Sunday, March 30, 2014

We Said No More

Our facilitators in Guatemala know better. They understand that Finding Freedom through Friendship is limited in our financial resources, as are most nonprofit organizations in our current economy. It takes money to feed, shelter and educate children, and this money squeaks from being wrung dry. 
So we said, and have said for months,"no more." 
No more emails asking if we can help this mother in a village, or that mother in a small rural town. No more pictures of children sleeping on dirt floors in houses with leaking roofs. But Roland, our Guatemalan facilitator, didn't listen. Because he was there in the hospital, with his big heart and his beaten up camera and his indefatigable stamina for helping one more..... he sent me this:

The 2 brothers are; Larry; 8 years old. And Arles; 4 years old. Their mother’s name is Navia. Both brothers are suffering from burning, much itching all over their bodies and also in their mouths, tongues and throat, and it also affect their eyes.
The nurse said aging skin disease, but they don’t know exactly what skin disease the boys have. The nurse and social worker said they have no treatments for the siblings in the hospital, and asked me to search for help for the brothers. The mother and her 2 sons now live now in the hospital temporarily; they do not have their own home. The mother is a single mother. She also has a daughter, but she does not have the disease, and now her daughter is in a special shelter for children in another city. I saw that the mother does not have many teeth. Her two sons have not received exams or treatments by dermatologists.

And with this request, he sent these pictures.
I stood my ground with this picture. Larry is cute, he is malnourished, but then so are millions of children in Guatemala and we can't take them all:

Eight year old Larry

Four year old brother, Arlis
And we only slightly wavered when we saw this one (above right), because his little brother is so sweet, but don't all (at least to us) Guatemalan children look sweet?

Larry's hand
Disease process leaves open sores and scars
But this one got us. The disease process has made a webbed mess of what used to be hands, and his back looks like a burn victim.


Roland's message continued; 
" I have met them 4 times and I have seen how the boys love their mom and how she loves and care very much for her sons, that is my impression, I think my photos shows that. The brothers get hurt easily in their skin and they need lots of attention, many times yesterday her mother had to carry her youngest son. So this is the reason why her daughter temporarily is in a shelter, she was malnourished, the mother had no food for her children."
We could push ourselves harder, work longer for more donated dollars, and network more resources to help. It feels scary and insecure. When we "adopt" a mother with critical needs in Guatemala, we put 100% of our effort into helping. She and her children become part of our "family". These boys have a life threatening, lifelong disease that could suck the financial lifeblood out of our organization. Their mother has nothing, which means getting the family from nothing to something will take hours and hours of time and effort. Hours we don't have.

In the next post, I will tell you what we decided to do. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Worried Child

Our board members are all parents, and in some cases, grandparents. We know what American children worry about. As their caretakers, we have watched over them and worried with them, often wondering if we had appropriate boundaries as we got a little too immersed in their issues.
They chewed their fingernails down as they watched scoreboards, test scores, took drivers education classes and fretted over prom date prospects. Julie in Kentucky rode her horse, and competed in difficult equestrian events. Kinsey in Colorado crossed her fingers behind her back as she watched from the stage for her Irish Dancing scores. Adriana in Rhode Island works hard in school and helps her mother raise funds for our work in Central America. 

In Guatemala, our Finding Freedom mother's have many children, all with their own personal concerns. Their concerns are a bit less complex...they don't have cars to qualify to drive, or horses to compete on.
Graciela (R) worries about someday finding a husband who will feed and shelter her, someone who will be faithful and who will work to support the children she will have. In a village where young men lack good role models, and many men are absent, she knows that this will be a challenge.

Maria (L) wonders what will happen if the Finding Freedom monthly food supplements stop being donated for her family. Before these donations, her mother begged from neighbors so she could feed her children. Maria hopes that she will be able to continue to go to school, not only because she likes it, but because it gives her a break from harvesting firewood and gathering herbs for soup. Her concerns are so intrinsic to her daily life that she would not understand a life without them.
Santa Ilaria (R) has trouble sleeping as she frets about her little sister, who hasn't walked for six months and has arthritis. She knows her mother won't be able to carry her sister up the mountains to cut firewood for much longer. She realizes that her mother is stretched to her limit, and her mother is the only parent she has. Ilaria's brother narrowly missed being sent to the sugar cane fields to become a contract worker, and she wonders if this will be her fate when she gets older. She knows girls in her village who are sent to live with families that hire them to do laundry and household work.

Brenda (above) works twelve hour days at a tortilla stand, and hopes that the few dollars a week she makes at age sixteen will help her mother buy food for the other seven children at home. She watches her back as she walks several miles home at night, down the dark alley to the shack her family lives in. When she turns the piece of wire that shuts the door to her yard, she knows just how fragile that wire is if someone from the local gang wanted to follow her in.
These children are some of the many in our program. They, and all children in the world, deserve to be free of worry.  We are working hard to make a carefree childhood a reality for more children in Guatemala.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Child Bride

My grandmother used to have a saying that described a particularly impressive person. Manuela was the "brightest bulb on the block;" sweet, smart and intuitive. When I was with her, I knew what was going on in the room by watching her eyes; they took in detail, processed it and mirrored back the meaning to anyone quick enough to observe the process. She had a serenity about her that denied the hardships of living in a single parent household in remote northern Guatemala.
This photo of her in 2013 shows what is special about her...the glow, the purity of her smile, the hope that her life will offer more opportunity than her mother's did. As the oldest daughter of five children, Manuela was a role model for her siblings, often acting as a surrogate mother when the younger children needed something.

Manuela, (L) with her scholar award, October '13
In February of this year, sixteen year old Manuela married a young man in her village that she has known for a long time, and because she had so much potential, I am seeking understanding about why.

As with most youth her age, this new bride's fertility will most likely make her a young mother within the year. Marrying under the age of sixteen makes Manuela four times more likely to die in childbirth. She will no longer continue her education, now that she lives in her in law's home and will be busy helping with household work.  Few Mayan women ever divorce, no matter the circumstances. Making such a major decision at a young age dictates Manuela's future in every sense of the word.

It is easy, from my position of fortune here in the states, to make unwarranted judgement on this situation. I'm fighting feelings of anger at Candalaria, Manuela's mother. This family has been in our circle of concern for three years. We built Candalaria a house, we continue to educate her children, we meet their basic needs for furniture and clothing, and we feed the family $100 worth of food staples monthly. Why then, we wonder, was this youthful marriage necessary?

Manuela's father, who died after illegally crossing the U.S. border five years ago, had favored the relationship between these two young people.The families knew each other and despite her excellent scholastic progress in her village school, Manuela knew that once school was over, there were no opportunities for gainful employment within hundreds of miles of her home. In her culture, 40% of Mayan girls will marry before they turn eighteen.
Candalaria tells us that the new in laws promised to help feed Manuela's siblings if she agreed to the marriage. 

Manuela's mountains; beauty but little economic opportunity

  That feels like failure
No mother should have to marry her daughter off for food. Especially when Finding Freedom has been supplying the family with monthly food staples for years. But food prices in Guatemala have risen almost 30% in most areas. One hundred dollars a month stretches our budget but it doesn't go far enough to feed Candalaria's children adequately. 
Those of us who work in Guatemala know that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of any situation involving this complex culture. I know that Candalaria loves her eldest daughter, I've seen the love manifested in gestures and glances. Our board members understand the realities of life in the beautiful but severe mountains of Guatemala. Those hardships, and the culture, made this the right decision for this family. 
It is not our place to judge, only to support. Just like with our own children. Either way, it is a struggle.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Mother's Thanks

I know you can't understand her. If it helps, I can't either. Candalaria speaks a dialect that I will never master, but thankfully our Guatemalan facilitators speak it fluently.
So you will have to trust me when I tell you that she is saying "thank you." She is expressing her gratitude for your concern, for helping us help her.
I love this particular dialect. It is spoken softly, and when we are in a room of women who are speaking this language, it feels like a soft flow of warm water, easing through the room without sharp edges, smoothing everything in its path. There is another language women speak, a universal communication done with eye contact, physical touch and subtle gestures. We learn early to read these signs, they keep us safe in uncertain circumstances.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Blues

 For the last three weeks, I've been living in the basement while our hardwood floors were being redone. Sleeping on the couch, feeling misplaced and disgruntled, but grateful all the same that I had floors to refinish. And a couch to sleep on, blankets to keep me warm. And heat, water, dishes, coffee. And a husband willing to pay the bill. 
The "ands" go on and on.
All of the things Magdalena's family does not have. This is their "couch"; three blankets, and a floor.
There is no heat, water, electricity, food, or father (he died when Magdalena was pregnant with the baby). The children have inadequate clothing. The oldest child is 9 years old. Their mother is 23. You don't want to do the math.

Magdalena's five children

When I was lying on the couch at night, wishing I could be back in my bed, I thought of Magdelena, a young widow in northern Guatemala. 
Here is what I would like to ask her:
How does it feel to be a 23 year old widow in remote northern Guatemala where there are no social services, no Social Security, no food banks? How do you sleep at night with no lock on the door, in a rental home with a leaky roof that turns your floor, with your sleeping children lying on it, into mud for weeks upon weeks in the rainy season? What do you do to soothe your nerves at 2 AM when you know your children are going to awaken, expecting a breakfast that isn't there? What keeps you from leaning on the next male who walks in the door promising to feed your babies, and you are just 23, and feeling like a baby yourself? How do you sustain hope? How do you nourish your spirit so that you can care for your children's emotional needs? When fear grips your throat and incapacitates you, how do you survive?
What can we do to help you? 
And then, when I heard her answers, which are the same answers of mothers in any developing country, I would ask the leaders of the world;

Why is it, in this time of incredible resources, that mothers don't have what they need to nourish and educate the next generation of children?
I want to know their answers.