Camino a la Copa: Positive impact |

Camino a la Copa: Positive impact

Roddy Beall/For the Steamboat Today

Gilberto Salazar seeks to save the endangered Heloderma, and in doing so he has helped to save the town of El Arenal, Guatemala, from catastrophic flooding.

In the 1990s, biologists feared that the Heloderma, a large reptile species endemic to the semiarid mountains of Guatemala, might have gone extinct without any notice. The lizard was called "the scorpion" by villagers because of rumors that it could sting with its tail or snort venom. The legends about the animal inspired a black market trade. Compounded with habitat loss to corn and cattle, eventually, none could be found.

When we arrive in El Arenal, we see a town that obviously has been devastated by flash floods; the same deforestation that threatened the Heloderma also compromised the hills' ability to capture water. Cobble deposits lean against buildings, and people have tried to protect their houses with concrete sea walls. The soccer field is a broad gravel fan.

"We are so thankful you're here," said Annie Ruiz, director of the nonprofit ASIVESCA, which was founded with the help of Steamboat's Sheila Henderson and promotes education and human development in this region. "This is a remote, forgotten town. Places like this need role models, and need positivity and support."

Luckily for El Arenal, when the biologists were looking for the Heloderma lizard, a local named Gilberto Salazar knew where to find it, in small caves above town. Fourteen years later, Gilberto is the field director of a Heloderma Reserve, a tract of preserved forest that receives school groups for educational programming.

Since the reserve has been reforested throughout the past decade to save the Heloderma, flash floods no longer sweep through the town, and deer and iguanas have returned. Because of the education programs, locals no longer poach the reptiles to sell on the black market, and the youths know and respect the abundant wildlife.

In this town, like in most towns we visit, the kids meet every afternoon at the soccer field to play. But this day is special because ASIVESCA has announced the arrival of Camino a la Copa. Soon we have 30 kids eager to play, half of which are barefoot.

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We play a soccer activity in which kids have to complete simple tasks to reach a goal, then we ask about their dreams in life and what simple things they must do now in order to reach their goals. Several of the boys want to be biologists at the Heloderma Reserve.

At the end of the day, I sit with Gilberto Salazar and talk about the amazing positive impact that the Heloderma Reserve has had on the community.

"But you guys," Gilberto said, "by coming to visit the kids, have also had a positive impact. The kids see how far you've traveled to visit them. You are making a healthy, positive choice, and you told the kids that they can also make positive choices. They need someone to tell them that."

This makes me feel immensely happy. All the effort of this trip will be worth it if we can help at least one child to dream big and work toward their goals.

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