“Eden Por Salud,” with Annie Jameson
Annie Jameson '14 is one of the founders of Eden Por Salud, an all-natural wellness company based in Guatemala. The company sells products handcrafted by local entrepreneurs. Eden Por Salud provides accessible income opportunities to people with disabilities throughout Guatemala. Annie got her degree in special education at Seattle Pacific University and has spent her entire career serving and advocating for people with disabilities, both at home and abroad.
Amanda Stubbert: Well, let’s start with what led you to special education in the first place? What a glorious and very difficult career. How did you get there?
Annie Jameson: It’s not so difficult. I started volunteering with an organization in my hometown during high school that serves teens with disabilities. And I just felt a deep connectedness and understanding. I just loved it. I felt really known, and I felt like I really connected with the people I was working with. And then it just became clear to me that that is the umbrella of my career, that I want to spend as much time with people with disabilities as I can in any format. And so I first began studying special education with an education focus and I went into teaching, and now I’m taking a detour in my career, you could say.
Amanda: So what was that like for you in the classroom as a teacher?
Annie: Sometimes being in the classroom is the greatest joy you can have. You’re just with all of these children and you’re playing and you’re learning and it’s so, so fun. I, personally, was like the queen of field trips. I really love active learning. But also it was really, really challenging. And the burnout is real because I was in a school with students that had some really severe behavioral challenges, and the administration in my school didn’t know how to support me. And so I didn’t often know how to navigate challenges with my admin, challenges with teaching the staff around me how to work with students with special needs, and at the same time, teach my class. So there were times when it was extremely difficult.
Amanda: Yeah, I can imagine. I mean, just even as a parent, when you see your child not getting what they need, it’s both heartbreaking and devastating and keeps you up all night. And you times that times an entire classroom, I can imagine that you would spend some sleepless nights.
Annie: I did. Yeah, I had a lot of sessions where I cried in my car because you want everything for these children that you love and that’s not possible in a bureaucracy system. But I also really enjoyed my years teaching and I learned a lot from those experiences. So it was totally worth it.
Amanda: Yeah, I can imagine. I imagine that you probably have some experiences. And field trips? I also love field trips … they were probably just some of the best memories ever.
Well, let’s just dive into Guatemala. That’s a long way from Seattle. How did you get there?
Annie: After my third year of teaching, there were some administrative changes in my school and I wanted to focus on improving my Spanish because about 30% of my students were Spanish speaking and their families were not English speakers. And so I took a short leave of absence to go study Spanish. And I found a few recommendations to schools in Guatemala. And so I went to Guatemala just for this short-term leave to go focus on Spanish. And while I was there, I got connected with a camp for teens and adults with disabilities. It was an overnight camp for about one week where people get to come from all over Guatemala and go water skiing and horseback riding and go to the beach. This camp is called Viamistad. It’s a really beautiful and impressive organization. And I learned a lot about the need in Guatemala.
People with disabilities are very isolated. People are in their houses; they never leave. They don’t have opportunities to go to school. There’s no public and special education. There’s no access and transportation if you have a wheelchair. So people are really shut away and isolated with no opportunities for growth and development, no socialization opportunities to develop their own skills or make friends really, outside of this camp. So I got connected with Viamistad and I just felt something ignite, just this joy, absolute joy to be with people with disabilities, but just in community, just as a friend, and not as a teacher and not as a person of authority. It was a real click. And so I extended my time there to stay for all three sessions of the Viamistad camp. And that was almost three years ago now. I had every intention of just returning to my job, but that’s not how things shook out.
Amanda: Sometimes God has other plans for us.
Amanda: So I just am curious, so you were talking about how infrastructure or lack of infrastructure keeps people with disabilities locked away pretty seriously within Guatemala. Is there a cultural barrier as well?
Annie: That’s hard to say. It’s kind of hard to separate that from the fact that there are no opportunities. I know families that have a family member with disabilities and there’s no shame. There is no shame, and they’re advocating and they’re doing everything they can to find opportunities for their family members. And I also know families that seem to have a lot of shame and have chosen to keep their adult children hidden away. So there may be a cultural aspect and there may be a globalized shame in having a person with disabilities in your family.
But I don’t know if I can separate that from the honest fact that there’s no resources. And very few people in Guatemala have financial resources to hire a private truck or a private van to take someone with a wheelchair anywhere, or to advocate for themselves to enter a restaurant that doesn’t have a ramp. You have to have multiple people who can help lift the wheelchair and help people around. And people are working or people are at home or people aren’t leaving themselves because of lack of opportunities, lack of financial resources, and lack of infrastructure. It’s a hard place. It’s a hard place to live if you have a disability, because there’s just nothing for you.
Amanda: Yeah. So you’re working at this camp, you’re realizing that you may be there for a while and may not be returning to teaching as quickly as you thought …
Annie: Oh, I didn’t realize that. I was bound and determined. I finished the sessions at this camp and I returned back to the U.S., and I started subbing for a short time. And then I found another teaching job, and I went back to teaching for another year. So in sum, I taught with Seattle Public Schools for four years in special ed. But that whole next year, something wasn’t working. I just couldn’t settle in. And I was working with an organization in Seattle that I really love called Casa Latina. I was volunteering. I was going to Spanish classes. I was just hanging out all the time. And I realized pretty quickly in this year that I just didn’t feel like I was done with Latin America. But I also couldn’t accept the fact that maybe God was calling me to live there.
And so I finished another year of teaching. My apartment lease was up and I just decided it was a natural time to go again. And this time I decided I’ll only go for six months, and I’ll just get it out of my system and then I will come back, focus in and get back to teaching. And that’s what I did. I went for another six months. And I was working with the camp director of Viamistad, and I was helping with planning and paperwork and fundraising. And I just had my own idea that I couldn’t shake of starting a project that would support the needs of people with disabilities throughout the year, not just this one month of camp, but something that people could have and focus on throughout the year. And I decided after these six months that I would give it a shot and here we are. I’m still doing it.
Amanda: Yeah. So let’s talk about Eden Por Salud and how did that come to be? What was the origin of the organization itself?
Annie: Well, I just had a light bulb. I have wanted for a long time to start a project that would offer people a social activity and, at the same time, a work opportunity where people could earn money. And I just realized one day we could make wellness products using essential oils. Because if you use really high quality ingredients, you’re going to have a really high quality product. And it’s also very easy to make products with essential oils because you just have to count the drops of your oils and you just have to do some very basic, simple measurements. And so I purchased the original materials myself and I went to Guatemala again. I had come home just for a short time. And I met up with my friend Jorge from this camp. And Jorge uses a wheelchair. He has cerebral palsy, which has paralyzed the left side of his body. So he mostly uses his right hand and modified sign language.
So he was telling me that he knows some people who have disabilities, and we can go to their houses and invite them to do this project with us. And it was definitely a grassroots start. We went from house to house in various neighborhoods, knocking on doors, and I was presenting the project. I also should mention that I am a co-founder of Eden with my current boyfriend, whom I met when I first went to Guatemala. And his name is Rodolfo. He’s one of the co-founders and also my friend Jorge. Jorge is our third co-founder of Eden. So the three of us were just knocking on doors and inviting people to start this project with us. And a lot of people said no, because they’ve never heard of anything like this. They’ve never seen anything like this. And it was really hard to trust. But we found four participants. And that was in October of 2019. So, a little over a year ago.
Between October and December, we started producing our products … the entrepreneurs that we work with make everything. They follow the recipes, they partner up according to their own skills. So for example, my friend Jorge is very good at math. And so he will help count, but he struggles with fine motor skills because of his physical disability. So he would partner with a different entrepreneur and they would work on the drops of each ingredient and he would tell them when to stop. And so each person is working with the skills that they have, and they’re making these products fully independently. They package everything. And then they took them to all the store owners. We went to about eight stores, and three stores accepted us and they put our products on this shelf, and we had a pretty good turnout. We made some sales, and everyone earned a profit. The entrepreneurs that we work with receive 100% of the sales. And then they reinvest a portion of that back into Eden Por Salud, and so that each of them is an equal partner in the project.
So we had pretty good success. And then in January of this year, we started our second round and we have gained some traction. And so four more families approached us and asked to join and sign up their family members. And so now we have eight entrepreneurs that we work with. We work with four women and four men, aged 18 to 35. And some of the people that we work with have never attended public school, have never gone to a special education class. One of the women that we work with had never been with other people with disabilities prior to the Eden workshops.
Amanda: Oh, wow.
Annie: Yeah. And so in coming together, we are creating a community that is just fun and joyful. We have dance parties, we have a good time, and there’s so much joy and dignity in working toward a goal and giving back to your community and earning money to support your family.
Amanda: It sounds like a lot like microfinancing, except that instead of all you needed was the money, you needed the money and the community. And it just makes my heart so happy to picture all of your entrepreneurs working together and, like you were saying, serving each other. Like, “I’ll be the math for you. I’ll be the hands for you.” Just what a beautiful picture of community.
Annie: It is. It’s really important that everyone gets to work in the way that they are gifted. Everyone has God-given talents and skills. And work, work is a critical part of the human experience. Being able to work and give back to your community, give back to your family, is really important for self-esteem.
Amanda: Yeah, and I think being a part of a team, I think, is something that those of us who are regularly adapting, we just take for granted the fact that we can jump in and I can use what I’m good at and you use what you’re good at, and we work together and we have that synergy. I think that’s one of those human rights that we really take for granted.
Annie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And when we talk about labor inclusion, one of the challenges is that very rarely do we find jobs in the general workforce that are a perfect fit for someone with diversabilities. And so what we are doing with Eden is we are creating the jobs to meet the person’s abilities. We’re going about it the opposite way. And we are finding that it’s really successful.
Amanda: Well, Annie, it’s been so great getting to know you and the great work that you’re doing. Let me wrap up with the last question we asked all of our guests: If you could have all of us in the Seattle area wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that was going to make the world a better place, from your unique perspective, what would you have us do?
Annie: I have been praying about this question because I was like, “I don’t know. And I’m not in any position to give advice.” But the only thing that I think I can say is if you have that thing that you haven’t done, if you have that risk that you haven’t taken, just do it. Take that risk, take that jump, take that plunge. I did. And I’m not on the other side yet, I’m not making money off of this project. I’m not an expert in any way. I’m not a success story in the way that we’re used to seeing. But it’s still worth it. It’s so fun and it’s still full of joy. And so that’s what I’m saying: If you have that thing in the back of your mind, just do it, go for it.
Amanda: I love it. Go ahead and jump.
Annie: Go ahead and jump.
Amanda: You will be taught to fly. I love it. Well, let me end here, Annie with a little prayer of blessing over you and what you do.
Annie: Thank you.
Amanda: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to. May the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May He bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thanks, Annie.
Annie: Thank you so much.
Amanda: Loved hearing your story today.
Annie: Have a good day.