Helping Kids Thrive: A Story from Guatemala

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Many of us are accustomed to taking out loans for big expenses:
A home.
A car.
College tuition.

But imagine having to take out a loan for your child’s school supplies.

That’s the economic reality for many people around the world.

Juana is a four year old in Guatemala. She’s too young for school, but her three older siblings all attend.

What’s even more significant is that the parents are going into debt in order to educate their two daughters, in a culture in which many families don’t allow their girls to go to school. It’s seen as an unnecessary expense in a culture in which girls are raised to get married and keep the home. Juana’s parents want their girls to have opportunity and self-sufficiency.

Juana’s village is a picture of contrasts. It’s a beautiful site near a lake in the middle of a dormant volcano. The ancient Maya settlements make it a popular tourist destination. Luxury hotels and fancy amenities clash with local living conditions; the indigenous communities around the lake struggle to maintain their quality of life in a region with few public services and poor infrastructure.

The economy in the village is centered around coffee and fishing, with the women creating beaded jewelry for the tourism industry. It’s a meager and unstable economic situation for the residents there. Juana’s father is 30 and never attended school. He works as a day laborer; depending on the month, he works picking coffee, avocados, or local fruit on land owned by wealthier families. During months when work is scarce, he supplements his income doing handicrafts or odd jobs for his neighbors. Juana’s mother has a first-grade education but had to drop out to help her family around the house.

Juana’s parents do their best to put food on the table for their growing children, but meals are usually lacking in variety and nutrients. The most common meal is black beans, tortillas and wild greens that they find growing in the coffee plantation. “My children are used to this life,” Juana’s mother says, “but I feel bad when they want to eat a second helping of food and I have no more to give them.”

Because the family has so little extra income, the children are used to wearing the same clothes throughout the week. The children use cheap plastic sandals bought at the market, which break quickly. Juana is underweight and gets sick often with diarrhea, stomachaches and vomiting. Still, Juana is a calm and easy-going child, and she likes to play with stuffed animals and dolls. She can entertain herself in the shade of the coffee trees near her house.

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Juana deserves a chance to thrive. It’s what her parents want for her, and what we want for her as well.

Feed the Children has been supporting children through child sponsorship in the village since October of 2012. These children receive a backpack with school supplies every year, which many families would not be able to afford otherwise. These are the supplies that used to put the family into debt each year—it used to take months to pay off the loan. Now the kids have what they need, and the parents can set aside money for other necessities.

Feed the Children also supports a feeding program in the community, in which every registered child comes to eat lunch at mid-day. Not only is the food more filling and nutritious than what Juana would eat at home, it allows families to save a little money and use more of their income to provide healthier meals at breakfast and dinner. “My children are always excited to go to the feeding program for lunch,” Juana’s mother says. “The food is more complete there and healthier. They are happy to be part of this program.”

Sponsored children also receive two pairs of TOMS shoes every year, which represents a large savings for the parents as they don’t have to replace their children’s shoes as often, and means that the children’s feet are protected every day.

Finally, Feed the Children in partnership with Vitamin Angels has begun to support the community with deworming pills, Vitamin A supplementation and multivitamins every six months. Children like Juana often drink contaminated water and lack good hygiene practices like hand washing with soap. As a result they can suffer endemic parasitic infections, which don’t allow their bodies to absorb important nutrients. The medication provided by Vitamin Angels helps break this cycle and helps reduce malnutrition and stunting.

Juana’s community still needs a lot of support. Family or community gardens could be a source of extra income as well as provide needed nutrients to the limited diet; and targeted village loan programs could help families start other production projects to grow their income as well. The community urgently needs water and sanitation infrastructure improvements to reduce the incidence of water-borne diarrheal illness; and hygiene education to support healthy habits.

However, the support that Feed the Children has provided so far has been a strong start and has shown the families here what they can achieve if they work together. The work continues.

Thank you to everyone who makes our work possible. To learn more about our work in Guatemala, click here.