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.

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.