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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On Behalf of Women and Girls in Guatemala: Thank You Ashley Judd

She is bold and beautiful, articulate and intelligent. And if she were not already a movie star, she should be. Ashley Judd represents and demonstrates what American women have fought for and earned: the right to stand tall and be heard when the core of who you are as a person has been attacked.
You may have heard the details already. Ashley Judd showcased the rubble of a less-than-perfect past in a recently published essay that can be read here (warning: disturbing language):
Ashley Judd's Essay
Even with the March Madness mania that occupies our collective thoughts and TV sets during this basketball season, Ms. Judd's essay jumped to the top of our media radar instantly. Movie stars with difficult circumstances, whether past or present, make for increased press sales. 
Emma was fourteen when she was raped in Mexico. After finding the anger and strength to kill her attacker, she fled to Guatemala, where she buried her past but not well enough to marry appropriately. Her husband was an alcoholic who beat her. She and her two children remain in hiding.
Maria is twelve and is one of the students in our scholarship program. When she told me about her recent rape she hadn't yet found her voice, and rightfully so, since the perpetrators live in her small rural Guatemalan village. On her way to school last fall she was attacked in a way that changed her life and her persona in irretrievable ways that she doesn't understand. Her parents asked us for money to help hire a lawyer and press charges.
We were advised against using our nonprofit funds for legal aid that would not bring resolution in a country where justice is still a new word. For her own protection, I can't show you her face.

These are only two of the stories in our small organization.The eighteen women on Finding Freedom's client list have backgrounds of incest, spousal abuse, infidelity and child molestation. The sad reality is that if they didn't have these traumatic pasts, they would not need our program. 

Rural Guatemala: remote, beautiful and a hard place to be a woman

Their role models have crossed the borders looking for work
As a board, we don't have the foresight to know what direction this new found knowledge about Ms. Judd's past will follow. It is our hope, and most likely hers also, that by divulging the circumstances that no girl or young woman ever wishes to list on her curriculum vitae of life, other women will be inspired to deal with and process the confusing myriad of emotional and physical circumstances that accompany the violations they went through. 
For a woman in Central America the chance of getting the help they need, be it psychological or legal, is as remote as the pathways to their respective villages. Guatemala has the dubious distinction of having the third highest level of gender based violence against women in the world. Finding Freedom is working in a part of the world where fathers are missing, boys are brought up in a culture of machismo (an exaggerated sense of power or the right to dominate) and justice for women is not on the political radar.
Thank you Ashley. Thank you on behalf of Emma and Maria, and for raising awareness among the boys of Guatemala, who we hope will someday be raised in a culture that cherishes the gender that gave birth to them. Your words, and the bravery that it took to write them, will give some women, wherever they may live, the knowledge that they are not alone. 

(photo credits: Devin Mendenhall and Jody Greenlee)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Name in the Last Sentence

Finding Freedom through Friendship has a friend and fellow humanitarian who resides in remote Huehuetenango, Guatemala. LynnAnn is doing work that few are strong enough, in spirit or body, to do. She, her daughter as well as her co-worker have lived in Guatemala for years, working among the people they are trying to assist. For the last year, FFF and LynnAnn have networked together to resolve the acute humanitarian needs of two abandoned women in the mountains.
 We refurbished an adobe house for a bedridden mother named Rosa; adding a kitchen, porch, new ceiling and purchasing furniture. Finding Freedom raised the funds and LynnAnn did the work of delivering the food, medicine and overseeing construction. In exchange for our donations, Rosa (name changed to protect her privacy) agreed to the Finding Freedom stipulation that her children, at our expense, must be in school. Education is the only tool we have to stop the cycle of illiteracy that keeps the indigenous population in a cycle of poverty.
In the last few weeks it became apparent that Rosa's children were not in school, and that one of them had in fact been conscripted to the coffee plantations far from home. He is eleven years old. 
Let me repeat that. 
He is eleven.
Here is LynnAnn's Facebook post about the conditions on many of the coffee plantations in the mountains of Guatemala:

(Photo credit: Pense Libre Newspaper, Guatemala)
(Article not published, since it is in Spanish):

"This makes me so, so angry and so sad all at the same time. This article is about one particular family whose three young children are receiving help at a special center for the severely malnourished. This family lives on a large coffee plantation in a shack they made out of plastic and sticks. The article says that both the father and the mother together earn about $26 for two week's work harvesting coffee...that's about a dollar a day. Sickening. One of their babies, a 3 year old little girl, had fallen into their cooking fire and had third degree burns on her foot; her parents didn't even have the money to get her to the free hospital. The government would like to do more to ensure that the folks who work in the coffee fincas are treated fairly by the owners, but that's a very difficult job. It's hard to know where to even find the families as they are allowed to squat on the land and there are no maps. How can these rich coffee plantation owners exploit people so shamelessly? It breaks my heart to think of all the people I know personally who are off harvesting coffee right now....Isaias, Claudia, Francisco, Erminia...and so, so many others." LynnAnn

LynnAnn and FFF could take up multiple blog and Facebook posts educating our donors about why a child should not be used as forced labor on a Guatemalan coffee plantation. Google the topic, and you will understand. Or do what LynnAnn had to do; stand in front of his mother and ask her where her son is. The answer was different every week, until the obvious could no longer be ignored, and Rosa told the truth. 
Is this fair for Isaias? 
Do we wish a different life for him...a life of soccer and school and free from harvesting 100 lbs of coffee beans for a few dollars a day? 
But all of the humanitarian assistance and all of the wishing doesn't change the fact that food for a family of three in Guatemala costs almost double what we as an organization can afford to donate, and that Rosa is chronically ill with no other male in the household to help bring in an income. Poverty is a much harsher boss than a coffee plantation owner.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Her Day is No Different from Yours

For many women in the United States, Guatemala can feel like a mysterious and complex country. It is admittedly difficult to find the similarities between the concerns and responsibilities of Guatemalan mothers as compared to those of mothers in the United States.
  But as with most people worldwide, there are more similarities than there are differences among women, and specifically mothers. The human experience is a common experience: it just looks different according to our individual perspectives. 
Although she lives in poverty, in a tiny country called Guatemala, her day is really no different from ours. 
Take a peek into a day in the life of Sylvia, mother to seven children. 
She is concerned about what goes on in her neighborhood
She cares for her children.
She starts her oven;
To cook dinner for her family.

She cleans the house.
She does endless dishes.
The laundry never stops.
She worries about her children's homework.
And Bills.
She struggles to keep her teenagers aligned with family values.

In other words, her day is much like any mother, and every mother worldwide. The surroundings look different from yours or mine but the challenges are universal. Women in developing countries face critical resource shortages, crime, relationship issues, gender inequality and political instability, all while facing a repetitive cycle of household work that consumes the majority of their day. The European Commission report titled Women in Developing Countries (Read report here) states that of the 1.6 billion people who live in extreme poverty, the majority are women.
For all of the women on this small planet who wake up each day with determination to meet the needs of their families with we simply say:

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.