developed a strong passion for development and real change.  A student-lead trip to Nicaragua in 2005 lead by Curt and other Whitman friends helped spark the fire of activism that would eventually lead to the formation of Semilla Nueva.  That group, now formally titled Whitman Direct Action (WDA), has gone on to administer six development immersion trips, bringing passion and skills to people in need, changing the lives of young Whitman students along the way.  This year will be the fifth consecutive summer that WDA has partnered with Semilla Nueva to bring safe drinking water technologies to the Guatemalan community of Willywood. In addition to the WDA partnership, Curt maintains relations with several Whitman professors, looking to mentors for guidance in his project, and always makes time for speaking with Whitman student groups when in Oregon. 

“Semilla Nueva was selected especially based on its impact, scalability and sustainability.  I didn’t know much about sustainable agriculture before talking to Curt, but his knowledge and enthusiasm were so contagious!” – – Kappa Philanthropy Director Sara Graham.

In lieu of the well-established relationship of Semilla Nueva and Whitman, the Kappa Sorority chose Semilla Nueva as their honored non-profit for their annual fundraiser, what is quickly becoming the most attended event on campus these days. The main event is an all-male “beauty pageant” featuring eight senior male contestants strutting their stuff in front of a packed crowd, competing in four categories: Talent (electic, to say the least), Swimwear (yes, the ladies swooned), Formal Wear (use your imagination), and a Q&A; session.  This year’s theme: Robin Hood Men in Tights.
The Men in Tights, Mr. Whitman male beauty pageant contestants.


But the boys also spent a great amount of time, energy (and perhaps a little of their social reputation) doing small fundraisers for the months leading up to the actual pageant. Everything from a nude gardening-themed calendar, to barbecues to offering comments on the corner for $1 a pop, these boys were definitely our most ingenious fundraisers we have ever had.  In the end, the coveted crown was adorned to Jack Lazar, a global health major who swooned judges with song and dance, while also raising $4,628 individually through a book of artistically risqué photos of local rock climbers. 
Jack Lazar, 2012 Mr. Whitman winner.


What does $36,000 mean to an organization like Semilla Nueva?  We have just begun to scratch the surface of benefits.


Mr. Whitman money has first and foremost allowed us to solidify planning for our new Food Security and Nutrition Program, making Semilla Nueva’s biggest expansion yet.  Semilla Nueva has always worked on helping farmers earn more and protect their soils. But we also really want to start moving those benefits from the farm to the family.  In the communities where we work, chronic malnutrition is between 25% and 78%. That means that due to a lack of protein and nutrients in the diet, children’s brains and bodies don’t develop fully.  While some NGO’s simply fly in one-time, cure-all nutrient packets, we want to confront malnutrition at the root of the problem.  We want to help farmers find ways to sustainably grow their own nutrient “packages”, attacking malnutrition for their kids, grandkids and great grandkids. Building off of the enthusiastic acceptance of a pilot nutrition project we had in communities in 2012, we have started the Food Security and Nutrition Program off with a bang in 2013 with 3 high-impact technologies.


Pigeonpea, a bean crop high in protein, can provide
food security to thousands of families in the dry season
and can be grown without any water, fertilizers or pesticides!

Pigeonpea, a bean for the future

The greatly successful pilot nutrition program was centered around the high-protein crop called pigeonpea. A native crop to Guatemala, we introduced new varieties to over 200 families in the region while working with women’s cooking groups to teach the benefits of pigeonpea as well as how to incorporate it into the local diet.  We hope that from the 200 trying it this year, we’ll be able to get over 600 next year. But while pigeonpea is a great tool, if we truly want to make a dent in childhood malnutrition we need to go farther.


Quality Protein Maize (QPM)

After 40 years of work scientists have been able to design special corn varieties that have 90% of the protein of milk (someone should let the vegans know!).  While most of the families we serve have diets based almost entirely on corn tortillas, QPM is a high-impact, fast-resulting technology that helps children catch up on lost growth from lack of protein simply by eating a different kind of corn.

Quality Protein Maize can improve a family’s nutrition
within one season, drastically increasing protein content
simply by eating a different type of corn!

Mr. Whitman money helped fund the selection of families in our communities with extremely malnourished children and swap their normal corn for this high-protein corn. In only a few months, we will be able to measure the increased protein content in the families’ diets and prove the incredible impacts of QPM!  As well, the families will be able to see visible changes in their children’s development with their own eyes.  From here, the Farmer to Farmer model kicks in and participants start sharing their results with neighbors.  Interest is already growing and we plan to plant QPM with 70 farmers in May of this year.


Chaya, the miracle tree

Leaves of the Chaya tree, a native fast-growing
tree, can provide up to twice the amount
of protein and vitamins in one egg.

Superfood, leafy green, tasty miracle tree.  Chaya is like the kale of Guatemala, only better because it’s a native, fast-growing tropical tree that can save lives in rural communities. Take 25 leaves from a Chaya tree, chop them up and add them to your soup and you’ve just integrated twice the amount of protein and vitamins in one single egg into your diet. 


The Chaya tree can also be used a living fence (a technique used by all the farmers in the area).  Right now Mr. Whitman money is directly funding our vision of thousands of feet of Chaya fence lining households, filled with hope and nutrients.  So far we’ve planted 40 Chaya treelings in our communities and families are sharing the “Miracle Tree” idea everyday with neighbors. 



From men in tights to Truly Sustainable Development

Change is such a weird thing.  It comes from such small and seemingly insignificant decisions.  It comes from the strangest and most unconventional of places.  It comes when passions are connected across country boundaries, across ideas of sustainability, across oceans of creativity.  It comes when all the little drops of impact add up and contribute to a river of social change.  We’re still in that process here of building those little moments at Semilla Nueva. And for this one that Mr. Whitman and all its participants helped us build, we want to say thank you.

The humble beginnings of ardent activists on the campus of Whitman has lead to a long-lasting partnership that is bringing real, sustainable change in Guatemala. As Curt explained, “The way we think about development, the way we believe in social change and justice, the chances we had to really learn to work hard– all of these things came from our time as undergraduates at Whitman.  We wouldn’t be where we are without those experiences. I can’t express how thankful we are to Whitman for providing such a passionate community standing in support with us, and for making possible all of these audacious ideas of development we aim to achieve.”
We never would have started planning our Food Security and Nutrition program expansion if it weren’t for the support of the Mr. Whitman contest.  From every last frat boy strutting in front of a crowd of giggling girls to every last dirt hut we have stayed in next to small children, so much smaller than they should be–Semilla Nueva is honored to be a part of an unconventional global movement that believes that sustainable, change is possible. Thank you to the Whitman community, for all you have given us!

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