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Inspirational Women: Meet Chelsea Glass

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For this week's inspirational woman we have Chelsea Glass, who resides here in La Antigua. Not only is she an absolute boss babe, starting her own travel company at age 27, but she’s also incredibly active in relief efforts for Guatemalan communities who were ravaged by the eruption of a volcano in Guatemala. Here’s what she has to say in our interview:

Can you give us a little background on where you’re from and well, who you are? How did you first end up in Guatemala?  Do you have any advice for someone who is looking to make Antigua their home base?

My name is Chelsea Glass, I'm 27 years old and I'm originally from Sacramento. My relationship with Antigua is the longest and healthiest love I've had in life so far ;) I came here on a whim to study Spanish and volunteer in 2010 and was eventually offered a job by my friend, Carlos, at his tour operating company, Guinness Travel. What was suppose to be a few months in Central America spiraled into almost three years. I moved back to Sacramento at the end of 2012 to pursue a MA in Spanish and began working at a language school in cultural center in my hometown. However, Guatemala was never far from my mind or heart and I'd come back as often as possible to visit and I even started bring groups of people down from Sacramento to do guided tours here with my former boss, Carlos. 
 
In 2016 I finally felt it was time for me to quit my 9-5 and start my own company. Born out of my love for Guatemala, and Latin America in general, along with a frustration over an exploitative travel industry and the distorted depiction of Latin America in the U.S. media, I began The Heart of Travel. We are based out of Antigua and offer tours throughout Guatemala and many other parts of Latin America as well. 
 
For someone looking to make Antigua their home base I would say definitely follow your heart! If you feel you're being pulled here, it's most likely for a reason! As a tip, I'd say to make sure you get out of central Antigua from time to time, even if its just to head to a comedor in Jocotenango or Ciudad Vieja. While I adore central Antigua it's nice to spice things up and participate in everyday life in the small towns outside of Antigua. Also, while you can get by without Spanish in this town your experience will be way more interesting and fun if you can communicate in Spanish, and people will appreciate your efforts :) 

You now run a travel company, The Heart of Travel, and lead trips all over Latin America. Was this always a dream of yours, or how did it come to be your career? What is your favorite destination from the tours you lead?

Growing up I always wanted to have my own business at some point but 10 years ago I never would have imagined it would be in the travel industry, let alone outside of the U.S. I was really lucky to have a mentor, who was also one of my best friends, who first introduced me to the travel industry. Carlos was always such a dedicated and business oriented guy with tons of vision and being around him and his entrepreneurial spirit was infectious. We worked together for years until he unfortunately passed away in an accident in February 2017. I feel really grateful to him for always believing in me and giving me the tools and training to succeed and they are lessons I could have applied to any kind of business. My heart, however, was in Latin America and determined to figure out a way to offer travel that was comfortable, fun and educational (in a nonconventional way) to our clients and also always put the people, organizations and small businesses that we work with in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Cuba and Perú first. 

Our team is comprised of three people full time at this point, Chiva, Selvin and myself. Chiva came on board a year ago and is now officially a partner in the company and Selvin is an amazing new hire who works as both a driver and guide. Outside of us three we have an amazing network of local guides here in Guatemala and providers in other countries who are the ones who do the real magic of making the experiences unforgettable for our clients. I still go on a lot of the trips as a coordinator or "tour leader" but I know I can never give the same information or insight into a destination that someone born and raised there can. That being said, I LOVE all of our tours in Guatemala and after that I'm really fond of Cuba and Ecuador! 

On June 3, Volcan Fuego erupted here in Guatemala and communities near the volcano were completely destroyed, leaving the official death toll just over 100, with hundreds still missing. You immediately jumped into action and began fundraising and going to the affected areas to help. Can you tell us a little more about that day and what happened? What were the initial concerns after the eruption, and have those changed?  Also how is the current state of the towns at the base of the volcano and what you are doing to help those communities?

 

The day of the eruption we were having a team meeting at my house with Chiva and Selvin when we first noticed the ash falling from the sky. It wasn't until a few hours later that we truly understood the magnitude of what had happened and we immediately jumped into "fight mode". I started a GoFundMe thinking that we would get $1,000 and would be able to buy some supplies and volunteer the following week. I had no idea when I first started the fundraiser that we would get almost $27,000 in donations, which came along with lots of responsibility, messages, calls, emails and media attention. It was a bit overwhelming and while we are blown away by people's response and so grateful for the donations we were really zoned in on actually getting to work on the ground. 

What has happened with the eruption is devastating and as if often goes with natural disasters those who are already living with limited access to resources are the most affected. The eruption not only caused devastation in the for of death, injury, illness, loss of property, destruction of farmland and much more it also forced us all to look at the reality of these communities prior to the eruption and the obvious lack of organization and support from the government. 

At this point we are continuing to visit communities and families as often as we can to meet with people face to face and assess the need and the best way for us to help with our own eyes. For example, this afternoon I'm going to meet with some families who've been offered temporary housing in San Miguel Dueñas to see what their immediate needs are and how we can help - be it buying medicine, constructing shelter, helping them to secure employment, etc. There are still thousands of peoples in shelters so I'm meeting with people from other organizations such as Volunca and World for Guate to see how we can join forces. As of now, there are just 4 of us on our little team who've been doing our best to be responsible and efficient with our use of donation. My friend, Joaquin Avich, has been a major leader in our on the ground efforts while I've focused a lot of fundraising, posting updates, and getting in touch with the many other amazing individuals and organizations in town to see how we can work together. 

We still have a lot of the donation money available and are waiting to finalize a strategic long term plan which may result in the formation of a foundation or NGO. As is often the case as the weeks and months go by many people stop being able to help but the need is going to be there for months if not years to come. We really want to figure out how we can help long term and in a sustainable way. 

What are the biggest issues you are facing while addressing the needs of the affected communities? If people are wanting to help and get involved, what is the best way for them to do so?

Time is one factor that limits us. The first two weeks after the eruption we basically didn't spend any time working on things regarding The Heart of Travel, and while we were happy to do so we can't ignore it forever. At this point we are trying to split our time between work and relief efforts in order to keep both afloat. Communication, coordination and organization has made things tough, though there are some wonderful folks in our community  who are working day in and day out to streamline things. For example, however, there were time when we'd be asked for a medicine order and by the time we filled it and went to deliver it the need had changed or they'd send us somewhere else. We'd also want to check with other people working on relief efforts to make sure we weren't all focusing on the same things and therefore unintentionally ignoring something or someone else who we could have helped. 

At this point if people want to volunteer I'd say to check out Volunca's site that helps to streamline the volunteer registration project and is able to assign people to different shelters based off of their skills/abilities and the need in different areas. Other ways to help are donating or a trusted cause and also letting people know that Guatemala is safe and open for travel as we've definitely seen the tourism industry take a hit. 

After seeing the way Guatemala rallied together, do you have anything to say about the country in which you reside in? If someone was thinking about visiting Guatemala, what would you tell them?

Two things I've always loved about this place is how community oriented people are and also the strength and resilience of the people here. When you look back at Guatemala's history it's had to face and overcome a lot of obstacles and even when it seems the odds are stacked against them la gente finds a way to push ahead. It makes me think of that Mark Twain quote "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog". Guatemala has some serious fight in it which is pretty damn inspiring and that alone is a reason enough to visit.
 
Beyond that, it's a very beautiful place with tons of diversity, rich in culture and home to some of the friendliest people in the world. It's not to say that there aren't issues here and we want to always be careful to be transparent and forthcoming about that to people as well. Guatemala, much like life and the world in general is complex. If you're considering visiting, we know you're going to love it and have a great time and we hope you walk away with some fresh perspective también :)
***If you want to donate to the GoFundMe Chelsea has started, the link is here https://www.gofundme.com/volcano-eruption-relief-guate
*If you're interested in taking a trip with Chelsea at The Heart of Travel, click here for more information. https://www.theheartoftravel.org/about

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