Sunday, November 22, 2015

Our Best Trip Ever. Here is Why

 Friends who knew that Finding Freedom volunteers were in Guatemala a few weeks ago are asking how our trip went.
 Without forethought, we are all finding ourselves saying, "It was our best trip ever."
The justification for this response is easy. This particular trip excelled in witnessing what we are all working hard to achieve: improved health and well-being of our Finding Freedom Widows and their children.
It is difficult at best to define the term well-being. There is a radiance that transcends words when we see an FFF family that looks better than they did when we visited last year. The worry lines in widows faces are softened. Cheekbones are less angular and the children are more rambunctious as they ease back into childhoods more free from concerns over food and shelter. There is an emotional liberation for the widows in our program; provide them with water proof housing and concrete floors and watch how a woman and her children blossom. For those of us who have never slept on a wet dirt floor, or struggled to pay rent in a hut that leaks rain, or consigned your children to coffee plantations for a few dollars a day in wages, worries like these are hard to identify with. 
Here are some examples of that glow we witnessed. Change for FFF mothers and their children is a good thing. And it shows.
Gabriela, at her father's hospital bed after he lost 2 limbs  falling off of a train
Gabriela, now working in a restaurant

Maria, far left, 2012 in front of former home. Her mother is chronically ill with asthma and TB.
Education and housing security is allowing Maria to blossom. Three years ago the family moved into their donated FFF house, and her mother is in our medical program. 
Two years ago this FFF mother was living in this unfinished building, struggling to find work and housing for her 3 children. The details of her difficulties are too graphic for this post. 
She now has rental assistance, scholarship assistance and monthly food donations for her children. Working 12 hour days still only provides meager wages but O. feels grateful to be on her feet again.(FFF board member Faby on left)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Our Recent Trip; Through the Eyes of a New Volunteer

Pascuala; holding photos of when she first entered FFF

"You allowed me to see some people's stories." "FFF let me go into the heart of the towns and ride their streets in the backs of trucks on the terrible roads. We went into houses that had bugs, dirt floors, terrible 
structures, no electricity, limited or no running water. We saw people who have had 
awful health problems. You let me into a world where the word "poor" is an 
understatement. Despite the bad conditions I witnessed, I saw women who looked 
awful when first entering FFF who now look great."
No longer sleeping on the floor
" I saw somebody just happen to walk up a hill to ask us look to at their house and with your simple question of "Are you all up for it?" their lives are being changed and will continue to change; for the better. By following them down the hill, they now have school fees paid, beds to sleep in, and a loan paid off - all because you decided we would walk down a hill. That house was my first big emotional moment - just listening to that girl cry in such relief, happiness, gratitude, and hope. She had a big effect on me." 
Offering a prayer
"I saw a family wanting to pray with us, which was some of the most passionate praying I have ever heard in my lifetime. They have nothing, yet they are so thankful to God for what they do have. They have nothing, yet still have such a strong faith. I have listened to that prayer at least once a day since being back home."
"I saw tons of kids, all of them happy. Kids here get bored with the countless toys they have, saying they have nothing to do. Kids there find the joys in the little things and always seem so happy and loving despite having virtually no worldly possessions."


"I saw a family go from nothing, to having a very nice FFF donated house; observing the family look markedly better, and seeing them thrive and doing pretty well on their own now. These are just a few of the things that made such a great impact on me. I held back tears several times on the trip, but I let them go a little bit while writing this email and thinking back on all the memories (manly tears of course...). I am so incredibly thankful to you for allowing me to see a side of the Guatemalan country and people that I have never seen before! It was such an amazing trip! "

In front of their newly donated FFF house
"God really is doing great work through your organization! Thank you!"

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Dalai Lama Had A Mother

Of course he did. 
Biologically, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, originated in the womb. Once I embraced the idea that The Dalai Lama was once an embryo, I became fascinated with the thought:
Who was the woman that was his mother? 
What kind of woman can produce a son who is so radiant, wise and spiritual that he changes the world through his mere existence
What maternal skills did she possess to pass these gifts down to her biological child, born to her in 1935 in northern Tibet? 
If the Dalai Lama's mother, wife of a farmer, could give the world such a gift in the way of this transformational son, what life-changers, spiritual leaders, or world leaders are other mothers capable of raising, if they had the resources available to them? 

What would Sylvia's only son (Left), one of seven children, do with his innate sweetness and gentle spirit if he were allowed to dream his perfect life into existence? If his mother could provide proper nutrition, stimulating education, and adequate shelter, could he be a village leader; a man of integrity who might lead people to do the correct thing for the well-being of the community? Would he guide his politically unstable country to a place of diplomatic leadership? Or more simply, if William were allowed to access adequate higher education, perhaps he would become financially self-sufficient and raise children who had their basic needs met, thus creating a family built on a solid foundation.

Meet Adonias, his brothers Pablo and Alejundro (right). If their mother were free of her daily concerns over her five children's health, educational and nutritional needs, how would she parent? The stress of unrelenting poverty robs the spirit of a mother and leaves little emotional or physical reserve for dealing with the many needs of her children. 
The Dalai Lama, and indeed the majority of the  spiritual leaders of the world, hold steadfast to the basic tenants of the promotion of basic human values, happiness, and a culture of peace. There is nothing so profound in these belief systems that any child who grows to be a man under the guidance of a sustained mother could not carry forward into his family, community and country; given the proper support system. 
The World Bank reports that almost 60% of rural northern Guatemalans live below the poverty line, which is defined as the ability to purchase a basket of food. Those of us working in these areas would argue that the actual statistics are much higher, especially in the population of widows we serve. The lack of nourishment, physically and otherwise, rob this current generation of the ability to change the future of Guatemala in any significant way. 

The world is a poorer place for the loss of this potential.
How many life-changers, spiritual or community leaders and future fathers are languishing within the bodies of nutritionally and emotionally deprived children in developing countries? The number is impossible to calculate. 
Even one is too many.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Children seem to appear from nowhere when we visit. Want to see the faces of the next generation in Central America? Stand in the yard of any villager in the mountains of rural Guatemala, and within minutes there will be dozens of beautiful raven haired children at your feet, curious about the gringos and comfortable in company of their playmates. We have seen so many children over the years...literally thousands...that it is difficult to remember any who stand out among the multitudes. 
Manuel was memorable. 
And I still can't put into words as to why. 
He was handsome. 
And quiet, but not unfriendly. 
He seemed intelligent. 
And he was a caring brother to his little sister. 
None of which was that exemplary. 
Maria being interviewed by FFF volunteers
Maria's husband with daughter
Our time together was brief. We were preparing to leave the village when his mother appeared and asked us to consider including her in our program. Afternoon rains were fast approaching and the thought of being caught in the storms while we traveled back to our hotel standing in the back of our pickup truck was not appealing. We might have declined if we hadn't looked into the eyes of Maria's children and seen the empty look of hopelessness reflected back at us. 
We interviewed Maria while the thunder threatened and the skies darkened. Her story was one of a loss of hope so profound that the weather became irrelevant. 
We listened while Manuel stood at her side, watching our reaction to a family saga of a catastrophic accident which left his father without an arm and a leg, resulting in the loss of their home to a coyote who demanded it as payment for a disrupted journey to America.
 We took our notes, tucked the family into our hearts and distributed donated food and blankets to cover themselves when they slept on dirt floors. None of what we did felt like anything substantial in the face of their monumental need for shelter, and a long-term sustainable lifestyle. 
It has been a year since these first few photos were taken. 
We  have sent food donations every few months while the family continued to squeeze into a soggy corner of an uncle's house and their hope for something better drained right down the hillside with the rain. FFF didn't have the funds to help with anything more significant. 
Donors Loren and Erika Mollner from California donated funds for land, and even better, met Maria's family during a trip to Guatemala. They sent me this photo of Manuel's artwork; paintings done by a boy who dares to dream and has a connection to the beauty that surrounds him in the rivers and mountains of his land. 
It wasn't until his benefactor sent me this photo of Manuel's artwork that I could put the final adjective onto my description of this particular child. 
He is courageous.
 It takes courage to dream that better things will come your way when you have grown up in a country that offers such dismal opportunities that your father will risk his life riding on top of a train for a chance at work. 
To acknowledge Manuel's courage to dream, we purchased these art supplies to give him in a few weeks when we visit again; supplies that will feed the artistic spirit of a child who stands out from the crowd.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mark Twain's Philosphy

Finding Freedom through Friendship board members tend to be the kind of people who like adventure of all kinds. They are emotionally open, physically hardy and  willing to entertain the thought of approaching the unknown.  Our board members have either traveled to Central America, or have supported the efforts of someone who does. Boarding a plane to a country as complex, fascinating and culturally intriguing as Guatemala stretches our comfort zones and allows us to shake off our constricted views of mankind. The commonality of the human experience can't be ignored when faced with the challenges of traveling.
A Mayan work of textile art
If we had not ventured into the mountains above Santa Tomasa, in Solola, Guatemala, our team would have missed an education in how traditional Guatemalan fabric is made, one stitch and one inch at a time. The American desire for inexpensive ready made clothing leaves us far removed from the cultural artistry of the Mayan textile weavers hidden in the niches of Guatemala's mountains. What a fascinating afternoon we spent watching Rebeca kneeling with her back strap loom, lacing threads through her loom that created a visual history of her culture. We left her home feeling a renewed determination to work on our micro business aspect of Finding Freedom, so that the many hours of weaving bring a fair trade price for the artists who practice this ancient and beautiful art.
100 Lbs of donated corn
Visiting Isabel and delivering some of her FFF donated food staples gave us a glimpse of the opposite version of "fast food." When we donate corn to a widow in our program, it is delivered in 100 lb bags. Turning what you see in this photo into tortillas is a practice in patience. Soaking, rinsing, grinding and then hand forming the tortillas takes more than 8 hours of waiting and working. Finding, harvesting and chopping the wood to cook with makes the process a tad bit more labor intensive.
Our FFF trip participants left with renewed awareness and appreciation of the ease of a typical American meal preparation. 

Fuel for cooking on wood stoves
 The best lessons learned while traveling to Guatemala are these: we have more in common than we have differences. Women throughout the world labor out of love for their families. Their methods look different but the reasons are the same. Traveling home we will think back to the sounds of the logs being split, the acrid smell of ash as tortillas sear on iron stoves. We remember the feel of the textured fabrics, telling their stories through woven designs significant to individual villages hidden in the steep mountains. 
We travel home with the face print embedded in our heart of a culture different in a multitude of ways from our own, but that feels familiar all the same. 

International relations, the FFF way

Monday, July 13, 2015

It Is Just A Floor... Or Is It More?

 When Finding Freedom is working on a new referral, there are a myriad of issues to assess. The nutritional status, housing situation, economic stability (or lack thereof) and general health of the family are all high on our list of concerns. When did they eat last? Where are they residing and with whom? Are the children in the family forced to labor in the fields to support the family or are they in school? How did the mother become widowed and for how long has the family been in crisis?
Our assessment list goes on for pages, and the condition of their floor is at the bottom of page three of our documentation. Because malnutrition takes precedent over what a floor is made of.

Rosa's former house

Rosa, who is blind, with initial FFF food donations
A 2007 World Bank study of a Mexican government program to replace dirt floors with cement found that doing so "significantly improves the health of young children and family members ." Among the study's findings: "Substitution of dirt floors by cement floors in a house leads to a 78 percent reduction in parasitic infestations, a 49 percent reduction in diarrhea, an 81 percent reduction in anemia and a 36 to 96 percent improvement in cognitive development." Beyond this, adults reported "increased satisfaction with their quality of life."

New concrete floor
When Rosa was first referred to Finding Freedom her situation was dire. You can read more about her story here: 
 Rosa's story.
It took over a year of communicating, networking, raising and sending funds as well as working alongside Adopt-A-Village Guatemala before Rosa and her family were reunited, and better nourished. A concrete floor to replace the dirt that the family had been living in was one of the tools we used in creating a healthier environment for Rosa and her children.
The World Health Organization reports that 2 billion people worldwide are affected by soil borne parasitic infections. Our organization is a firsthand witness to the physical effects of this phenomenon. 
The concrete floors we budget for and install are not done for cosmetic purposes. They prevent interior flooding, cut down on mold infiltration and soil spores and when we can't afford beds, they keep family members from sleeping on wet dirt. 
The concrete floors in these photos of Rosa's new house are more than just a smooth surface for a blind widow to walk on. 
They are life changing. 

New home, healthier floors!

Monday, June 15, 2015

In Honor of Día del Padre: A Few Good Men

Finding Freedom through Friendship exists because of men, or rather, the lack of them. The widows and abandoned Guatemalan women and their children in our program were in crisis in the mountains of Central America; without a good husband, children go hungry and women are without emotional and physical shelter. A family, in the truest sense of the word, is fractured and children are left broken when a father is missing.
Frequent readers of our blog might think that there are so few good men left that Guatemala's population is in danger of decline. 
Not so. 
We would like to introduce you to some outstanding fathers.
This is Victor (R).  In his childhood Victor was a patient for several years in the United States, during which time he learned English. Never one to let an opportunity get by him, Victor built on every chance given him, and he now owns his own transport/tourism company in Guatemala (Victor's Company). He is our driver when we are in-country, our translator, cultural advisor and overall "go to" guy to get even the most difficult situations taken care of. Need something done in Guatemala? Victor will get it done, always with a great attitude and sense of humor. He is a wonderful husband and father and takes caring for his family, and our organization, very seriously. 

Vinnie, during an FFF home visit with some special boys
Vinnie is another example of the kind of man every country needs more of. He is intelligent, kind, and devoted to God ( Vinnie's church) and his family. Vinnie starts every day with prayer and a fierce determination to make the world a better place by doing the right thing. Remember the two brothers with EB (their story here) who are in our program? Vinnie is their role model. He prays for them, delivers our monthly food donations to the family and loves these boys like his own. Their joy when they are with him is evident. I've watched this kind and amazing man cry as he prays over these chronically ill children. He is passionate about life and an enthusiastic servant of God.
Pedro, our translator

Pedro is quiet, hard working and intelligent. He is one of millions of Guatemalan men who strive to do their best under difficult circumstances. The lack of opportunity for work in his village hasn't stopped him from trying to provide for his wife and children. He started a small restaurant which serves as a base for many of our FFF mothers. When someone in the community is in need of help, they turn to Pedro because they know he is our liaison in his region of remote Guatemala. During our home visits he translates for the women we serve who do not speak Spanish and they trust him with their history. He wears his responsibility well, despite being without a home of his own following damage from the last earthquake. 
And because our support comes from the states, we must include two of the best examples of American men we know. 
Mike is our board vice president, a talented physician and ultimate humanitarian. He has worked in Guatemalan annually for years, all while juggling a challenging work and church schedule. Residing in Denver, Mike makes responsibilities that would crush the ordinary man look easy. He is a kind, caring and competent man who has inspired many younger men to aspire to be the kind of man Mike is. He and his wife Wendy have raised three young adults who will carry their values forward into the next generation.
Mike and family

The ever-patient husband

Last but definitely not least is Tom, husband to Jody, our Executive director. The amount of money Tom has spent since the year 2000 to send his wife and children to Guatemala to volunteer could have earned him early retirement. Here is the look he has when his wife tells him she has booked yet another trip to Guatemala on his Visa card. He tries hard not to think of the cost of 26 plane tickets and lost income from his wife, who volunteers in Guatemala rather than contributing to the household income.  

To all of these men, who so easily carry the mantle of what it means to be a good man and father, we can only say:

Monday, June 1, 2015

Life Can Be Difficult. Wishing It Were Different Doesn't Help

Life isn't how many of us pictured it when we first ventured into this journey called adulthood. I can't think of a single Finding Freedom through Friendship board member who is living a life that they would call perfect. Each of us has faced difficult, gut-wrenching issues that turn bright days dark.

Yolanda with board member Faby
Yolanda spent months wishing for a different life when she discovered that her husband loved someone else, and that this someone was soon to have his child. She wanted her marriage to work out badly enough that she overlooked the nights he didn't come home, the harsh words he spoke and the fear that she felt when she realized nothing could be done to change his heart. Leaving the house she felt forced out of was her personal definition of terror. 
   Finding the emotional strength to leave all that she knew behind is our definition of courage. This little mama stepped into her dark days and agreed to meet them with determination to do the right thing for the future of her two little girls. Without a degree, a job, reliable family members or even an apartment to live in, Yolanda leaned on the one resource she had....our board members in Guatemala, Faby and Vinnie. She took their hands, held tight and walked into the darkness called "a future without a husband."
Weeks of worry and sleepless nights have passed, and she has now found an apartment. FFF is paying her rent while she looks for a job. The food supplements, cooking gas and vitamins we supply allows Yolanda to live independently. Knowing that she has a financial, spiritual and emotional safety net allows this young mother to put a difficult past behind her and to find faith in a future that is not yet defined.
Food donations from Finding Freedom.
Here is the report from Faby and Vinnie, our facilitators in the city where this new and fragile little family resides:
We went to visit Yolanda and her girls to their new home, she has a nice room, close to the nursery where she leaves the girls, while she goes to look for a job. She has taken her personal file to several recruitment agencies, she will go there two or three times a week to find out about vacancies. We have given her the Finding Freedom donated funds to pay the first month's rent for the room and food supplies.  She is very grateful for this help, you know she is going through a pretty tough emotional situation and economically.  
Faby and Vinnie

Yolanda is just one of the women in our program; they are all equally and brilliantly strong in their resolute determination to make the best of difficult and sometimes brutal situations. We stand next to them in awe. Our Guatemalan FFF moms make our hardest days here in the states seem easy. They can't wish away their problems, but we can offer the assistance needed to help them create a life worth living. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

He Didn't Fit the Criteria

It is called the "gray zone"....that nebulous area of humanitarian issues that aren't black nor are they white. Merriam Webster's describes the color gray as this:
having an intermediate and often vaguely defined position, condition, or character <an ethically gray area>
 Life's journey doesn't follow a straight line, and neither do challenges that arise when board members are running a nonprofit.

In October of last year, Finding Freedom volunteers were doing home visits in Guatemala. Meeting with the women and their children in our program is essential toward making sure our donated dollars are spent wisely and the criteria of our program is being followed. We try to be discreet, but a group of white men and women visit a remote Mayan village, heads turn and word spreads quickly. The porch that belonged to the family we were visiting in a particular mountain village quickly became a mini medical clinic. 
Dispersing vitamins

The tiny six year old was difficult to see at the beginning of our visit. He sat there so quietly because he has cerebral palsy and he is nonverbal. His mother used to carry him wherever he needed to go, but now she has two more children younger than he is, and he is too big to ride on her back any longer. She was there to ask us for a wheelchair. 
Wheelchair delivery, Guatemalan style
It seemed like such a simple request but there was one significant problem. Neary's mother is married, and she isn't in our program (we focus on the needs of widows and their children). The chair was going to cost us several hundred dollars, the family lived in a remote village that was inaccessible to our driver and Neary was unable to travel to the factory in Guatemala City where chairs were available for personal fitting. Funding, which is usually the biggest challenge in meeting humanitarian needs in Guatemala had been donated. We were just left with a few details that would have been minor if we were trying to make Neary's miracle happen in the United States. but getting anything significant accomplished in a developing country takes infinite patience, resourcefulness and stamina. 
Nonverbal but capable of a big smile!
If you have read this far into the blog post, you see that Neary got his wheelchair. Sometimes rules have to be broken, boundry lines have to be blurred and all of the hard work of creating bylaws, regulations and nonprofit financial constraints have to be, just for a moment, ignored. Neary's mobility needs didn't fit our organizational criteria. 
We turned our collective heads and pretended not to notice. 
Sometimes the right thing to do doesn't always fit into written guidelines.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mother's Day Raffle

What an amazing world we would live in if every mother had the resources she needed to provide for her children. As a new widow living in the mountains of Guatemala, Hilda struggles to find food, water and firewood for her family. She is our most current, and resource-scarce client.
Finding the perfect gift for your mother, while also providing food for Hilda and her family is possible by participating in our Finding Freedom through Friendship on-line raffle. 

By donating $15 to Finding Freedom you will be entered into our raffle to win this new St. John's bracelet and Guatemalan scarf. Entries are limited to the first 10 participants. All funds raised during this promotion will be used to provide food for Hilda's family. Your chances of winning? One in ten. Hilda's chances of feeding her family for six weeks? 100%
Donations can be made via our donate button (PayPal or credit card) or by personal check by April 29th to:
Finding Freedom through Friendship
 1781 Eastwood Dr., Lexington, KY 40502
The winner will be notified by email on April 30th, with shipping taking place on the same day. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

One Tiny Family, One Big Difference

Guatemala consistently falls short on international parameters for the well-being of its people. Rank this Central American country's numbers for crime, poverty, literacy and violence against women, and Guatemala's statistics fall in the red zone.
The current humanitarian crisis in the world is unprecedented. BBC radio recently reported that the United Nations needs 16 BILLION dollars to assist 57 MILLION of the world's most vulnerable citizens. The lack of basic food, electricity, safety and shelter is so acutely urgent in parts of the world that Guatemala shines in comparison. 
Helping with household chores 2012

Isabela's former house

FFF board members can't help families in Yemen or Syria, but we can look southward, and see a ray of hope for some of the women we have assisted.
In the spirit of looking for the positive in a badly bruised world, we would like to introduce you to recent photos of Isabela. 
Here was the report we received on Isabela, who is raising her four orphaned grandchildren, in the spring of 2012 when we first brought them into our program:

1.The roof leaks everywhere (the roofing is at least 20 years old)
2.The leaking roof has caused the house siding to become rotten
3.The floor is earth and of course with all the water, it is constantly muddy
4. Many of the planks are missing, allowing animals to enter
5.The “kitchen” is a small room of six feet square, the roof is made of old tin roofing and plastic.  There is no door and all the wood is rotten
The bottom line is that the grandmother fears the buildings are at a point of caving in at any time.  At this point, they have crowded the family in with a neighbor. Delivery of two sacks of corn and a bag of black beans were donated. 
In June of 2012 we were able to add this family to our program, in collaboration with Adopt-A-Village Guatemala. What a difference two years of humanitarian assistance makes! The family has gained weight, Isabela's stress level has lowered and the children are sponsored in school. Thanks to a new waterproof house and monthly food donations, Isabela and her grandchildren are five fewer people out of the 57 million that are critically in need of humanitarian efforts worldwide.

Isabela's new house, 2013, donated by FFF supporters
Sebastian and Ana in 2012; malnourished and shoeless

Look at them now!
FFF donated house, beds and blankets