Friday, February 28, 2014

The Addiction

 We are fortunate to have such intelligent board members in our organization, and some of them enjoy reading The New York Times. This nationally renowned newspaper does an excellent job of showcasing world events and stories.
The link (below) to their recent story about sugar addiction hit home with a few of us. For me in particular.
According to this report, Americans consume on average, 150 lbs of sugar annually. Our palates are "trained" over time to enjoy the overly sweet taste of food items that are made with sugar. As with many things, we often enjoy what we consume, food or otherwise, without thinking of the "cost" of having that item. 

Here is the article.

Eduardo (L) two years ago in former house.
Eduardo knows how much sugar cost, but not in the way you might think. For this fourteen year old, sugar means work. Guatemala is now the third largest sugar producer in Latin America, and three quarters of production is exported. Mills are largely controlled by elite landowning families, who together account for over 75 per cent of the country's sugar milling. And for over 60,000 men that means work, even if it is seasonal. 

In Guatemala, children grow up quickly. At fourteen, Eduardo is the man of the household and his mother did what she thought was necessary; she contracted him as a laborer to the owner of a sugar cane plantation 100 miles from home. When her alcoholic husband left the family, Lucia had five children to feed and no income, house, utilities or school fee money. 

Here is where the story gets tricky.

 Finding Freedom has donated all of the above to Lucia for the last three years. The hut you see (above) was replaced by our organization by a concrete block home with an intact roof, running water and a toilet (one of few in the entire village). The family eats one meal a day thanks to our donors. The children are in school and we purchase their school supplies. We arranged and paid for treatment for Lucia's four year old who has arthritis. We thought we were doing enough, and we knew we were doing more for this family than for hundreds of thousands of abandoned women 
in Guatemala. 

Eduardo, putting ink on Lucia's thumb to sign contract

It wasn't enough for Lucia, and instead of asking us for more food for her children, she arranged to send her son to the sugar cane fields. Entering 7th grade meant that Eduardo's school fees and supplies would now cost over $250 per year, which was more than Lucia's annual income.  Her children needed more than one meal a day. Lucia did what millions of mother's worldwide do when they are financially desperate: she contracted out her child for labor.

I have visited these fields. Sugar grows best in the lowlands of Guatemala, which means the temperatures are usually in the high 90's. The fields are infested with snakes, causing fatal bites annually. Worse than the snakes are the red flies, which inject a bacteria into the skin of their victim and cause tissue decay. The bites I got while walking in the fields left scars. The smoke from burning the fields (to rid the fields of snakes) causes respiratory infections. Kidney disease from chronic dehydration kills some of the workers. Harvesting sugar is one of the most physically brutal jobs in Guatemala. 

Fortunately, our FFF facilitator who is in charge of this family did his monthly home visit the day before Eduardo's scheduled departure. When Lucia shared her plan with Rolando, he notified me.
 "Please help", he wrote, "Eduardo desperately wants to continue in school."
We are still working on funding, but meanwhile, Eduardo has his school supplies. He can return to being a student. There are no more worries, at least for this year,  of becoming  a contract farm hand, far from home and at risk for abuse. 

Eduardo with new school supplies
During my visits to Eduardo's home, he hovers close to his mother, quietly watching over her needs. It was a very sweet moment when he helped his mother ink her thumb (above) so she could "sign" the FFF contract holding her accountable for our donations. It would be hard to imagine the family without him. 

Unfortunate circumstances have caused him to grow up faster than he would have liked to. We are glad we can help him be a child for one more year. And when I have my morning coffee, sugar included, I'll think of Eduardo, with gratitude that we had one tiny victory in a world where consumer consumption and poverty creates a need for children to leave their mothers.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Oxygen Mask

On my recent flight to Guatemala to visit our Finding Freedom mothers, the airline stewardess announced the same message that I've heard countless times.

 "In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it."

Finding Freedom has nothing to do with the airline industry, but we both understand the same basic precedent.

If a parent does not have their basic needs met, oxygen being one of them, they can't begin to care for their children. 
With limited, if any, social services available in rural Guatemala, the death of a single parent means orphaned children live with whatever relative will agree to house them. Upon the international ban on adoptions from Guatemala in 2009, orphanages are full. The future for an orphan is grim, as it is throughout the world.
Catarina was one of those parents who was at the end of her oxygen mask output...literally, and after being abandoned by her husband because she was TB positive, Catarina was the only parent of three girls. 

When she first came into our program, Catarina was malnourished, and she suffered from TB, hepatitis and chronic asthma. Lack of oxygen made breathing so difficult for this mother that she was not able to work in the fields. She had no income, very little food and three young children who depended on her for all of their needs. Catarina's medical and situational crisis was so acute that it was hard to know where our priorities should be in helping her. 

Catarina with asthma meds
We started by helping her to breathe. 
We hospitalized her, and paid for her medical care when she almost died from an acute asthma attack. We supplied her with inhalant medications that she now uses daily, in the nebulizer we donated. We have fed her children one meal a day for the last three years.

Donated stove

 In May of 2011 our donated stove cut down on her respiratory infections, since she no longer had to inhale smoke when cooking. Finding Freedom also donated a house for the family, therefore reducing the mold and dust once the family started living on a concrete floor instead of dirt. A water filter was an essential donation, to prevent further Hepatitis infection. We have paid her children's educational expenses. 

So happy for her school supplies!
How many financial resources has this one family taken out of our program?
 A lot. 
Including Catarina and her children in Finding Freedom has meant extra trips to the local doctor, more funding for medicines, and emergency trips to the hospital in rented vans.  We had to find designated donors to help with medical supplies, the stove and medicines. None of the children have sponsors for school, meaning that we fund all of the educational supplies, uniforms, fees and shoes for her three girls. 
We measure progress in our program not by how much money is left in our bank account, but by the health and well-being of the women and their children whom we assist. 
By this measure, we have done our job. The children are safe and healthy, Catarina is gaining weight and has stayed out of the local hospital for over a year. When I said good-bye to her in January, Catarina tearfully mentioned that she felt she would have died without our help. As a nurse, I know this to be true. 
This family is not without their challenges. Life is hard in rural Guatemala, and as an illiterate Mayan woman who does not speak Spanish, Catarina will always struggle to find work. But the family is together, her health is improved, and she can breathe.

Catarina and daughters in January 2014.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Childhood; Interrupted

Four of Sylvia's seven children
Last month, when my friends and I were doing a home visit with Sylvia's family (above) in Guatemala, our minds and bodies were assaulted with the usual overload of sensory input when in Guatemala. When traveling from the U.S. to Central America in January, just getting used to the weather change takes a day or so. Added to this disconnect is the sense of chaos from the traffic, the smell of diesel fumes, the sounds of engines without mufflers. Color saturates the clothing worn by indigenous women, but the hills are brown from dried up stalks of corn. The color of dried mud floors inside the houses makes everything else look more colorful by contrast. And curious children are everywhere. American visitors always draw an audience. 

I didn't notice her at first. She blended into the confusion in the courtyard; she seemed like one more Mayan child who had decided to see what all of the excitement was about. 

A life of labor starts early in Guatemala

Once I saw her, I couldn't stop watching. She was quiet, diligent and every few minutes, would look out of the corner of her eye to see what and who we were. Her eyes were wary, her facial expressions guarded. 

Sylvia's hut is surrounded by metal walls, and a gate. This girl, who didn't belong to the family, had been let in, but I didn't know why. 

"She does her family's laundry in our sink," Sylvia explained. "I let her in because her house has no running water or sink." 

Childhood; interrupted. 

It took some time, but for a few brief moments, this nameless girl allowed herself to get lost in a moment of fun. She relaxed. She laughed. 
We stood by and watched, happy that this child of the slums could forget that her childhood was interrupted by the scarcity of chronic poverty.

FFF friend Gerry shows the children photos of themselves.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Who Are you, Anyway?

Many people wonder about the name of our organization, but they aren't forward enough to ask. Today was the day.
Our local postal worker, who has seen our return address label many times, couldn't help himself.

"Just who is this Finding Freedom through Friendship organization anyway?" he asked. 

There was a long line behind me, it was 20 degrees outside, we were nearing  the end of a hard winter, and people were edgy. Our post office is small; I knew my answer, as well as the question, would be heard by all who stood behind me.
I was stumbling...I needed a short, concise answer. It wasn't a good time to engage in conversation, unless I wanted the customers behind me to stampede the line.

" We promote positive feelings by fostering friendships," I replied.

There was a long pause on his part.

"Well I have lots of friends,"he replied," and I don't feel positive or happy."

To which I mumbled something about how sorry I was, as I scurried out the door.

Here is what I wanted to tell him:

We work on building up the emotional and physical stamina of abandoned mothers in rural Guatemala through supporting their critical needs. We supply them and their children with food, housing and education. Our friendship promotes freedom from worry, from stress, and, most importantly, it gives Mayan women the freedom to be better mothers, because they are the only parent their children have. 

View from village in Guatemala

Except of course, I didn't have the time to say all of this, and he most likely didn't have the inclination to listen. Which is for the best, because once I start, it is hard to hold me back. The Finding Freedom through Friendship board members who are mothers know that parenting is one of the hardest jobs. The hours are endless, the rewards not always immediately visible, and the end result....we may not live long enough to see it. 

And this is on a good day. 
Add chronic hunger, lack of housing, inaccessibility to medical care for your sick family members, a lack of transportation to get your children to school and absent fathers and the obstacles are insurmountable. 

Paul the Postal Worker didn't have the time to understand that our board members are not necessarily concerned about creating friends in Guatemala. We have plenty of those here in our respective communities. 
We are however, heavily invested in creating a safer, healthier and more intellectual world for those abandoned women and their children who are within our circle of concern in the mountains of Guatemala where these resources are not available to them. 
 If, in doing so, if friendships are created, all the better.  

Manuela's hand-stitched thank you note following the donation of her new house