by Linda DeWolf, GoPhilanthropic Co-Founder
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
Having only visited a small border village in Guatemala some years ago, I had little idea of what to expect when we at GoPhil recently embarked upon our journey to this remarkable Central American country.
Since arriving we have found the mountainous landscapes stunning, the plazas grand and inviting and the area of Lake Atitlan magnificent. I was prepared to compare one of its major cities, Antigua, to my own home of Santa Fe, NM, both as Spanish colonial UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At first glance so many similarities were apparent, but when you dig deeper into Guatemala, the statistics are staggering and the differences quickly became glaring.
For example, Guatemala has:
- The highest percentage of malnourished children in all of Latin America
- Nearly 40% of the population is indigenous consisting of 23 Mayan groups and one non-Mayan group
- 58% of the national population with incomes below the extreme poverty line
- More than 75% of the national population live below the poverty line
- 45% of the population over the age of 15 are illiterate
- 42% of Guatemalan citizens do not have access to clean water
- Over half of the children in Guatemala suffer chronic malnutrition with some areas having a rate as high as 90%.
This was going to be a “listen and learn” journey for sure.
PART I: LET THE JOURNEY BEGIN!
On my first full day in Guatemala, my GoPhil colleague, Christina Bruce, and our trusty videographer, Noah Porter, embarked on the three- hour journey to the ancient pre-Columbian city of Quetzaltenango, also known by its Mayan name of Xela. The city has an industrial feel though the landscape is dotted with a variety of landscapes and volcanos, both active and inactive, hot springs, valleys, mountains, and rivers. The region provides a wide array of products such as coffee, wheat, fruits and vegetables, as well as sheep and cattle breeding.
In Xela we had the privilege of spending time with two NGO’s: Entre Mundos and Primeros Pasos — two organizations devoted to strengthening vulnerable communities in Guatemala.
Our first visit was to Entre Mundos, an impressive Guatemalan nonprofit organization located right in the heart of Xela. The organization was founded in 2001 to support NGOs and groups committed to the fight against poverty and the defense and promotion of human rights for the country’s most marginalized populations. Entre Mundos has a robust database of some 900 Guatemalan NGO’s and provides support through critical capacity building and certification workshops. These programs reach approximately 600 individuals through in person and on line courses. They also offer a small grants program which supports roughly 30 Guatemalan NGO’s per year. They have developed a community tourism initiative to train local organizations in this arena – oh my, how interesting was that!? If all that wasn’t enough, they have developed a robust national and international volunteer program that recruits, educates and connects volunteers to well planned, thoughtful local volunteer opportunities.
Entre Mundos is an NGO that provides an amazing depth and breadth of services and support on a literal shoe-string budget. We left Entre Mundos after an almost three-hour visit still hungry to learn more.
Our second day was spent visiting our partner program Primeros Pasos, a highly regarded NGO providing much needed (and we would learn just how deep this need was during our journey) medical, dental services, children’s health and nutritional services. With them, GoPhil has funded a program to support a nutrition program for mothers and their babies entitled “The First 1000 Days” (referring to the critical first few years of a child’s development). During our time with Primeros Pasos, we traveled out to a little village right outside of town, where we were able to observe a class for moms, with babes in tow, focused on the many benefits as well as myths of breastfeeding. During the interactive session all the women were totally engaged, laughing and chatting, and we could see what a difference this type of “hands on” education can make. After the class we had a little time to interact with the moms and felt totally humbled to be in some small part a part of this most meaningful program.
Later, we visited Primeros Pasos’ clinic which houses a couple of exam rooms, a dental room and a simple laboratory. We also were able to learn about their Red Cap data base system provided by their partner Vanderbilt University. This system allows Primeros Pasos to capture patient information both in the clinic and in the office through tablets and then integrate all this information. Volunteers have been completing much of the work so that this system is targeted to go live by end of summer. We completed our visit by enjoying a simple but delicious lunch at a small taco restaurant where the owner is fully committed to “farm to tortilla.” Reluctantly we said goodbye to our Primeros Pasos friends, knowing we would see them in a few days when they would present an in depth look at their programs to our travelers.
Our journey back to Antigua was long and windy but took us past lush forests and high terrain and was further sweetened by a brief stop to catch a picturesque glimpse of Lake Atitlan and the surrounding volcanoes, many of which are still active today. We would have more time for the lake later in our journey.
PART II: OUR TRAVELERS ARRIVE AND THE LEARNING BEGINS
Back in Antigua, little by little we were pleased to greet our GoPhil travelers who came from such distant locations as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Columbus, Houston, Santa Fe, France and Costa Rica. And over the course of a week, we developed strong bonds as one traveler stated at the end of our journey:
“Rarely do we get to TRAVEL WITH A PURPOSE — beyond enjoying lush and aged scenery never before visited or countries and peoples with whom we have had little exposure. With our varied backgrounds and interests, my fellow travelers and I became connected as donors through GoPhil. Our band of 13 (a sacred Mayan number that included our group and guide) immersed ourselves in an intimate venture into the lives and programs that GoPhil sponsors and supports here in Guatemala. I treasure this trip and being able to share it with a group of kindred spirits who want to make a difference in the world — so much can be done when aspiration is encouraged!”
DON’T GIVE US A HAND OUT. GIVE US A LEG UP.
Our first full day in Antigua would be spent in understanding that aspiration by taking a walking tour of this fascinating city as well as visiting a local coffee cooperative via the colorful (albeit bumpy) local “chicken bus”. What we heard time and time again, starting with this visit to the De La Gente Coffee Coop, was that the proud people of Guatemala are not looking for charity but rather, access to education and jobs so that they can become self-sufficient and provide for their families. At the Coop, we were hosted by a small coffee grower who told us his own story and invited us into his humble home. We walked the coffee fields, learned the enormous amount of work entailed in producing just one pound of coffee per bush, talked about issues of fair trade and then watched coffee beans be ground and roasted by his family. And as we learned more about the Coop’s impressive mix of supporting farmers through financing, training and capacity building, we enjoyed a delicious cup of hand-brewed Guatemalan coffee, among the very best!
And, that brings me to a say just a word about Guatemalan food. Besides the wonderful freshly ground coffee, we enjoyed carefully hand-crafted chocolates, ripe fresh fruits like mangos, the best avocados you have probably ever tasted (equates to fantastic guacamole, oh yes! almost every day!) and, of course, the dish which Guatemala is famous for – its rich, toasty Pepian which we all loved. I couldn’t resist sharing an example of the ingredients of this fabulous dish: http://thelatinkitchen.com/r/recipe/traditional-pepian
PART III: A TRULY MAGICAL VISIT
After a lovely evening at our hotel, the beautiful and serene El Convento Boutique Hotel (a converted convent), located on a shady cobblestone street within walking distance of just about everything in Antigua, we had a chance to hear from our newest GoPhil partner Aula Mágica (Magical Classroom) as Michael Estill and his colleagues Lucy Diaz and Sophia Garcia joined us. During our time together, we learned that education is truly fragmented in Guatemala with little, if any, infrastructure existing. Preschool is not a requirement nor is school attendance beyond the 6th grade.
We were shocked to learn that over 40% of children are simply not ‘ready’ to go to school at all.
Aula Mágica focuses on preparing preschool age child to begin first grade, combining innovative components of education, nutritional supplements and youth empowerment. GoPhil’s new pilot grant supports teacher salaries as the program strives to serve the vast needs of the children. Aula Mágica sponsors some 20 school programs in extremely remote areas of Guatemala and works with local youth in a uniquely innovative approach to help educate the children in and outside the classroom. Children spend two hours a day in the classroom and then are encouraged at home through committed learning times with their parents.
We visited an Aula Mágica partner program “Let’s Be Ready” and had the joy of watching the children as they proudly called out basic colors, shapes, numbers and moved between play stations. To date, about 200 children have successfully gone on to first grade as a result of this NGO’s truly ‘magical’ work.
After our time with Aula Mágica, the afternoon was free to wander around Antigua, poking about for treasures (textiles being a highlight of the region for sure) in various galleries and shops before we gathered for one of our many delightful group dinners where we were able to reflect upon what we had seen and experienced during the day.
The next few days were spent enjoying the southwestern highlands at world- renowned Lake Atitlan, the deepest lake in Central America, dramatically surrounded by volcanoes. There we visited charming local villages, learned first hand about Mayan culture and were invited to witness and/or participate in very special traditional spiritual ceremonies. Most importantly, we got to know our two other partner programs through in depth visits that were more than we ever could have anticipated.
PART IV: TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY
On our way to the Lake, we stopped to meet with partner ASSADE (Asociación Para La Salud Y El Desarrollo), located outside Antigua in San Andrés Itzapa. This is an area where malnutrition and poor water quality is astonishingly rampant and the degree of discrimination toward the indigent populations simply hard to digest. ASSADE focuses on the huge inequities of health care where a mere 48% of the population are covered by health services. ASSADE provides comprehensive health programs to the Mayan population focusing on a combination of prevention, treatment and recovery. They provide critical preventative services such as pap smears, medical exams, ultrasounds and dental services (often considered a luxury in Guatemala and the focus of GoPhil’s pilot grant). As a point of pride and to foster sustainability, patients are asked to pay a nominal fee for ASSADE services if they can afford to do so. What is especially impressive about ASSADE is that it is totally community needs driven and is led by the indomitable founder Maria Elena Letona and her two sons. Maria Elena founded ASSADE as a legacy to her physician brother who was murdered during the Guatemalan civil war by the government for caring for the indigent.
It is estimated that a near 70% of indigenous women have never seen a gynecologist nor had a pap smear.
We were especially touched as Maria Elena’s son, Julio, provided our group with a context of Guatemala’s long-standing struggles, civil wars and subsequent health issues. On a hosted walking tour, he emphasized some of the hazardous public health issues that prevail in the area such as open garbage dumps where rats abound. He also shared the importance of a holistic approach to health for the populations served. We were able to get a special glimpse into local customs by visiting a Mayan spiritual site where we learned about local and observed practices such as ritual cleansing which patients often used in concert with visiting the clinic. Our visit concluded with ASSADE presenting GoPhil heartfelt gifts as well as sharing a wonderfully simple but tasty meal prepared by some of the town’s women.
Our final partner visit was to Centro Maya, an NGO dedicated to providing integrated support services for the disabled who are pretty much ostracized from society, not only as Mayan but also as disabled (“sometimes even chairs are wiped down after a disabled person sits in them”). There is much to be said here and I think the most effective way to tell this story is through the eyes of one of our wonderful GoPhil travelers, Brian Sassi. Following are excerpts from his recent blog about the Centro Maya visit:
“Upon arriving at Centro Maya and meeting the development director, Mae Ardón, a dynamic young Guatemalan woman who gave up a career in law to oversee the programing and fundraising, we were treated to a special ‘show’ put on by the participants. The program started with a beautiful dance routine that included participants with all types of physical and learning disabilities. This was followed by the participants playing a few musical numbers – first Beethoven’s Fur Elise, followed by John Lennon’s Imagine and finishing with Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. It was very emotional and by the time the first notes of Imagine were played there was not a dry eye in the house. Just knowing the conditions and challenges that these young people face and the fact that they were learning and enjoying playing for us was a lot to digest, but very gratifying to see and experience.
Following the performance and after we all regained our composure, we toured the various departments and met the teachers and other workers that make this program run. We stopped in the kitchen to speak with Vicki who runs part of the education program along with the kitchen. She spoke to us about how they prepare healthy, organic and nutritional meals for the participants. Often, given how poor some of the families are, this is the only meal that these children get each day. She explained that they used to provide a morning and afternoon meal, but they lost part of the funding and could now only provide 1 meal a day which they have divided into two smaller portions – just heart breaking. An example of how an additional $5,000 – $7,500 a year could greatly improve the quality of life for the 180 participants in this program.
Centro Maya’s program manager explained that while they have a lot of donors, many people prefer to donate only gifts-in-kind or supplies that are used and that only about half of their annual budget is through reoccurring revenue sources – the remainder needing to be sourced through monthly donations. Shortfalls are often taken by the teachers to continue to provide continuity in the programs. It’s hard for us to understand why some donors don’t understand the need to fund teachers, food, and other important administrative costs.
Without these dedicated group of people the programs could not be sustained. Trust me, there are no excess overhead costs in any of the NGO’s we’ve met.
After our tour, we had lunch at the café run by Centro Maya – Alama de Colores- and staffed by some participants. We dined on organic, vegetarian dishes grown in the Centro Maya gardens, which was in keeping with the traditional vegetarian diet of the Mayans. The director, Leticia Mendoza, was another dynamic woman, who gave us some more background on the program and shared some success stories. Manuel, the wheelchair-bound participant with limited mobility in his hands and legs and who played the Xylophone and Chinese Bells with his teeth/mouth was our waiter at the restaurant. He has been a participant for several years and was now attending Law school. While not everyone will have the capacity to grow to this level, you could tell that each of the students were developing in there own areas and the program was having a dramatic impact on their lives.
This was an overwhelming emotional and heart wrenching day, but ultimately very inspiring and heartwarming. We have tremendous respect for the women and men who dedicate their lives to this work, both paid employees and unpaid volunteers. They are forever changing the lives of the people the people we met. Humbling, very humbling.”
PART V: BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
We closed our time at Lake Atitlan (literal translation of Atitlan is “ the place where the rainbow gets it color”) knowing that we had listened deeply and learned more than we ever imagined and understanding that we each brought our own unique perspective to this journey.
This was further punctuated on our last day as we explored the magnificent ruins of Iximche, felt the ancient energy there and had the privilege of taking part in a traditional Mayan Shamanic ceremony. This age old ceremony allowed us each the time to personally think back over our amazing individual and collective experiences. With the guidance of a Shaman, we reflected upon our intentions and dreams by choosing candles of various colors (each with a specific meaning) to throw into the flames. All in all, it was a powerful way to close the loop and to open the way for a future of possibilities.
I think there is no better way to sum this up than with one traveler’s personal observations: “The amount of love and respect that I feel this morning is near impossible for words. To the amazing new friends with whom we explored Guatemala and some of its most admirable GoPhilanthropic grassroots programs over the last week, I say thank you – for sharing your stories, for being witness, for your genuine care for humanity. I am overwhelmed by a rich blast of hope knowing that together, we will continue to spread the light.” – Travis Day, GoPhil Traveler
To become engaged and/or to learn more about GoPhilanthropic and the programs we support in Guatemala click the following link.