Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This is What Our Name Really Means

Four years ago we built her family a tiny but waterproof home with a concrete floor. When it was finished, her mother-in-law claimed legal possession and evicted the her from the new house.

Cynthia's home
Since then, Cynthia and her family have been living in a slum outside of Guatemala City, residing in less than 800 square feet for 9 family members. Finding Freedom volunteers visit her twice a year. We purchase school supplies and shoes for the children and groceries for the family. When she needed hernia surgery, we provided it. When her children were sick we brought medicine. When she despaired of a better future for her children, we encouraged her. And with every visit, we assured this mother of seven that we will not forget her, and that as soon as affordable land becomes available in her area, we will put her on the list for a donated home where she has a door to keep out the chickens, a roof without holes and a yard with proper drainage to keep her children healthier. 
She didn't believe us in the beginning; she had a lifetime of empty promises from her government, from her family, and from life itself. Each baby brought new stresses on an already inadequate income; difficult decisions about what child to educate added to her guilt. By the time we brought Cynthia into our program in 2009, she had had 30 years of false promises and lost hope. She has never had a babysitter, a vacation, a formal job or a support group. Eating in a restaurant, seeing a movie or shopping in a mall are things she can't even fathom. Every day is the same--washing clothes, stretching meager food resources, negotiating life in the edgy slum conditions, and keeping her children from slipping into the same circumstances she has lived. 
With each visit over the years her worry lines have faded. When we brought her donated clothing (new children's socks and underwear) she sold them to neighbors and quickly gained a reputation for providing quality items at affordable prices. Her children have adequate school supplies and are now equipped to be competitive in school. She has successfully kept her oldest daughters out of trouble and off the streets. Her sense of self worth, in a country which affords her little, is growing. 
When we visited her last week, she greeted us as friends, calling out our names, receiving us with joy. We have taken the time to invest in this family emotionally and financially, and in keeping with the name of our program, she is Finding Freedom from her worries through our Friendship
There are no more words needed. The photos tell the story of hope and anticipation of a better future.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Stories Behind the Faces of Our Guatemalan Students

There is so much we can't write about in our Finding Freedom blog; layers of personal details that shouldn't and won't be shared, to protect the privacy of the children and mothers in our program. Some things are too hard to write about, other issues too difficult to wrap our minds around and in the end, the only victory against the hardships of life in rural Guatemala is to celebrate the positive.
In that space of persistence and hope, we would like to share some of the details of our student's lives.
This is Rosa. 
Age: 8
Grade: Second
Rosa suffered a near-fatal snake bite last year, which resulted in a three month hospitalization and a permanent leg injury. Despite this scholastic setback, Rosa is excited to start school again next week. Her teacher reports that she is a good student who works hard, despite the poverty she lives in. She is a sweet and caring sister to her younger siblings. We can't share the details of her parent's lives, but it is sufficient to say that Rosa has many challenges in her family life, and education will be the determining factor in disrupting the cycle she was born into.

Carmen (Right)
Age: 8
Grade: Third 
Carmen's mother joined our adult literacy group in early 2014, which meant that this little girl and her siblings receive food supplements monthly. Carmen has been inspired by her mother's desire to learn to read and write, a skill that was not made available to her as a child. Carmen helps her mother with housework and loves her sisters and extended family. She lives in a very remote and beautiful part of Guatemala. 

Age: 8
Grade: First
Brenda's school reached capacity last year before her mother could enroll her. This bright little girl lost a year of educational opportunity that she will now be able to participate in. She is charming, inquisitive and has a quick wit. In the middle of 7 children living in the slums of Guatemala, her chances of making it through high school are very slim without support from our organization. She doesn't think too hard about the details; Brenda just wants to go to school. 

Age: 14
Grade: Six
As our very first student in 2009, we are very proud of Claire. She is the oldest child in her family of 6, which means that childcare and housework falls on her fragile shoulders. She wants to continue her education; her mother would rather Claire stay at home to help with the little ones. She is as sweet and shy as she looks but with the nurturing and guidance of our FFF facilitators Faby and Vinnie, we know good things will come her way. The family is more secure now that they are in a cinder block house built by our organization, with a door that locks and a waterproof roof. Fewer than 25% of poor rural girls in Guatemala attend school beyond primary grades. FFF will make sure Claire changes this statistic.
The girls in the photo (Left) are the fortunate few. They are students in private schools in Antigua, Guatemala, where education is available and parents have income to pay for it. These girls have promise for a future with jobs in the tourist industry, or as administrative assistants in an office. 
Each of "our" girls has the same capability and bright light of these girls do. The statistics are proven; no matter what country girls are born into,educated girls marry later, have fewer children, invest in their own children's education and contribute to the well-being of their communities in more meaningful ways. 

 Educating girls only makes sense, not only for Guatemala, but for our world.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Happy New Year from New York City to Guatemala

Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) – “The Worst Disease You've Never Heard Of.” 
Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) is a rare genetic connective tissue disorder, the most common symptom is extremely fragile skin that blisters and tears from minor friction or trauma. Internal organs and bodily systems can also be seriously affected by the disease. EB is  painful and debilitating, and is in some cases lethal before the age of 30. EB affects 1 out of every 20,000 babies and those born with it are often called ‘Butterfly Children’ because their skin is as fragile as the wings of a butterfly. There is no treatment or cure. Daily wound care, pain management and protective bandaging are the only options available.

Finding Freedom through Friendship Vice President Mike McNevin and myself have met thousands of patients in Guatemala, but we had never seen children with EB until we took these brothers into our program in March, when these photos (L and R) were taken. One of our facilitators, Roland, had been asked by Guatemalan hospital staff to find help for the boys and their mother, all of whom were homeless and living at the hospital. The staff struggled to meet the medical needs of this family; they weren't sure of a diagnosis, they lacked proper medication to treat the boys and funding for adequate nutrition for the family was lacking. 
Many of our readers are squeamish about seeing medically graphic photos, especially of children. We won't go into pictorial details; it is enough to know that the boys were suffering. They had numerous bleeding ulcerations on their skin that wouldn't heal, they bruised easily and they were malnourished. Teeth were rotten; eyes dry; fingers were fused and their misery scale was as close to a 10 as it could get. 
To condense a year of our efforts helping this family into a short blog post would be a long post indeed. 2015 is a new year, and it will start off so much better for this little family than 2014 did, thanks to their many "angels" who came together on their behalf. Donors, facilitators and board members; Guatemalan church members, and most importantly, a nurse in New York City named Geri who was kind enough to answer one more email at the end of a busy day on March 4th when I wrote and said, 
"You don't know me, but I am seeking help for two little boys in Guatemala."
Here is what she replied:
Hi Jody, Where in Guatemala are you working? I ask because I used to live in Saltan, Baja Verapaz. I have attached some information for you and the local doctors to review. Please ask me any questions you have. Are you able to send me the boy's names and DOBs for my records? I look forward to working with you. Best regards, Geri Kelly, RN, BSN EB Nurse Educator, debra of America  
Many months later, the brothers are in FFF secured housing, their mother has a part-time job, the boys get food deliveries from us monthly and Geri has sent two big boxes of medical supplies from NY city to Guatemala to help with wound care needs. Their mother will struggle to care for her children for as long as the boys live. We can't predict the future for this fragile little family, but we can make their time together more medically and nutritionally sound, and emotionally support a mother who is carrying a burden of poverty, as well as being a single mother to very sick children. 
We can't show the medically graphic photos, but we can share new pictures from last week, when a family, now united and healthier, celebrated Christmas the way it was meant to be.  
(Thank you to board members Faby (Left) and Vinnie for delivering toys to the family on our behalf)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Our Donors Are The Bells of Christmas.....












(Excerpts from the Christmas Message of Pope Francis)

Shoes and Food Donations for Christmas

Monday, December 15, 2014

What Do Guatemalan Children Want for Christmas?

When we inquired about what she wanted for Christmas, Maria asked for shoes, and food for her eight siblings. She needs footwear that can keep her feet warm while she harvests firewood in the mountains of Guatemala.

Jose's (right) parents asked for a wheelchair for their son, who has never walked after suffering a traumatic birth. 


Elsa (above) asked for school fees and supplies, so she could be relieved of helping her mother with childcare assistance and can go onto the next level of school in her Guatemalan village.  These two brothers (below) needed eye drops to ease the chronic eye irritation caused by their autoimmune disease, which causes skin breakdown and eye problems.  

 Santa is bringing the eye drops, Elsa will be able to go to school, Maria will get her shoes and the wheelchair has been ordered.
We have wonderful donors who filled these wish list items. 

Here is what Finding Freedom board members want for Christmas. 

We want a world where children's basic needs are met, so that they can flourish, and use the talents that are unique to them to make our world a better place. We hope for a time when all feet are aptly clad, growing children are adequately nourished  and parents don't have to choose between feeding a child and educating them. We want safe birthing practices to apply to all pregnant mothers, not only the ones who can afford the care so that children and their mothers don't have to endure a lifetime of physical disabilities. We wish for a world where children have two parents, a mother and a father to love and nurture and guide them to a fruitful adulthood.

 We didn't list any toys but it still seems like a very long list for Santa this year.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Cream Always Rises to the Top

In a former post, I wrote about Caroline, a beautiful Jersey bovine that our board vice president, Mike McNevin and I owned while growing up in rural Kentucky. Typical of her breed, Caroline delivered high volumes of milk daily, and when left to sit in the milk pail, the cream would rise to the top; luminescent and rich.
Four years ago, at one o'clock in the morning, I had a "moment." The world of nonprofit finance was crumbling around my shoulders, and with the deadline for filing our 990 papers with the IRS just a week away, I was overwhelmed and out of my element. Finding Freedom suddenly and urgently needed a Certified Public Accountant that knew how to negotiate their way through the complex tax laws governing contributions and nonprofit tax law. After weeks of trying to accomplish the tax files on my own I had learned one of the basic principles of nonprofit governance. 
You can't be good at everything and you had darn well better get someone to help you who is. 

A quick internet search and phone call later I had an angel in the form of a CPA who was not only capable but who traveled...right to my door and my files. She listened, she questioned, she got it and she persevered. A week later we had filed our IRS forms and the board was breathing easier. In essence, she saved our fledgling little organization, and we learned how to keep financial files that were compliant with tax law.
We've learned so much more since that difficult night. Working in Guatemala has taught us about persistence and relationships and what defines them in Central American culture. We have gained resources, strengthened our legal contracts and added good people to our board.
The bigger lessons haven't been about Guatemala at all. They have been more about what defines personal growth and using that knowledge to do our best work in Guatemala.

This particular CPA had a party recently, in celebration of friendship and all that it means to hold each other up as women. I was invited as a fellow Sistah-hood member. Our relationship had been born out of distress, and acute need. The circumstances have changed but the friendship continues. Friendships, relationships, professional liaisons; it takes all of these and more to make a difference in this difficult time we live in.
Years later, our status with the IRS is strong. 
Cream always rises to the top. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

When things go wrong in Guatemala.

This is what sometimes happens when Mayan babies see white people for the first time. They express their fear at a fundamental level; vocal and raw and real. 
Manuela didn't mind. You can see it in her face. In fact, she is delighted that her baby brother was upset, because one of the things she feels good at is comforting and loving on babies. It is what she knows. Her mother has had many children, and Manuela is the helper. This sweet girl is doing what she does best. 

We think we are at our personal best as an organization when we are helping abandoned women get a better foundation for living a life of capability. For us, that means helping them with food staples, land ownership and educating their children. After a few years of demonstrating their determination to help themselves, we step in with a donated house and micro business assistance. We just finished building our 20th donated house, and for such a tiny organization that is a big number. It is all done with sweat equity..long hours of networking, computing, earning money to donate to our own organization or making crafts to raise funds.
When things don't go as we expected, as they didn't this week, we start to feel like this toddler; raw with emotion because darn it, this is what we are good at, even if what we want to give isn't what the receiver wants to get. 

 And when the receiver, in this case a mother who has been in our program since the beginning, uses our gift for financial gain, we feel exceptionally used. Our donated houses are meant for our clients to live in, not to barter off against a loan.
 And therein lies the problem. As a nonprofit humanitarian organization, we can sometimes think we know best. Measuring life by our American standards can be and often is a crucial mistake when "helping" someone. Parents eventually learn this as their children reach young adulthood. Humans learn it by our third decade of life, if we follow emotional growth guidelines. Nonprofit organizations need to learn it on the day of inception, or the consequences are costly, both in staff resources and financially.
  We will do what this toddler did, and get over ourselves eventually. We will pick up and dust off and give into the idea that being taken advantage of isn't new to this world; some of the earliest stories of mankind are about deceit and disadvantage. Our organization will come out stronger for this issue, just as a good toddler tantrum pulls oxygen into the lungs. 
It comes with the territory. Working with the extremely disadvantaged sometimes means that they are experts in turning a situation into something selfishly beneficial. We can consider this trait to be a positive life skill, change our perception, legally strengthen our program and move on from here. 
What we can't do is turn away from children like Daniel (above), whose only real fear is of hunger and another night sleeping on a wet muddy floor. He didn't cry when he saw us, he was too hungry to think much about our visit. His mother is the next one on our list for a donated house, and we are counting the days until we can give Daniel a bed with blankets to sleep on, and food to eat. His future looks brighter because a couple in Colorado decided to believe in good, and hope, and making the world a better place. 
We choose to stand with them in their perspective.One wrong in Guatemala will not erase all of our rights.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

How Are Your Donated Dollars Used In Guatemala?

 Two months ago this was how Alba, her brother and her mother survived; in a dark adobe home, sitting on their one piece of furniture, and somehow, still smiling after a decade of poverty and pain from chronic disease. 
When we were given this family as a possible referral, we accepted them. The word "Yes" stuck in our throats, which were dry with concern that we couldn't find the funds to back our promise to make life better for this family. Our board moved forward with the belief that what you most focus on will be drawn to you: the law of attraction.

Rogelia and daughter (seated on bed) on day of discovery
We started with essentials: blankets, pots, medicine and food
LynnAnn Murphy, an American missionary, hired this amazing builder to restore the house
He and his assistants carried supplies up impossibly steep hills
What was once a dark and unhealthy home became this.
Donated bedding as seen with light from the new window; neighbors came to visit.
New Crutches

Out of bed after pain medication and better nutrition

A few days after agreeing to take this family, a donation for the $3,000 to fund their needs was delivered to our post box. 
 LynnAnn, a full-time missionary in Guatemala who referred us this family was their lifeboat. She recognized the acute need; she knew that Rogelia was malnourished and ill and could in no way be an adequate mother to her children. LynnAnn was willing to do the footwork to oversee construction and deliver donated furniture and food. Finding Freedom was the ladder. We provided the funds through some donors that trusted us with their donated dollars. Our donors were the light that this family needed to find their way in the dark. 
The sharing continues. Alba and her brother will be sponsored for school in January. Rogelia has access to to a doctor who understands her condition. A sink has been delivered and we are purchasing chickens for the family so they can have a source of protein.There is a radiance about this family as they witness the significant life-changes that they have been gifted. Rogelia and the children now receive monthly food staples so they can eat on a regular basis. The children will have school supplies and clothing.
Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, had a gift for expressing deep thought with few words. These photos are similar; eight images that show the essence of what a philosopher considered important centuries ago. 
We think it is just as vital now.

(photo credits: LynnAnn Murphy)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Not Just a Stove

Stove Donated to FFF client in 2010 (photo credit: Shawn Packard)

This unassuming coffee pot sitting on an iron stove top seems almost artfully posed. With the fabricated wire handle and the brown tones of the wood to the right, the articles in the photograph could have been from the 1800's. This photograph was instead shot three weeks ago in rural Guatemala while we were visiting some of the mothers in our program and evaluating their needs.
The fact that Maria had this stove means that she is better off than millions of  women in the mountains of Guatemala.
When visiting the women in our program, we do home assessments with a check list in hand, marking off the items that tells us a particular mother has her basic needs met, most likely from donations from FFF. The list looks like this:
  • Beds
  • Blankets
  • Concrete floor
  • Pilia (Guatemalan outdoor sink)
  • Table,  Wooden Chairs
  • Intact roof
  • Stove
That is the list; nothing fancy by any means. No wardrobe to keep clothes organized, no couch, rugs, mirrors, wall art, bedsheets, refrigerator or microwave. In fact, if any of our clients had these items, they would be considered some of the wealthiest of citizens in their country and they would have no need for our services.

Of everything on the list, the stove is the most important; without one, our clients cook like Juana (below) used to: on an open fuel inefficient fire, while breathing noxious smoke while toddlers linger nearby, at risk for falling into the fire. 

Juana, cooking on open fire before her stove donation.
Petrona, with firewood at home

The wood required for open source cooking creates hours of hard labor weekly for Guatemalan women. Chopping; hauling; stacking; splitting. When we ask the women in our program what their biggest need is, firewood and a stove are one of the first things they mention. Stove donations reduce the need for firewood by almost 80%. 

In other words, a stove is not just a stove in Central America. It is a labor saving device, it is eco-friendly, a health prevention tool and it is often the only kitchen appliance a rural indigenous woman has in her possession. 
And possibly the most important. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sister? Friend? Neither and Both.

We have twenty-one women and their children in our program. Finding Freedom's annual Guatemalan trip to oversee our program is often the only direct time we spend with the women we assist with food, shelter and education for their children. Our facilitators are there daily, but this brief time our board members spends with with the women we help does not create a relationship that qualifies as a sister or a friend. 
Why then, do we feel like both? 

Here is the Webster dictionary definition of a sister:
:  a female who has one or both parents in common with another 
:  a girl or woman regarded as a comrade
Of course we don't qualify for the first definition, since none of the women we assist in Guatemala have the same genealogy that our volunteers do. We do feel like comrades, working together with our Finding Freedom mothers to alleviate the effects of the deep poverty that impinge on their lives. 

We celebrate new found health

We haul supplies up mountains
We listen and assess how best to help
We feed their hungry children
We share meals

We connect

No matter what the official definition is, it feels like friendship among sisters; a kinship among women from two different countries who want the same things.
 Peace, self-sufficiency, connection, security.

(Photo credits: Devin Mendenhall and Shawn Packard)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Child in Guatemala

I'm a firm believer in spiritual leaders. Personally, I need them; I seek them out, read their books, breathe their messages into my pores. I have to have mentors to keep me sane while working in Guatemala, a country of insane poverty, gender inequality and scholastic inadequacy. All of our board members are people of wisdom and seekers, some through church work, some through service work, others via role models. We understand the need for collaboration and guidance. 

Iyanla Vanzant (L) (Iyanla's blog) is one of my favorite life coaches. Her wisdom comes from a combination of seeking, immersion, and the hardest education of all....tragedy.  She knows at her core of the pain a mother feels when she suffers the loss of a child. Iyanla "gets" the relationship humans must have in order for this planet we inhabit to be a home we can grow up on instead of grow out of in this  current atmosphere of international conflict.

Iyanla believes that there is one name for each child in our world. Not the name Jane, or Jack, but rather the name Everychild. 
Each child in the world is everychild. He or she doesn't belong to just their particular country, or village or even parents. They belong to all of us, just like each woman and each man belongs to everyone else in the world. We are connected. Our joys, sorrows, success or lack of is intertwined. 
In other words, everychild's concerns are our own concerns. 

Sandra's life has been reduced to sleeping in the dirt

This is Sandra. She used to live in a house, on land owned by her parents, with a roof that didn't leak, food that was on the table at night and a bed to sleep in. Now she sleeps on the floor you see her standing on, which belongs to a relative who allows the family to rest there at night. 
Sandra's father wanted more for his family than the small income he made scratching out a living harvesting crops in Guatemala. He became one of the several million Central American men who risk life and limb to cross our border seeking work. And that is what it cost him-two limbs and a foot, when he fell off of the train as it crossed into Mexico. He is still in the hospital months later, his land and house now gone to pay the coyote fee for the unsuccessful journey. 
We met with Sandra and her mother last week. We listened to her story, heard her despair, gave her a months worth of food, some pain medication (the hospital had none) and offered her the more nebulous item called "hope."
We will  help her find a room to rent and purchase a bed to put her newly disabled husband on when he comes home. FFF found a school sponsor for Sandra. We will, within our ability to do so, make her concerns our own until the burden of her troubles feels lighter.
Sandra is everychild. Her mother is everywoman. Her father, with only one functional limb, is everyman. No child should be homeless and hungry, no matter what country they live in. There are enough resources and enough humanitarians in this world for the everychilds to be helped by everyone who desires to make the power of connection create positive change. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Do You Find the Women You Help?

"A proposal: Widow: Maria Juarez. Her daughter's name is Catarina and she also has a son. I am including some of my photos of her and her daughter. And she is struggling hard so that they can continue to study. I have seen a document that she showed me that show that her husband died 5 years ago. She is working hard, and she is selling fruits, she does not have a shop. According what a friend has told me she does not receive any help at all. She does not owe her own land. Neither the metal shelter you can see in my photos is hers; she is paying a rent to have the permission to live there with her daughter and son. Maria’s parents have both died. You can see in my photos how small their home is. As I have understood so far Maria is in great need of support. Maybe she can be included?"

Many people ask our Finding Freedom board members how we find the women we help in rural Guatemala. After all, there are millions just like them; women who have no food in their homes, no running water or electricity, and who live in rainwater and mud during the rainy season. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of women who are parenting alone in Guatemala and a lack of abundance of any type of social services to assist them. 
We start by reviewing requests like the one above from our facilitators in the field. 
We examine our budget to determine if there is room for another family to be helped.  Annual trips to visit  the mothers in our program are essential toward determining which family on our list has the most critical needs. So we go, high up into the mountains, where the need is most acute and the geographical beauty takes our breath away. 

Maria gets a physical exam
Documenting the details

We sit; we assess; we listen. We do physical exams, and we observe. We take time to be inside homes that leak in the rain and are inadequate shelter in every meaningful way and we feel. We use our women's intuition, our male board member's critical thinking skills and our non-profit board member experience to inform our instincts on whether or not this particular family in front of us is credible, and has a desire to help themselves. 
Maria's rental house.

 If this need is acute, and the family agrees to sign our contract stating their willingness to educate their children, work toward self-sufficiency and feed an elderly person twice a week, then they have won the Finding Freedom "lottery". 

Construction has started on Maria's home, donated by a FFF benefactor
A proud landowner

Signing FFF contract with a thumbprint. Maria does not read or write.

When the stars line up for one of the women we assist, and we have funds to include them in our program, miracles happen. Children are included in our scholarship program and become educated. Food is delivered once a month and bodies receive nutrition. Medical needs are address, and people heal. Homes are built and shelter becomes a reality instead of a dream. Water contracts and land deeds are legally filed, securing futures. Mind, body and spirit flourish, because women now know that someone cares enough to give them a lift up and out of the abyss of grinding poverty. After five years of doing our work, not one of the women we have helped has said they were sorry we found them, listened to them, heard their needs and helped. 
Connection, caring, compassion....the three "C's" at the core of the three "F's."