Friday, December 20, 2013

The Gift

  During our youth, we spend the days, if not months, before this Christmas holiday, wanting. If you are over 40, you may remember doing that "wanting" by thumbing through the Sears catalog, one miraculous page at a time, dog-earing the ultra thin pages, and making our list, so Santa would know exactly what we wanted under the tree.
Something internal shifts as we become older. Responsibilities grow, material objects take on less meaning, and we realize what is really important at this most holy of holidays. And here is the big reveal, which we all already know but a little reminder never hurts.
When two of our board members lost their father a few weeks ago, he didn't take a single item to the grave with him. All that is left of his life is the memories of the people he chose to have relationships with.

Our Finding Freedom through Friendship mothers know their priorities better than most. All of them have experienced loss in profound ways, either through the death of a husband, a child or the passing of parents who helped support them. When FFF first brought each of these mothers into our program, they were either living with relatives or renting huts with roofs that leaked onto dirt floors. Their children went to bed hungry and often missed school while they accompanied their mother's to the fields to work.
Does the fact that they came into our program with so little mean that they wish for nothing? Not at all, but their "wanting" is a bit different than ours. Sinks, tables, beds...essential and rudimentary household items are what they hope for.  And they wish for freedom from worry. 

Catarina and daughters with new Guatemalan sink

Our volunteers are often given small gifts from the women and children we help. They are usually hand made, and given from the heart. The best gifts of all- - three apples picked from a nearby tree, a handwoven belt, or a piece of loomed textile. Gifts from women and children who know what empty feels like: empty cupboards; empty huts; empty promises.
Marta (left) is full of hope for a better future. By definition, the word hope means to open your heart to possibility. 
Our Christmas gift to Marta, and the other 42 children in our program is not only the daily meals we provide, or the school supplies we purchase or even the new shoes we give them. Finding Freedom through Friendship offers the intangible gift of hope. You can see it in her face; read it in her note; catch it in the glimmer in her eyes. 
Feliz Navidad 


Sunday, December 1, 2013

One Holiday, Two Different Families

My house is decorated, most gifts are wrapped, the holiday cards are on order and it all served the purpose of working through the grief that found our family a few days before Thanksgiving. Holiday rituals are like that; they take over your mind while your hands work the same habitual patterns, year after year. The decorations haven't changed much for  at my house. My family likes the familiar, the traditional. 

Candalaria in former home
Candalaria's family is no different. Her five children gave up expectation of participating in the typical Guatemalan Christmas festivities several years ago, when their father abandoned the family. As the only wage earner, the loss of a father meant the mother and children lived on what little money Candalaria makes washing clothes for neighbors. Five Christmas seasons went by, and the family had little hope for anything different, with the exception of a daily meal, and scholastic support for the children, provided by Finding Freedom.
 Until Jenni and Rob in Texas decided to create significant change for this family. 

Former kitchen
This Christmas, Candalaria and her children have the best possible present: hope. With the donation of this new, waterproof house with a concrete floor and smoke free stove, Candalaria can now use the $10-$15 she earns per month to purchase candles, soap, and some clothing for her children. Jenni and her husband gave Candalaria and her children intangible gifts this holiday season: wonder that a family they have never met would care for them, hope for a better future, security against possible eviction.
There are no better gifts.

New home for Christmas

New Stove

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Beyond Words

   I am beyond words today...a hard few weeks of some major family issues have left my writing skills sapped of any creativity.
   I have always said that no matter how hard my days are, I would never trade one of them for a day in the lives of the women we assist in Guatemala. Recent events left me feeling like I might just prefer to walk up some of the northern Guatemalan mountain paths that I am familiar with and curl up at the hearth of one of our FFF mom's near their donated stoves. Even without  electricity, a bed, inadequate food, and lack of health care--for the first time ever it sounds better to exist in Guatemala than my last few weeks here in America. I need the soul and spiritual connection to the women we assist in northern Guatemala. Being wrapped in their concern, and intrinsic emotional warmth would be the perfect tonic.
  So instead of words, I'm offering photos of some of the joyful moments during our recent home visits we did with our FFF moms in October. Thinking back on this trip has sustained me.

Hand made gift from Catarina

Seeing the Mayan Blessing of our newest FFF donated house

Ladies, myself (in pink) and Roland in back of pickup
Testing for reading glasses donation

Snatching stickers from Desi 

Visiting with my new Godchild

Watching my daughter buy baby chicks for an FFF mom

 Seeing the joy on Jo's face when she met Juana's baby

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Request

I've mentioned in past posts that it is the untaken-photos that haunt me after my trips to Guatemala.

Cathedral alter
There are so many times when our volunteers are bumping along in the back of a pickup truck while trying to stand upright, or walking along a muddy road carrying backpacks, or even when we are visiting with one of our FFF moms, that cameras just are not practical. Letting go of your grip on the wet railing of a pickup truck to get a camera out of a backpack might result in a head injury. Of equal issue is the fact that the lens of a camera is an artificial eye, and the similarity is not lost on the people we come in contact with on our trips. No person wants photos taken of them during difficult moments, and we want to respect the humanity and the vulnerability of the human experience. So I try instead to capture the special moments in my mind, and describe them to you later. 
The baptism of my Godchild at a Guatemalan cathedral a few weeks ago was one of those moments. The event was humble, beautiful and spiritual in a mix of adjectives that seems appropriate for most of my visits to Guatemala.
Man with head injury lighting candle

The mass was heartfelt, the alter boy attentive and handsome and the priest did a wonderful job of hosting the parishioners. There was a sense of presence in the crowd that I often find is missing among Americans during public gatherings. 
Someday I hope to bring a documentary crew with me on one of my trips, and I wished for one on this day. I wanted to capture the priest's mannerisms, his calm voice and his words. His presence, and the palpable need the audience had to feel it.

Priest in Cathedral
He spoke to us in the audience; my friend Kathy and daughter Julie. 
"Are you from America?" he asked. 
When I answered affirmatively, he replied simply:

"Will you pray for the people of our country?"

That was all. A simple, sincere inquiry. I took a quick and discrete photo after all. I didn't want to trust my memory to one of the most important requests I had heard all week. 
And yes father, we will pray. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Perfectly Pertinent

As to the great mass of working girls and women, how much independence is gained if the narrowness and lack of freedom of the home is exchanged for the narrowness and lack of freedom for the factory, sweatshop, department store or office?
Emma Goldman

I love this quote. A few sentences that encompass a solid universal truth is the hallmark of a talented writer, and woman. As Ms. Goldman notes, sweatshops and factories are confining work environments, offering economic advancement for only a select few administrative staff and often absentee owners. These type of work environments are not limited to Central America. Stories abound in international news of the health hazards and hardships of factories that produce most of our clothing and accessories.
I'm going to spin this blog post in a direction that you might not have anticipated. I'm going to argue that our Finding Freedom through Friendship mothers would be thrilled to have a factory job. If they qualified for employment at a Guatemalan factory (which they would not, because most of them do not speak Spanish), Maria, Catarina, Candalaria and all of the other 15 mothers in our program would be enthusiastic employees. They would be first in line for applications, if they could find the transportation from their villages. 
The food that we deliver to our mothers each month is quite literally, a lifesaver. Six of our mothers were interviewed by myself and other FFF volunteers during our home visits to their villages in Guatemala two weeks ago. All were asked what they did for food when our donations, which are meant to provide one basic meal per day to the family members, ran out. The answers were the same. They either begged for food from neighbors, or they did without. 
A factory job? What a blessing that would be for each of these mothers. With a paycheck, which is something none of them have ever seen, the Maria's and Catarina's could afford more food, they could purchase basic kitchen ware, clothing, and basic essentials. Instead, this is how they earn their "living":
Hills near Catarina's house where she picks coffee

Maria and her two teenage daughters contract with a local consigner to weave traditional fabric pieces.  He pays them far less than fair market trade value. If they do not meet his quota, they risk not having the business. 

Maria's 15 yr old weaves 8 hours a day

Catarina and her older children pick coffee beans in local coffee plantations. Average wage for eight hour days? Two dollars.  They feel fortunate to get this, since there is a coffee plant fungus currently infecting the 
 countries crops and the work is only available a few months a year.
A factory job with a paycheck, and regular hours would make any of our FFF moms feel like they had won the lottery. Meanwhile, they make the best of every day, with resilience and fortitude, and always, with hope for a more reliable income source.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Retail or Reality?

I've just returned from Guatemala, where some friends and I visited many of our Finding Freedom through Friendship mothers and their children. The purpose of the visit was to make sure that each family in our program has improved health indicators after receiving our daily meal donations, that each child who is eligible is in school, and that the houses we have built for our abandoned mothers have been properly constructed. We also talked to each mother about possible economic opportunities. As you can imagine, this is the hardest issue to resolve, since our clients live in communities with severely limited income resources. 
The villages that our clients live in are surrounded by beautiful and fertile fields, where abundant crops are grown, primarily for consumption in Guatemala City and abroad. 

Photo of crops taken with my iphone
Sylvia's dinner
We can't always make our home visits unannounced, but I prefer to do so. Just like in the states, a friend who comes to the door without prior notice finds the true ambiance of a household. Sylvia and her seven children did not expect us on our last night in Guatemala. She was just getting ready to feed her family when we appeared. The family's dinner consisted of you see on her stove. Bread and coffee. 

(Our budget doesn't allow us to send food to this family monthly.)
My life in the states requires that I jump back into my busy routine quickly when I return from Guatemala, which is why I found myself in a local shop in Kentucky today. My body was with my daughter but my heart was still in Sylvia's kitchen. Humanitarian concerns in Guatemala are not "trendy" in the retail world, so I was surprised to see this purse hanging on the rack.
The price on this item was $50. I have no idea what the #15 means, but I do know that for the cost of this sack purse for sale in Kentucky, Sylvia's children could have eaten for a week in Guatemala.

Sylvia won't see any results of the profit from this retail chain's sales of this item. I would like to think that this popular retail outlet is funding food for Guatemala's families with the sales of this and similar items. If they are, it is not indicated in their store or on their web site. 

The extra set of eyes was an unintended edit, but seemed appropriate

The retail store was beautiful, but the reality in Guatemala, where I visited too many kitchens without food, is not so attractive.The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that 50% of Guatemala's indigenous children live with chronic hunger, with Guatemala ranking fourth in the world for pediatric malnutrition. (

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Seven Year Old Ambassador

Our organization has a new friend. Her name is Madison, a seven year old from Florida. Without realizing what she has done, which is one of the sweet things about being seven, Madison has helped our organization with one of our most important goals...creating hope, through friendship.

Madison's picture for Beatriz in Guatemala
Beatriz in Guatemala
Fear is a commonly felt emotion when a woman is left without a husband, by whatever method is pertinent to her situation. Through abandonment, death, illness, financial ruin...women without husbands in Guatemala and all over the world are left to survive as best they can. Fear quickly finds a husband-less woman, especially if that woman is illiterate, has no formal income, and does not own property, have banking rights or inheritance. I'm not talking about being scared. I'm talking about deep, bone-marrow type of fear. And when mamas live in fear, their children do also. 

Madison's gifts to Beatriz.
Beatriz's mother, widowed five years ago, just moved into her new home, made possible through a donation from our organization. The family is starting to relax. The children are being fed, there is water flowing on the property, school scholarships are being secured. And as each of Beatriz's siblings find their school sponsors, more concern about the future will be dispelled in their particular household. 
Finding Freedom (from fear) through Friendship.
Madison and her family decided to sponsor Beatriz for school. Madison has not met Beatriz, but this letter, and these gifts will soon be traveling with me to Guatemala to be given to Beatriz when I visit her family. 

Children are our best teachers...Madison and Beatriz are connecting as two little girls from 2,000 miles away, bridging cultures and easing worries, which can only serve to make the world just a tiny bit better. Hope dispels fear. Hope hugs the heart and heals the hurts.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Famine Here, Famine There

Irish Mother of 7 Making Fringe in 1914 (photo credit: Marguerite Mespoulet)

 Because of my family heritage, Ireland is one of my favorite places to travel. Fellow Finding Freedom board member Mike McNevin is my brother, and we share a mutual interest in the Emerald Isle. I put a lot of thought into my recent trip there, because it involved ancestral research and I wanted to be prepared. Mike and his wife Wendy did the background work on finding our Irish ancestors and I wished to honor their commitment by being ready to carry the research further.

  We know that our great-great-grandfather lived in Sligo, Ireland. The generations that followed him left Ireland, and immigrated to the United States. After studying the history of this part of Ireland, I now understand why.The period of mass immigration from Ireland was unprecedented in Irish history, and there is nothing comparable to it in living memory of such death by starvation, disease and immigration which literally broke down the population in Ireland.
 In 1870 over 80 per cent of the land in Ireland was held by less than 1% of the population; by 1916, nearly 65% of the country was still in the hands of owner (mostly absentee) occupiers.

Before the donation of new housing, Manuela paid rent here.
Our board members realize that the strikingly similar correlation between the history of Ireland, and that of Guatemala. The World Health Organization reports that 68% of indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition. (
Without land ownership, the people of ancient Ireland had no way to improve their lives. Income earned from farming went directly to the land owner's pockets. Little was left to feed Irish children, educate them or even purchase basic clothing. For all of the women in our program, over 100 years later and in a different continent, the same holds true.
 The lack of land ownership available to original inhabitants changed the face and politics of countries then and continues to do so now. The impact of governmental policies and big business concerns have pushed those without a political voice to the very margins of existence. The end result is famine.
Catarina (left, holding deed to new land) understands that kind of universal history.
Until FFF purchased land for her, she was living with her father, and 14 relatives. She and her 5 children slept on the floor. Without a formal income after her husband died, she lost the land they owned together. The Mayan women in our program rented shacks like the one above before FFF purchased land and built new homes for them.
Famine forced our relatives to leave Ireland to seek a better life. Over one hundred years later, three of our FFF clients have lost relatives who died trying to do the same. We can't change history, but Finding Freedom through Friendship board members are working hard to create a new reality for a few special women in our program. 

Maria, on site of her newly donated land and house during construction in Guatemala. She now harvests fruit and is in a FFF sponsored microbusiness.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Love Liberates

Maria, with new refrigerator for her micro business
Maria, (left) is our first Finding Freedom client, and it was her situation that inspired our board members to start our organization in 2009. 
Maria and Finding Freedom through Friendship founder Jody met in Guatemala when Maria asked for assistance in obtaining medicine and food for her children. Maria's husband had abandoned the family when her son became sick with hepatitis.

At the time there was no Finding Freedom through Friendship. It was a glimmer in the back of our minds as board members, but the demands of starting a nonprofit were too daunting for our already-busy selves. After being confronted with the stark reality of Maria's life as a single mother of four children and a caretaker to an elderly mother, we were inspired to make the dream of assisting abandoned women in Guatemala a reality. 

 In our three year relationship with this little family there have been many significantly positive changes.

Before we knew her, Maria had the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was only fourteen when she became a parent-her sister abandoned her baby and Maria became an instant mother. Marrying at an early age, Maria quickly had three more children, while caring for her elderly mother. She needed food, shelter, and medical care for her children. More importantly, she and her children needed this:

Maria and Faby

Inspiration, caring, love and hope. 
Belief in a brighter future through the direct hands-on help of someone who cared enough to say "You can do this, and we will be there to walk the journey with you."

Vinnie, FFF board member and support person for Maria

Faby and Vinnie, our two Guatemalan board members, represent that hope for Maria and her family. They are there....working out the details of hiring the builder for Maria's new home, after finding the lawyer to place the land FFF purchased into Maria's name. Delivering the food, after carefully purchasing what will best feed the family one meal a day for a month. Purchasing and delivering beds, a table and chairs so the family has rudimentary furniture. 
Taking frantic calls when Maria was robbed, and keeping the other board members updated on the details. Providing a good role model for little boys who have no father. Buying school uniforms, supplies, and shoes. Driving for 6 hours during each trip it took to accomplish these things.
In other words, doing all of the things that are needed to lift up a young, overwhelmed mama. 
The night I met Maria three years ago, she was scared and alone. 
As you can see through her words below, she now has hope for a better tomorrow.   


Thursday, August 8, 2013

It Doesn't Only Happen In Guatemala

As board members of a nonprofit that concentrates on the humanitarian and educational needs of Mayan women and children, we tend to focus our informational reading on Central American issues. The internet broadens our horizons, as happened this morning, when I opened my email and received the newsletter from Madre, a nonprofit similar, but much bigger, than ours.
The title was "Girls should not have to marry to stay alive."

Mariela and her mother
Mariela,with donated school supplies

Their newsletter topic felt very familiar to us at Finding Freedom through Friendship. Many of the women in our program married men at an early age, to escape the daily poverty and lack of opportunity that was part of their upbringing. Madre is working to raise awareness of this issue worldwide. Finding Freedom only has the capacity to do so for the children in our program, in the tiny country of Guatemala. 
We are excited about our ability to educate Mariela (above), so that she has opportunities that were not afforded to her mother, who is illiterate. Mariela's mother has no hope of sending her three girls to school without our support to purchase school supplies, uniforms and shoes. 
 Uneducated or undereducated women worldwide are marginalized in every aspect of their lives; culturally, socially and medically. For every year of schooling a girl obtains, statistics show a five to ten percent drop in fertility. The cycle of poverty can be broken, one girl at a time. Children of educated females fare better in every demographic; increased mortality, mental health and education. 

Estela, a student sponsored at Mayan Center for Education and Development with FFF scholarship funds.
What a thrill is it to watch young ladies like Estela blossom in the boarding school ( she attends with FFF funds. Not only is she being exposed to an excellent education but she is also learning alongside young men who are being taught that education for girls is a valuable asset. 
She grew up in this home (below). Would you guess her background by looking at her now? Helping Estela and other girls in our program shine intellectually costs several thousand dollars of our already tight budgetary resources. It is commonly said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Estela's photo shows a radiant and confident young lady with hope for her future. Educating her is a cost we are willing to support. And her smile? Priceless.

Estela's home


Friday, July 26, 2013

The Little Things Make the Biggest Difference

When my brother Mike (our Vice President) and I were little, our Grandmother would send care packages to us that were full of delight. Candy, Cracker Jacks, chocolate coins in tiny mesh bags--enough for all five of us. It felt like a box of joy had traveled all the way from Trenton, New Jersey to tiny Somerset, Kentucky. I still love getting boxes on my doorstep; the element of surprise is tangible and I stop whatever I am doing to open them when they arrive. Today I opened a box from a Finding Freedom through Friendship volunteer Evelyn. Here is what I discovered: 

The cutest beanie hats ever, hand-knit by a lady who I have never met, and most likely never will since she lives 2,000 miles away. Evelyn has done this for us before. Her hats are beautiful. I've sent them to Central America as part of  our midwifery kits, and in boxes of clothing donations, and the children in the cool mountains of Guatemala love them. They are tangible gifts of caring, one stitch at a time. It may seem like a small thing (literally) in the face of so much need.
This box wasn't just meant to brighten the day of the lucky recipients in Guatemala. Evelyn's offering of love and attention to detail made a difference in my day as well.
Her hats are beautiful but her spirit is contagious. I needed the boost today as I struggle with the demands of the paperwork required to run this program. After opening Evelyn's "box of friendship" I felt a tingle of renewed enthusiasm to tackle my pile.
Grandma's care packages taught me that love comes in many forms. Mike and I think she would approve of how Evelyn shows hers. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's My Party.....

If you grew up in the '60's, then you know the rest of the the title. The song sung by Lesly Gore, continues with..."and I'll cry if I want to." It was an instant hit with the melodramatic teenagers of that period, of which I was one.
Today is my 56th birthday, and while I'm not having a party I am going to write about what I want in the way of birthday gifts. In a dream world, I would like:
  For women everywhere to have minimally safe housing to raise their children in, houses that have doors that lock, screens to keep out malaria spreading mosquitoes, and concrete floors to stop the spread of parasites.
If I could wrap it up in a nice box, with a pretty bow, I would ensure that every child in the world have enough to eat, with meals of protein and essential vitamins. What an amazing planet this would be if the next generation had healthy brains from adequate nutrition during their formative years. That would be my request for gift number two.

Sebastian and Pablo are now in school

So that I wasn't considered too greedy, I would stop at gift number three, and ask that every child in the world would no longer have to work instead of going to school. 
 When I was a teenager, the words of It's My Party song repeated themselves in my head many times. Adolescent hormones made the song attractive; when I wasn't crying over puppy love or friendship issues, I found something sad to imagine myself upset about. These days, while the song brings me back to funny memories, I'm not crying during my birthday. Each year that passes is a celebration of our accomplishments as an organization. 
Our gifts haven't changed the world for very many people in Guatemala, but for each one of our recipients of food, shelter or education, I have a new song running through my head. It is What a wonderful world,by Louis Armstrong. It is a wonderful world when caring and competent people combine talent and desire for change with donors who wish to make significant difference. 
We all have gifts to share. 
Dorca, (L) with food donations from FFF

Dominga, who will soon have a new house from FFF

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Walking With My Eyes Wide Shut

     I know this is an odd blog post title, but anyone crazy enough to start a nonprofit is a bit "off" to begin with. There are a million reasons not to add to the busyness of daily life by starting a journey of paperwork, legal issues, bookkeeping and fundraising; all so that fifteen abandoned women and their forty-three children can eat one meal a day, have an education and sleep in waterproof housing.
     It creates a lot of mind chatter when you administrate a nonprofit. Focusing on what is in front of me, instead of worrying about what may or may not happen to our organizations future and to the future of those we help, is a challenge. 
     I'm working on it. Max has to have a long walk every day. He is endlessly patient, but when he starts sighing and circling, I know it is time. Always one for multi-tasking, I recently decided to try to calm my "hamster brain" by shutting out one of my sensory inputs while I walked the dog. Max became my Finding Freedom through Friendship seeing eye dog. 

Max, waiting patiently
When you walk with your eyes closed, several things happen. The body shifts focus; the auditory senses suddenly become more alert. Feet "feel" the pavement instead of simply moving in a forward direction. The body slows down, knowing that danger is imminent if it doesn't. Skin feels breezes, hands hold the dog leash tighter, and faith in anything but eyesight grows stronger. 
Several things happen when I participate in this admittedly idiotic behavior. 
Rosa in front of new home donated by FFF
Once my whirling brain slows down, which happens when visual stimulation is taken away, I think of Rosa, our blind mother of five in Guatemala. Rosa isn't playing a game; for unknown reasons she became blind at age fifteen. Finding Freedom through Friendship built her a home, which she will feel but never see.The donated pot she is holding will be cooked in by feeling the heat, sensing the weight of the food, hoping not to get burned. When I walk with my eyes wide shut, I feel everything so much more acutely. I feel Rosa's fear when she walks unattended, or senses a neighbor nearby that may not have the best of intentions. I sense her worry that before being accepted into our program, she could not feed her children without vision to harvest and plant crops. I shared her grief when she had to give away her youngest son to a male neighbor so Daniel could eat. And I joined her in the joy she felt when, thanks to regular food donations, he returned. 
What I see

I never make it for long....I'm not as brave as Rosa and I really don't want to break a leg while pretending to be blind. When I open my eyes it is with a new clarity, and appreciation for images (R) like this:
Instead of this:

What Rosa can see