Eliza Babarczy — Woodworking for Missions
In the heart of the Peten jungle, the second largest remaining tropical forest in Central America, Eliza Babarczy, ’08, is using handcrafted exotic wood to make a difference within a local community in Guatemala. Named after the lake they are located next to and the last Mayan group to live in the area, Itza Wood exists to create jobs and foster a positive social and environmental impact in a place where poverty is prevalent.
“We’re about the people and the place,” said Eliza. “We want to be a bridge of healthy development, connecting this area with more economic opportunities and showing their beautiful craftsmanship to the world.”
Itza Wood specializes in tabletop items and home accessories. All of their wood is sustainably harvested and certified. Although the company utilizes wood from the Peten jungle, they are dedicated to the preservation of the forest. With efforts for reforestation, they planted 45,000 trees before cutting down a single tree.
“We stand firm in our commitment to ensure this tropical forest, known as the Mayan biosphere, remains standing for generations to come,” added Eliza.
The wood they use for their products is harvested by local businesses within the community. To sustain the forest, they only cut down a few trees in a particular area, and then they won’t go back to that same area for 25 years. Itza Wood also designs their products around the offcuts of wood that the lumber yards often don’t see as valuable wood.
“We want to set a good example of what a responsible woodworking company looks like. If we don’t protect the tropical forest, we will lose it. The areas where our wood comes from have shown net forest gain, rather than loss. It means they are doing something right in managing the forest, and we want to be a part of that,” said Eliza.
Invested in the Community
Made from exotic hardwoods, Itza’s products last a lifetime. Eliza and her mom design all of the home goods and then the designs are passed to the carpenters. Their one-of-a-kind handicrafts range from utensils costing $10 to art pieces that retail at $300. Although the products are crafted in Peten, most of their clientele are located in Guatemala City and on the east and west coasts of the United States. The unique woodwares are then sold in local boutiques and kitchen stores in the U.S. and in Guatemala City.
Eliza also participates in trade shows around the world to market the company. Her two favorite products they produce are a butcher block made from tigerwood and their mahogany bowls.
As they strive to invest in the surrounding communities, Itza Wood employs woodworkers who live in the local villages. The company currently has 13 full-time employees.
“I see myself as a bridge. Our team has beautiful craftsmanship and they produce in some of the most stunning woods in the world, but they had difficulty accessing a market,” said Eliza.
All of the employees, with the exception of Eliza, come from the surrounding communities.
Itza Wood’s investment in the community also extends to the local youth, as they teach them how to be carpenters with the goal of providing more job opportunities. In addition to their team, they also employ part-time apprentices and they work with a group of 15 local artisans.
Itza Wood also supports a jungle school where students come from nine surrounding villages. After the students graduate, Itza Wood provides part-time employment opportunities for them. Eliza’s parents founded the school 20 years ago while they were missionaries in Guatemala City. The school started with 15 students and has grown to over 380 students, from pre-kindergarten to technical school classes.
“We generously support the school by providing literacy, skills, and incentives to protect the area’s resources. Through education, we are equipping young people and creating jobs to better life in the region,” said Eliza.
Some of the projects Itza has been able to be a part of are building a deck for the preschool, donating educational resources, and providing the school with additional desks.
“We really want to see the company grow, so our impact can be more meaningful,” added Eliza.
Coming Full Circle
Starting a wood company in Guatemala wasn’t what Eliza initially planned for her life. At the age of seven, Eliza’s family moved to Guatemala City as missionaries, where she would live until graduating from high school. After high school, she took two years off to travel before deciding what she wanted to study in college. Through a recommendation from a friend, Talitha Bullock, ’01, Eliza heard of Southeastern and sought a degree in public relations and journalism.
“One of the most valuable things I took away from Southeastern is servant leadership and how God’s heart can be shared no matter what you are doing — business, medicine, communications, or direct missions,” she said.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, Eliza went to work in the public relations field. It didn’t take long for Eliza to realize that corporate public relations wasn’t a good fit for her. She soon transitioned to work as an event coordinator at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio. Within her seven years at the company, she held various positions, working anything from catering and event coordinating to sales and eventually operations management.
“Challenging myself in new ways and growing within the company every year equipped me for the next big step,” she added.
Having grown up on the mission field, Eliza started to feel a social impact element missing in her life. “I really wanted to move into something more meaningful than throwing big parties and planning events,” she said.
She decided to take a six-week vacation to various countries in South America. A desire to move overseas was sparked in her. Soon after, her mom approached her about starting and running a wood company in Guatemala.
“My mom always had a dream of starting a woodworking company to use the natural resources in a sustainable way and harness business for social impact and job creation,” said Eliza.
In January of 2016, Eliza moved to Guatemala to start Itza Wood. “It was quite the change for me. I like the city and I had a really good community where I lived. Now, I live down a dirt road and hear the howler monkeys every morning,” said Eliza.
Hard Work & Future Plans
Since Eliza started Itza Wood with her mom, she has spent every free moment she has investing in the growth and impact of the company. Her mother helps with design elements, but prioritizes working at the jungle school.
Every day looks different for Eliza. She starts working at 7:00 am. She begins by touching base with the workshop, where they discuss production. Her day then ranges from doing office work, driving to source lumber in the jungle, overseeing the quality and production of products, and fulfilling orders for their clients.
“Now I can see that having worked in several different positions in the previous company gave me exactly what I would need to be a good entrepreneur. And although working in rural Guatemala with little infrastructure and many challenges is tough and gritty, it is also what I feel my life’s calling is and I am finally walking it out. I feel grounded and fulfilled,” said Eliza.
Looking to the future, Itza Wood plans to continue to expand their reach through starting an ecommerce website, expanding their workmanship and tapping into other natural resources to broaden their craftsmanship beyond wood.