Thursday, February 16, 2017

Amazing Women and Their Non-Profits in Guatemala

We met three amazing women who have non-profits to sponsor children and keep them in school.(Click on the underlined blue words in this blog to get more information on that topic.)

 There are three levels of education in Guatemala:  primary (through 6th grade), "basico" which is 3 years of middle school, and then high school which is often a trade/professional school though some is college prep.   Public school is free.  That is, the government provides the classroom and a teacher, but children must wear uniforms, have a book bag, wear sneakers, get books and cover them a specific way, and provide basic school supplies.  Many public school classes have up to 45 children per class. In some rural schools, girls can wear traditional skirts called "cortes" instead of the school uniform skirt, saving some money.  

Betsy and I rented a room while we were in Antigua,  from Olga, who herself rents 9 rooms in a secure area south of the main plaza on Rosario, across from one of the fanciest hotels in town, Panza Verde.  We paid $20 a day for the room and three healthy, filling meals a day, 6 days a week.

One of the women we met was a Dutch woman named Mieke Blankers.  She and a friend founded an organization called Mi Mariposa--My Butterfly, or the Mimariposa Foundation.  They started their work in Guatemala over 15 years ago and the foundation was created about six years ago.  You can find the website at    The page is in Dutch, but you can click on translate when it appears, or there is a space on the right to indicate the language. Or  Just click on the titles above in blue to get to the website.  Some of the stories are fascinating.

Mieke at breakfast--delicious papaya
The organization now helps about 90 children in the greater Antigua area in the Department (State) of Sacatepequez.   Sponsorships  for primary school is 150 euros a year (now about US $160) and for Basico is 180 euros (US$191).  They encourage the older children to contribute too if possible and some have jobs on the weekends.  Also, each family gets an Ecofiltro, a special pottery-based unit to purify the water so that people do not get sick.  Donations are accepted for these as well as replacement filters, medicine for family members who get sick and other basic needs such as blankets and mattresses and in some cases some basic food. The stories on the website are amazing.   

Mieke comes each year in January and February for the start of the school year.  Her "luxury" is an hour swim at the local spa at 7 a.m. before breakfast and then she heads out to meet the families and work with her local contact, six days a week.  She is a very hard worker and very caring.

Part of a family meeting 6 years ago--from Mimariposa website
You can find a beautiful story about Nora Garcia at: Just click on her name to read it.

Cindy Ashburn Schneider from Raleigh, North Carolina, is the next special woman I want to tell you about.  Betsy and I met her when we were on the Fair Trade Judaica/ Maya Works trip last year. Cindy founded the non-profit Nueva Generacion in 2009.   She visited Guatemala  as a chaperone with her daughter's high school group about a dozen years ago, and after learning about the problems of children and schooling, she decided to do something to help. The goal of the non-profit is to provide financial sponsorships to children in the village of San Antonio Aguas Caplientes so that they can afford to go to school.  She spends about two  months in Antigua at the beginning of the school year in January and February and then comes back for a few weeks later in the year.   More than 10,000 people live in this town, a 25 minute bus ride and a 15 min. car ride from Antigua.

Cindy and I met the evening I arrived for dinner

and then the next day, we took the chicken bus from the main bus area behind the market to Carolina's.  For four quetzales (about 55 US cents) we road the bus, often squeezing three in each seat.  Most of the buses were old school buses from the US, some repainted in bright colors and some not!
Betsy in front of one of the buses.
Cindy had been the conduit that brought us to Carolina's Textiles, on the edge of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, and she helped me connect with Carolina so that I could help her inventory some of her work.

Cindy asked if we could bring used tennis shoes for the children in school as they must have them for their sports class or cannot attend school. So I brought a suitcase full of them--thanks to friends at Cong. Beth Shalom in Seattle for their donations.  She also asked for swim suits for the girls and Betsy and I brought some, as well as easy English books, and used laptops or notebooks, which Betsy brought.  Most of the English books I brought were too difficult, but I managed to find a home for them too.

  Cindy also asked if I could teach English to some of her sponsorship recipients. Originally she wanted me to teach two groups, one of boys ages 8 to 10 and one 12 year old, and the other of girls from 13-19 for an hour and a half each several times a week.  It had been 15 years since I retired from teaching ESL at Gonzaga University, and teaching children is not my forte.  After one hour with the younger boys, I realized that was not my thing,  especially since the class was in the afternoon, after the boys had already sat through 5 hours of school that morning.

 But I did enjoy the three classes with the girls. I taught it in the morning, before their 5 hours of classes in the afternoon daily!  English is not taught in public schools in the rural areas, so the little they might have known, was really minimal--a few colors and a few numbers.   We met in Cindy's corner of the municipality building, given to her by the mayor of the town.
We covered greetings, numbers, family members, food, especially breakfast and fruits, colors and animals.  A number had cereal for breakfast!  One just ate tortillas.  One had a rabbit for a pet.  The first day my homework to them was to come back and tell me the ages of their parents.  I mostly talked in Spanish.  Most were in "basico," their middle school.  One had finished a 3-year trade course in "contabilidad," a mix of bookkeeping and accounting, but had not found a job yet.  She thought that knowing numbers in English would help her. 

 I wrote words on a small white board in English and then in the way they would pronounce them as English spelling can be very frustrating.    So for  the number 5, I would write five, and then /faiv/--the way they would pronounce it.

  Cindy provided each with a notebook, and they wrote a lot down.
Working in pairs
On the last day of class,  I wanted to treat them to cookies at a bakery.  They were excited but then timidly asked for chocolate and finally  for ice cream, which I happily obliged.  

And then I got some wonderful good bye hugs.
Most got chocolate ice cream, but here you can see bubble gum or cotton candy!

My "contabilidad" graduate
Cindy's non-profit awarded sponsorships to 90 children last year.  Each student needs to maintain 75% average, and getting a grade above 85 is excellent--no grade inflation here.  Unfortunately about ten percent didn't make the grade and were dropped, but most continue for a number of years with the program and have done quite well.  Several of us from the trip last year helped with the scholarships. I helped a girl named Fatima and had thought I could meet her but it didn't work out this year.  A lot of children have non-Spanish sounding names, including Milton, Brenda, etc.

After the first class on Tuesday with the girls, Cindy and I walked with two girls to their home.  They are two of nine children.  Their father is no longer with the family, and two older sons are  married, and live on their own, but the mother is the support for the rest of whole family.  A simple home had been built for them by a non-profit five years ago (connected to Cindy) on public land.  Usually such homes are not built unless the family has title to the land but this was a bit complicated.  At the end after 5 years, they were told they could not stay unless they paid a lump sum immediately--they had been paying a small amount monthly--, and two months ago they were evicted from their house had to find a place to live.  

They are now in town, and all eight share one secure room for sleeping.  There is a patio with a spigot for their water and an outside area to wash, an open room for cooking,

 an a bath room of sorts.  The mother is still in shock from losing the home, but the children all work together to help, and the one remaining son at home, Wilson, tells his mother when he finishes his "contabilidad" program and gets a job, they will save and get another, better place.   Simple homes can be as little as $2000 to build but land ownership is essential.

 A year ago, Cindy went to this family's home and Wilson was not in school.  She asked him why he wasn't and he said that he thought the scholarships were only for primary and middle schools, and since he finished middle school, he would not be eligible.  Cindy told him he was eligible and he was delighted.  She found out that school started that day, so she and Wilson rushed to the school, enrolled him, and his future was brighter than it had been minutes before.

We went to this family's home for Cindy to check on the needs of the family and to pick up an ancient Apple Mac that Wilson had been using but no longer worked.  

My two students, dressed for middle school in the school shirt and traditional corte.
There mother is 49...was tiny and gaunt

Mom with son Wilson

The contract which all students and parents sign for the scholarship
The mother proudly showed us a picture of one daughter who placed first in her middle school class at the recent end of the school year, with an 84% average. The girls apologized and said that she had had 89% average but got sick and missed some school, so her average dropped.  

We met a sister who had finished a course in hotel management but could not get work because she did not know English.  Another sister had also finished school but didn't have a regular job.  One cleans houses, and all work on back strap weavings, even the ones in school.  They sell their work to a person who then sells them in shops. Depending on the detail,  a huipil can take them two to six months to make, and for the most intricate ones, the mother gets 3,000 quetzales.    Rent is 500 quetzales or about US$70 a month.  
Showing off Mom's work
Sitting on one's knees for hours at a time to weave is really hard on knees and backs.
The family's pet squirrel

Chickens the family raises for food
We came back with Betsy early the next week and Wilson was delighted to get one of the oldlaptops that she had brought.  Middle and high school students  need a laptop.  Many cannot afford one and using an Internet cafe is beyond the means of many families.  This family does not have WiFi, but just printing out something at the Internet cafe is doable, I guess.  We also saw some of the girls' weavings.

This is the wood burning stove the family has been using.  It using a lot of sticks, which cost about 70 cents US (5 quetzales)  a day.  The stove is smoky, and not very efficient.  To offset her carbon footprint, Betsy offered to donate a more efficient wood burning stove made in town, by a company called Estufas Chispa, founded by an amazing man from Great Britain named Malcolm Gribble, a mechanical engineer, who according to the website Soluciones Apropriadas, had spent t five years working on the design and development of cookstoves and then branched out to creating this one.
The challenge from the website:  Over 90% of rural Guatemalan families use wood as their primary cooking fuel, and most cook using an open fire inside the home or an inefficient stove that consumes vast amounts of firewood.

Open-fire cooking causes a number of serious health issues including respiratory illnesses, eye problems and severe burns (especially among young children, who are vulnerable to falling into open fires in the home). Every six hours someone in Guatemala dies from respiratory infection or disease attributable to indoor air pollution, and these illnesses are the second most common cause of infant death after diarrhea. The average Guatemalan family spends two hours every day collecting cooking fuel. Where firewood is purchased, this places great strain on household budgets in a country where over 75% of the population lives below the poverty line, unable to meet their basic food and service need

Malcolm and two of his workers, including one woman who would like to learn to weld
 Malcolm with his team has designed the stove for both efficiency and convenience of the women using it.  He had worked for another company that just designed the stove for efficiency but many women did not like the product.  Estufas Chispa also has a Facebook page.  The donated stove will go to this family.  It used less than half the wood that her current stove uses, uses small sticks that just burn at one end, has less smoke, and is (relatively) portable, and can be carried to a new home--with the help of two very strong men. Normally it costs under US $200 and with the savings in wood, the cost is covered in less than a year!

The third amazing woman and her non-profit is Vicky Horsfield.  Her program is called Creating Opportunities for Guatemalans but to the locals, it is Vicky's and William's Place or Vicky's English School.   The program was founded in 2014 and is run by Executive Director Vicky from Canada, 

and by Assistant Director William Garcia from Guatemala.  Vicky decided she could only do what she wanted to do by living in Guatemala, so she moved to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, managed to find a house to rent for her program, and slept in a storage room until a few months ago when she had the funds to rent a house. Now she bikes 25 minutes to work daily.For the first year and a half she personally paid for the rental on the school house, but now has enough donations to cover it.  

This place is more than an English school.  It focuses on four areas: Reading, Math, English, and Homework Help.  75% of the children do not have fathers living with them, so William is a great male role model/father figure.

  He helps teach the boys responsibilities and also is very supportive of the girls.
This was the great dream tree picture I saw on the wall when I entered:

  The program currently sponsors about 30 children in schools and staff  is in constant contact with the teachers.  There are 42 in the English program including the sponsored 28.  Children in middle school go to a semi-private school so that class sizes are 15--25, Kachikel is taught at that school as is typing and computer basics, none of which is taught in the public middle school. .  There is a registration cost and a small monthly fee.  Sponsors pay $30 a month to sponsor an elementary school children and two sponsors pay $30 each (total of $60) to sponsor a middle school and high school student.  Currently there are five in high school, two learning to be chefs, one studying tourism, one architecture, and one bookkeeping/accounting.

But the gem of this NGO is the special supplementary program.  Elementary school children come here in the afternoon for homework help, math skill building, the Love to Read program, and English classes. 
The special "love to read" corner
There are a total of three levels of English and the kids are making great progress.  Vicky informally talks to many of them in English as she passes by.  A local woman comes in for an hour in the morning and 1.5 hours in the afternoon to provide a nutritious high protein drink to each child as well as check each child's homework and set them to working on it.  We walked by as the drink was being distributed and one boy made a face and said it did not taste good.  Vicky told him it was good for him, so he finished drinking it.
Many volunteers live nearby, including some from other countries who have retired here and spend two or three days a week helping.    Below is one who helps with math--she is using squares to visualize multiplication.

In the morning the middle school students come in to the program.  They have a lot of homework, so that is a main focus, but three days a week they attend English classes.  The books that I brought that were too advanced for Cindy's children, are great for Vicky's students.  

The program has eleven computers and 3 laptops.  Last year a girls' soccer team from the US or Canada donated 8 desktop computers (bought in Guatemala), as well as their uniforms including cleats from the previous year.  For the first time, the soccer team that William had created from these kids had uniforms and cleats!  Vicky's place has a total of eleven computers and three laptops as well as a printer, so it is easy for the kids to do their homework here.  They often have volunteer English teachers, but when they don't, the kids work on Duo Lingo English on the computers.

English books library

English teaching aids including boxes with lesson plans for three levels
set up by a volunteer
A Rotary member from the US saw Vicky's program about a year ago and was so impressed that he talked to other Rotarians about it.  As a result, three Rotary members came to town, helped build up a wall on the functional roof, improved the bathroom, and put a sink nearby and put a mini-roof above the toilet and  clothes washing sinks so that users would not get wet when it rained, and painted several walls.  

Extended wall on roof
 Vicky also put in a modern kitchen with gas burners and oven and a large refrigerator.

Another volunteer donated several Brother sewing machines to go with the two old Singer ones they have and soon there will be sewing classes for the girls.  They are hoping that some day they can make school uniforms to sell.  

Classes in dental hygiene and nutrition are offered to both children and adults.

The place has a recycling program.  They also hope to build a town library someday out of large plastic bottles stuffed with plastic wrap and other items usually thrown away.  Deet, our neighbor in Antigua, was collecting plastic bottles and stuffing material and we schlepped two bags full to San Antonio for her.
Picture    Image result for bottle brick house

Covering books with the proper materials

Vicky is a bundle of energy and has made amazing progress in three years.  She and William with a dedicated group of volunteers are making a huge impact on the children in their group, teaching them leadership and group skills as well as the academic ones that they need to succeed. Since they both are their daily, they have made a tremendous impact.

Vicky's hope right now is to raise money to have a regular or longer term English teacher on a stipend and not have to depend on visiting volunteers who can only stay for a short time.  Teachers can stay in Antigua or in local home hospitality.  I was so impressed by these three women, their desire to help children in need, their dreams coming to fruition.

I want to mention one more person.  In 1999, a Foreign Service Officer, Sue Patterson, who had retired in Guatemala was asked  for financial help to  provide seven rural Guatemalan women with at least eight children voluntary  tubal ligation.   

 Moved by these women's desire to take charge of their lives and better provide for their existing children, Sue got donations from friends to help those seven women. She saw the need for reproductive health and family planning in rural Guatemala, and founded WINGS/ ALAS.  Based in Antigua, two vans with workers speaking local native languages go out in rural areas four days a week for cervical cancer screening and education and counseling of men and women in family planning and well as teenagers.  Check out the website.   Some interesting facts from it since WINGS began:

They have educated and counseled 216,332 women, man and youth on family planning.
They have screened 50,278 women for cervical cancer.
They have prevented over 225,000 unwanted pregnancies through family planning
They have prevented  1,269 child and 82 maternal deaths 

 Betsy and I had a chance to meet Sue and tour the local facilities.   Tubal ligations and vasectomies cost under $50 per person, with funds provided through WINGS.  Jadelle contraceptive implants that are good for up to ten years are a growing form of contraception.  

 This is one of the programs that Deet felt the strongest about and passes out information to visitors.  Anyone that gives a donation of a minimum of 20-40 Quetzales can pick out a local craft that she stocks.    I also have a DVD about the program that I will watch soon.  WINGS is no longer a one-person program, but one woman started it, and it has grown to a powerful and pro-active group for women.  (Click on Sue Patterson's name above for a good article about her written in 2011.)