In early June 2010, after severe flooding occurred in Guatemala, a small team from Food For The Poor (FFP) – including Alice Marino, Director of Marketing, and Mark Khouri, Director of Goods In Kind – traveled with me there to meet with our partners, Caritas Arquediocesana. The purpose of our trip was to visit some of our joint programs in the country. Traveling at the same time was a team from a very large and reputable (not to mention generous and charitable) corporate leader in the food industry, which included their president. This giant U.S. corporation with a heart of gold has been developing a vitamin and iron enriched, turkey based, protein product to help combat the frightening incidence of malnutrition, which often results in death or stunted growth. FFP and Caritas have partnered with this corporation in order to help with testing and distribution of the nutritional product in Guatemala City and its environs. This is successfully accomplished through nearly 30 Mother and Child (M & C) programs administered by Caritas and supported by FFP through its USDA McGovern-Dole Food For Education Program.
This canned turkey product, together with our rice, beans and oil received from the USDA, has been distributed over recent months to all eligible mothers in the program. In addition to the food, the Caritas staff has trained community leaders in each of these centers to educate women in the program about proper nutrition and care of their children, including teaching them about aspects of their growth and development. We witnessed some of these educational sessions and the Caritas staff is to be congratulated for a job well done.
During our visit to the centers, the weight and height of each child was recorded, and the level of hemoglobin in the blood was measured in order to compare current information with data that had been captured when the program began. While the research and development (R & D) people were busy taking measurements, some of us visited homes, which proved to be very educational and moving experiences.
We were excited to see all of the different and unique ways that the mothers prepared the new turkey product, creatively adapting it to their culture’s cuisine, and thus making it more acceptable for their children. Some participants mixed the turkey product with beans, some with eggs, some stuffed tortillas with it, and some used it as a paté on top of crisp tortillas. With very few exceptions, the children enjoyed the new turkey product – some even preferred to simply eat it straight out of the can!
The homes that we visited were exceptionally humble and their financial situation was dire, without exception. The people living there were always sweet, appreciative and, at times, very emotional when expressing appreciation for the help that they are receiving from us.
On the first day we visited a lady who lived in a small hut with her husband, her sister, and her seven children. The “kitchen” could be described as an even more wretched hut outside! Their meals are cooked on a wooden fire that always fills the room with heavy smoke. The family all sat around the fire seemingly oblivious to the smoke that was affecting our throats and eyes. I wondered what deleterious effects this might have on the children that sat there day after day, in happy anticipation of a little something to ease their all too familiar hunger.
What struck me most was the sad fact that they had no furniture whatsoever in their small living area. I am no stranger to lean-tos, shacks and dilapidated dwellings, but even in the most extreme cases, the families have had at least some flattened cardboard boxes so that they would not need to sleep on a damp dirt floor. These poor people did not even have the small luxury of cardboard. Yet , there was no hint of bitterness or resentment – only worry for what the future might bring. The husband of this family was out working in the field. When there is work, he earns less than US$50 per week. When there is none…
The next morning, we visited a day care and school of 183 students who were also part of the program. We visited the classrooms of immaculately uniformed children (always beautiful), who sang songs for us and presented the president and me with very cute gifts of crafts they produced. Although the quantitative data is presently being analyzed, anecdotally we learned that the children’s weight and height had improved, and, even more important, on a qualitative level, the teachers and parents reported a decrease in lethargy, more energetic children and an increase in their ability to focus well and earn better grades.
We also visited another school. Here we were faced with the challenge of helping the ladies in the kitchen prepare empanadas on the spot! These were made by stuffing tortillas with the turkey paté and frying them for 119 children and our group that joined them for lunch. Let me tell you that the process was not as easy as it sounds. – The tortilla dough was soft and very fragile, the amount of stuffing was hard to judge and easily escaped from the sides (creating a huge mess), and the journey into the frying pan from our inexperienced hands was more than a tad dangerous. Hats off to the ladies who do this on a daily basis and who were, no doubt, happy to see us finally exit their kitchen.
We went further up in the mountains to an area that is considered “high crime” and very dangerous. Again, the people we encountered at that “colonia” or “barrio” (community/neighborhood) were sweet, gentle and patient. The crowd of mothers with children was larger than we expected and the wait would have been exasperating by First World standards. I decided to do something to entertain them while they waited, so I thought I would do some Spanish poetry. I worried that with minimal, if any, education they might not have been previously exposed to poetry and would pelt me with rotten fruit and run me out of town!
So, I took a deep breath for courage and recited Neruda’s Poema 20 – a beautifully sad love poem by the Chilean master. They were transfixed by his words and gave it a rousing round of applause at the end. I then told the children a funny story that my dad used to tell us when we were young. I believe the mothers enjoyed it as much as the kids!
In addition to others, we visited a one-room home on the side of the mountain. Recent rains had eroded the earth from beneath their now precarious tiny balcony. It was a small family – a father, a mother and a little son called Angel (my “tocayo” – the word used in Spanish to describe someone who shares your name). Angel was adorable (yet another shared commonality :o); the mother was a gentle woman who smiled easily and kept and impeccably tidy house; the father had a sadness in his eyes that comes only when a man has been robbed of his dignity and pride. You see, Angel’s dad is wheelchair-bound and, without an education, he is forced to routinely go down into the city to sit there and beg. This, unfortunately, is his only option in trying to help support his loving family. A slumlord has built many of these tiny one room houses on the side of the mountain and he has to find the money to pay the US$50 they are charged for rent every month. As we were leaving, Alice commented to the mother that she had a beautiful smile. She started to cry as she gave Alice a warm hug. The gift of presence is such a powerful one.
We returned to the center to wait for the end of the testing, and, while we were waiting, I was adopted by the most precious little girl (Rocio) and a young man named Walter – I swear that more than half the kids we met had English names! Rocio was not at all shy. She promptly claimed me and sat on my lap and hugged me and stroked my face with her little hands. Walter was more retiring, he came up and broke the ice by telling me that he liked my story – we were immediately friends! Both of their mothers were waiting in line for them to be pricked by the needle for their hemoglobin test. Walter promised that he would not cry (such a little man!). Rocio assured me that she would scream her lungs out when it was her turn to be tortured – a promise which she kept as soon as she saw the needle.
Walter was six years old and was yet to go to school. His dad was a truck driver ; his mom cleaned houses. They could only afford to send him to day care. Rocio was four and still at home. I know it’s silly, but when I had to hug them goodbye (I had to wait till after Walter gave blood, to show me that he would not cry, and he didn’t) I felt so sad to leave them. I wondered how much it would cost to send him to school…
An orphanage with 72 children was our last visit for the day. The kids at all stops received a bag of goodies to reward their cooperation with the R & D people. This consisted of a small coloring book, a small box of crayons, some stickers and a couple hard candies. It created tremendous excitement with all of the kids. You would have thought that they had gotten Nintendo’s DS games! A Spanish writer once said that the secret to happiness is not in having much, but rather in wanting little. Could he be right? One of the little boys at the orphanage came and sat on my lap, and, to the amusement of those around me, he repeatedly called me “papá”. A few minutes later, he got up, went his way and totally ignored me for the rest of the visit – I have such fickle children!
San Antonio de las Flores was a dirt-poor community that was seriously affected by the recent floods. The river there had swollen and risen well over 100 feet above its banks, destroying homes and crops and submerging the bridge by which people living on the river banks come in to the town. At the family center there, I met a missionary priest who looked very thin, almost jaundiced. I enquired for his health and he told me that he had had a long bout with parasites in his body and was just now recuperating. He led us up and down the mountain and across the river to different home visits. Two will forever be etched in my heart.
We visited a woman with seven children. Her husband left her over two years ago and had not reappeared in their lives. She could find no work that allowed her to care for her children and her only income came from her 11-year-old daughter who took care of a baby for US$20 a month. Her home had box springs covered in old clothes and rags to make them a bit more comfortable. Her children never drank milk, as she couldn’t afford it. She exuded a sadness that was truly heartbreaking. She was so grateful for our help, and, in the middle of her expression of appreciation, she broke down and wept with such anguish that none walked out of her hut with a dry eye. I hugged her and wished a ton of blessings upon her and her children.
The other family lived across the river. The bridge that we had to cross was a hybrid between a bridge, a swing and a trampoline! Two little girls (about five) were walking ahead of me, about to get on the bridge, when, with a fake voice somewhere between crying and terror, I cried, “Oh no, I’m scared, I can’t cross this bridge.” Without hesitation, one of the little girls turned around, stretched out her hand to me and helped me to successfully complete that daring adventure!
The priest then led us to the second visit to which I have previously referred. We climbed on a very steep, wet, slippery street . It felt as though everywhere we went was uphill. Finally, we arrived at our intended destination. Unfortunately, the mother was not there, but two of her children were at home. One was a twelve-year-old girl of different capabilities, who was also challenged by blindness; the other was a nine-year-old boy with a mischievous face and a beautiful smile. He held in his hands something that resembled a sling like that which David may have used in defeating the Philistine giant. Upon further investigation, we discovered that there was a purpose for this sling. It was actually placed on his forehead and used to help his small body brace and carry burdens on his back that were far heavier than he. He was sitting on what we discovered to be a large burlap bag of corn that he had carried, using said method, from the town, across that treacherous bridge and up the slippery, steep hill to his home. He was a charming boy, living under conditions of extreme poverty, but maintaining a sense of responsibility well above his years. One of our team members saw him earlier using the same contraption to bring his older sister home from the main road, quite a distance up from where he lived, carefully trying to avoid slipping on the wet street with a sharp downward incline.
On the last morning, we went to a school that was in decrepit condition where FFP is providing food through McGovern-Dole feeding program. All students must bring their own plate and utensils, which gives them and their parents some sense of responsibility and ownership in the initiative. Unfortunately, one little girl, with two long ponytails at the sides of her head, forgot her plate. The look on her face was enough to melt a heart of stone. They keep no extras at the school and those who are forgetful must wait until someone is finished before they can have their rice and beans. I later visited the classrooms and quizzed the kids with humorous questions. They were adorable.
I learned that the entire community where this school is located has no source of water other than rain. There was no potable water at the school. I would love to find the resources to rebuild the school and provide those children with a proper facility, as well as a few water wells in the community. What a blessing it would be for them!
The home visit that followed was one of the most depressing since we arrived – not only for the poverty which afflicted them, but it appeared from the horrible conditions seen inside the home that the lady of the house had some serious psychological problems. Right across from this home, I met a lovely 19-year-old young lady, pregnant with her first child. Her mother, with whom she lived, had her own little girl, Michelle, who was five. I noticed that they had electricity in their humble home and I enquired about it. They said that they had a really hard time finding the US$5 they needed to pay the monthly bill. They were fortunate, as both her father and her own husband were working in the fields that day. She pointed out some beautiful, larger homes that belonged to the large landowners of the area. She asked me about life in the USA and if it was beautiful there. She explained that when she was much younger she was offered the opportunity to go to the US, but she was too scared. I told her that she likely made the right decision, thinking of child slavery and child prostitution. She showed me her new puppies and a photo of her husband. She was so young, and yet in September she would take on the adult responsibilities of motherhood.
Off we went again, on what appeared to be yet another all-uphill journey, to our last home visit. Little did we know that, once again, we were about to experience vicariously the pain and heartbreak of the poor woman we met on our final visit. Her name was Evelin, and she greeted us at the door of her home with a warm welcome. Her t-shirt had JESUS written on it in capital letters. In conversation later, she would admit that He was her greatest and, at times, her only comfort. When we entered her home, we saw an angelic little girl, Rosita, sleeping on another hard bed without mattress. Evelin explained that she had had a fever, but I felt her forehead and it seemed the fever had broken.
During this visit, we learned that, about a year before, men robbed her husband of his bi-monthly wages that he had just received, and, in doing so, they killed him. Her husband was murdered for less than US$80 – a steep price to pay for what is, even for the poor, a small amount of money. When she spoke about her husband, her eyes became tender and her voice would drop to almost an inaudible level. As if her pain was not acute enough, a couple of weeks before our visit she had also lost her father. Mourning for one, before she had finished mourning for the other. With the two pillars of support so abruptly removed from her life, she was forced to seek work cleaning homes and she earned just about US$50 a month – that’s less than 35 cents a day per member of household, putting her family well below what is considered the criteria for destitution or extreme poverty – less than one dollar a day. It’s no wonder that she could never afford to buy milk for her children!
She actually had three other children besides Rosita. They attended the little school where we had visited earlier with the feeding program. She reported that her children were doing so much better since they were being fed at school and then coming home to another meal from the M & C program (McGovern-Dole) – they were healthier, more energetic, capable of doing better at school and better able to complete homework. In expressing that she was now alone in the world with her children, and that she would not know what to do without our help, the weight of her tragedy seemed to fall on her all at once and she dissolved in tears, strongly sobbing through her words. I hugged her and tried to comfort her. We all truly felt her pain and cried along with her.
The mood was somber as we left, but our resolve to continue helping deserving families like this one was unshaken. We will not forget them.