Reporting and photos: Felipe Cala, ChildFund Alliance; Roberta Cecchetti, Save the Children; Agueda Barreto and Thiago Machado, ChildFund Brasil
Fourteen-year-old Maria Antônia has made a name for herself in her home of Crato, a city in northeastern Brazil, because of her determination and community participation. This week, she had the opportunity to be heard on a world stage: a panel on the prevention of violence against children, at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York.
“I see this opportunity as a process of inclusion,” she said before the event, “because young people from 10 different countries will contribute with relevant themes on our point of view, to achieve a better world.”
The March 23 side-event took place during the third gathering of U.N. members to negotiate the post-2015 development agenda, a global set of priorities to tackle such issues as poverty, hunger, inequality and disease in the next 15 years. The goals are expected to be finalized in September. The purpose of the side-event — hosted by the governments of Canada, Guatemala, Japan and Palau — was to highlight the importance of allowing children to grow up in violence-free communities, schools and homes, and to bring their voices to decision-makers in New York.
ChildFund Alliance, Plan International, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages International, UNICEF and World Vision International, as well as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children and the Latin America and Caribbean Movement for Children, collaborated to organize the discussion.
Maria Antônia spoke about physical, psychological and sexual violence and children’s own recommendations to prevent and respond to violence, including ways to report incidents safely and increasing social services at schools and health clinics.
“It is very important to improve child-friendly services within the child protection network, so that children feel confident and safe,” she said.
The visit was exciting and somewhat overwhelming for Maria Antônia, who is sponsored through ChildFund and also takes part in community projects with one of our local partners in Brazil. This was her first visit to New York City, and on the first day, she went to Central Park and saw snow for the first time (“It was beautiful,” she said). The next day, Maria Antônia prepared to speak at the U.N. headquarters, a daunting prospect.
“Early in the morning, I could only think that I would not be able to represent children and adolescents,” she recalled. “I felt fear and insecurity. But after my speech, I was congratulated. And that made me very happy. I had the feeling that I did what I had come to do.
“I realize how important it is to improve the entire environment where I live — my home, my community and my school,” she added.
And Maria Antônia is returning home with tales to tell. “My friends will ask me about the city, my experience in a new and different place, but what I really want to talk about is the opportunity to be heard. It’s a dream I could never dream.”
In La Paz, Bolivia, children are learning how to wash their hands thoroughly, as you can see in this video from the field. On March 22, we celebrated World Water Day, which highlights water’s important role in health, sanitation, agriculture, industry and education. When clean water is hard or impossible to access — as it is for 748 million people worldwide, according to the United Nations — the most vulnerable among us, including infants and children, tend to get sick and lose time at school, become malnourished and even die from preventable diseases. Making water available in communities and showing families how to protect themselves from diseases are two of ChildFund’s most important goals. Learn more about how you can help.
By Nicole Duciaume, Americas Region Sponsorship Manager
A highlight of any trip to the field is the opportunity to cuddle and smile at chubby-cheeked babies. It always renews and refocuses ChildFund staff members from all over the world. There are few things more life-affirming than the innocence and love that spring forth in an infant’s gurgles and giggles.
But the sobering reality in rural Cochabamba, Bolivia, which a ChildFund team recently visited, is that both infant and maternal mortality rates are high. Many mothers never get to hold their babies in their arms, and some even lose their own lives, leaving their other children orphaned.
Yet there are signs of hope in Bolivia. In response to the high rates of infant and maternal mortality, the national government offers mothers small stipends to attend monthly prenatal appointments, screenings and checkups. They also offer incentives for giving birth in government treatment centers with trained health care providers.
ChildFund’s role in this effort is to offer prenatal appointments and tracking through our local partner organizations at zero cost to mothers. But, more than just checking the physical development of the babies and the vital statistics of the mothers, we also support the mother’s attachment to the baby within her — an emotional bond that, the doctor there explained, is as important as physical development.
That’s where a mother’s letter to her unborn child enters the picture, expressing her love, hopes, concerns and excitement in an early-pregnancy activity that ChildFund supports. Later, using life-sized dolls, mothers practice breastfeeding positions, diaper changing and infant massage. Often, they open up about other concerns in their lives.
During our visit, we met two babies born to mothers who had gone through ChildFund’s prenatal program. Nicolas is 4 months old, and Antonio is 18 months. Their mothers shared the letters they had written so many months earlier.
A letter to Nicolas: Dear son, I anxiously await you as my third child, even though I am afraid of the moment when I will give you life. But don’t worry. I will give you everything of me so that everything will be OK, my little love, and I will meet you with all of the same excitement as your older brothers. I only ask the almighty God that you are healthy and strong, because you are the light in our lives and we are all very happy to have you, my baby. Come and fill our home with love. More than anything, your dad will jump for joy when he sees you and has you in his arms.
A letter to Antonio: With much love for the baby that I am anxiously waiting to arrive, so I can know you in person and feel your little body. I hope it will be a great moment when I have you in my arms because I will fill you with kisses.
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer, with photos by Carlos Gonzalez, ChildFund Guatemala
Last month, ChildFund’s Board of Directors and members of our executive team traveled to Guatemala, where they spent time in the field visiting ChildFund-supported projects and sponsored children, many of whom live in tiny homes carved into the sides of steep mountains.
“It’s part of the journey, finding out how everybody lives,” said Scott Lemler, ChildFund’s vice president of information technology. “They literally are farming on the side of a mountain.”
Scott joined other members of ChildFund’s executive team this week to report back on the trip to Guatemala at our International Office in Richmond, Va., for a Lunch & Learn session. Every couple of years, the board travels to a different country to see our work firsthand. Some of the most interesting stories this time came from the group’s visits to youth projects, which promote job training, entrepreneurship and an understanding of their rights.
Jim Tuite, vice president of finance and operations/CFO, met Alfonso, who is attending school and supporting his five younger siblings by making and selling doughnuts. Alfonso, whom Jim called the “Doughnut King,” is part of the ChildFund-supported My Chance program, which helps youth — many of whom have recently graduated from high school — create business plans and build their skills to run successful enterprises.
“One girl sells handicrafts,” Jim said. “One guy was developing modern Guatemalan linens for women.” Still others have started a bakery, an organic taco stand and an imported skin cream business. Many of the families the team met rely on multiple jobs to make a livelihood, much as economists encourage investors to diversify their portfolios, Jim noted. That way, if one income stream ends, a family has a backup source of money.
Cheri Dahl, interim vice president of global philanthropy and communications, met Alex, a young man who has been sponsored since 2003. He’s also a participant in My Chance, and he sells traditional medicinal herbs, a hot commodity in the region, where it’s difficult to get health care. Along with Cheri were board members who work in marketing and lead businesses in the United States, and one asked if Alex had a printed business plan.
“He brought out a business plan that would rival anything any of us have ever done,” Cheri told the Lunch & Learn group. Aside from his herbal business, Alex teaches middle school and is getting ready to attend college.
ChildFund President & CEO Anne Goddard noted that despite the successes the group saw in Guatemala, extreme poverty still keeps many people from achieving their full potential and provides a powerful reason to emigrate, a risky proposition. In October 2014, about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product came from immigrants sending money home, often from the United States.
“The immigrant is somebody who is admired,” Anne said; she even saw a statue honoring immigrants during the trip. Aside from financial issues, violence in the home and streets is a major reason many Guatemalans wish to leave the country, she added.
Despite such challenges, the Guatemalans who met the board members and executives often expressed pride in their communities and wished to make life better there. A mother of three children, two of whom are sponsored through ChildFund, asked Cheri to deliver a message to our U.S. audience: “Can you get more sponsors?”
Learn more about Guatemala, and consider sponsoring a child there.
Earlier this week, ChildFund President & CEO Anne Lynam Goddard visited the White House for the launch of Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government initiative that aims to make education accessible for all girls worldwide, despite some daunting obstacles. Girls’ rights and the barriers to them figure strongly in our work at ChildFund, so it is thrilling to see such a major push led by the Office of the First Lady, involving USAID, the State Department, the Peace Corps and other agencies. You can read more of Anne’s thoughts on Let Girls Learn on her Tumblr page.
On the ChildFund blog, we’ve written about many girls and young women who have overcome significant barriers to attaining a full education — including early marriage, spotty electrical power, long walks to school and cultural mores that discourage women from getting an education. Read about Phanny, a Zambian woman who works as an automotive repair supervisor; Mahdia, an Afghani woman who is learning to read despite the objection of some of her male relatives; and Alexia, a Dominican police officer who encourages her younger siblings to remain in school. They’re heroines in our book.
By Veronica Travez, ChildFund Ecuador
Paul and Robinson are two smart and happy brothers, 13 and 11 years old respectively. They’ve gone through hardships in their lives but still have a great deal of hope and enthusiasm for the future.
Because their mother died from health problems when they were very young, the boys live with their grandparents, Martha and Victor, in a community about 15 minutes from San Gabriel, Ecuador. In this largely agricultural area, most locals work as laborers on potato, bean or corn plantations and earn an average salary of $10 a day. Martha, 73, divides her days between farm work and caring for the boys and her husband. The family raises guinea pigs and chickens for additional income.
Paul and Robinson are enrolled in ChildFund’s Aflatoun and Aflateen community clubs, which offer children and youth educational workshops about saving money, spending responsibly and their rights. Martha attends family workshops that have helped her understand the importance of school and extracurricular activities like sports and cultural events.
Three years ago, the boys received sponsors, whose support has been very important to the family. On one occasion, Paul’s sponsor sent him $100, which he used to buy a bed, a mattress and a cabinet for storing his clothes.
“I feel very grateful that they support my little ones without having met them,” Martha says. “I always ask God to give the sponsors his holy blessings and to always take care of them, wherever they may be.”
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
In a small Honduran village in the mountains, 12-year-old Yunior writes letters regularly to Margaret and Bob Erickson, who live in Washington state, a continent away. They’ve sponsored him through ChildFund since 2005, when Yunior was only 3 years old. A lot has changed in that time, particularly his communication skills.
“He’s taking English classes now. He’s writing to us in English,” Margaret says with excitement. “We have no children, and we are going to try to set up something so he can go further in school. He’s a very important part of our lives.”
Ten years ago, the Ericksons decided to sponsor a younger child so they could follow him through his childhood, helping where they could. He’s the first child they’ve sponsored. Yunior’s mother had died, and his father’s family took him in, although his grandfather and uncle were only earning about $42 a month. Because Yunior was too young to write, his aunts and grandmother wrote letters to the Ericksons on his behalf.
“I didn’t know what to call ourselves, but his aunt called us godparents,” Margaret recalls. In the passing years, Yunior has had happy and sad experiences; his grandmother passed away, but he also has succeeded in school. He’s now in seventh grade, and his favorite classes are math and English, Margaret says. She and her husband have sent money for Christmas, which Yunior often uses for practical purposes like clothes and shoes, and they also paid for a floor for the family’s house and a bed for Yunior, who had been sleeping on the ground.
“I’ve totally encouraged him to stay in school and do well,” Margaret says. “I’ve told him if he needs anything for school that he can’t afford, to let me know.”
Bob Erickson is a retired civil engineer, and Margaret was an internationally certified ophthalmology technician, setting up doctors’ practices remotely and often dealing with new eye diseases that immigrants carried to western Washington as they begin new lives in the United States. The couple has long had an interest in international travel and has visited the Panama Canal, the Falkland Islands and glaciers in a South American inlet.
Aside from receiving letters from Yunior, the Ericksons sometimes get photos from him. For years, he has posed for pictures with a grim look on his face, so Margaret asked him to smile in a picture this year.
“This Christmas, he gave us an awesome, big smile,” she reports. “He is a delight, and we truly love him.”
By Christine Ennulat, Content Manager
One of my favorite things about becoming a mother was the whole new world of children’s books I staggered into — with my kids tumbling into it with me when they were little and then, before long, actually leading me through it. It brought back, again and again, waves of nostalgia for all that books had meant to me in my own childhood. My children are older now, but those days are on my mind again as I learn about how ChildFund’s Just Read! program is helping hundreds of children in some of the United States’ poorest communities find the magic of reading for pleasure.
One thing I’ve learned that I didn’t know: Reading for pleasure trumps socioeconomic status as a determinant of how well kids do in school. (The magic of reading for pleasure, indeed!)
I don’t remember much of my own early childhood experience with books. My parents came to the U.S. from Germany just a couple of years before I was born, and my main memory of any book from that time was Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struvvelpeter, a German collection of alarming cautionary tales that included one about a boy who refuses to cut his hair and fingernails (yikes!) and another about a boy who won’t stop sucking his thumb until one day a man wielding giant shears appears and … well.
Honestly, I couldn’t get enough of those gruesome tales. “Pleasure” probably isn’t an accurate description of what they gave me … but I’m not sure pleasure is necessarily that simple. What I can say is that I took to reading in search of similar wild thrills and imaginative flights. But even more, I was searching for myself.
As a weird, lonely kid, I recognized myself in moody Meg Murry, of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and in Milo, the initially reluctant protagonist of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (after whom I named Kid #3). And always, always there was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, and her blue-haired doll with the most beautiful name in the world, Chevrolet, and the Dawnzer, and “BOINNNG!” Oh, the courage of Ramona. I wanted to be Ramona.
Later, I would — and still do — recognize my own heart in Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s exhortation, in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
As my own children grew, I delighted alongside them as they found their own ways down their own rabbit holes toward who they might become. My oldest fell in love with Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books, in which a girl becomes a knight in her kingdom, and her Dane books, with a heroine who converses with animals. Kid #3 couldn’t get enough of Al Perkins’ Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, which my whole family can still shout-chant from memory to this day, and through which music grabbed hold of him for the first time. (Kid #4 now says he hated that book because, as he learned to read from it, he had to face silent Bs—“thum-BUH,” he says. He became a Calvin and Hobbes guy.)
It was magical for me to be along for this ride, vicariously experiencing their journeys through silliness, love, terror, beauty and more.
Children need these flights of the imagination, these adventures beyond their everyday circumstances. When they use their imaginations, they flex their abilities to think creatively, and that’s key to not only learning but also taking aim at what they want to accomplish in their lives.
Reading is a way toward experiencing difficult feelings in manageable ways, which prepares a child for facing difficult situations in real life. Reading is also a way toward relief of stress — which is rampant and nearly constant for families living in poverty — and a way toward a loved one’s lap.
And reading is a way toward laughter. (I am convinced that laughter has an important role in the fight against poverty.)
Years ago, my neighbor said to me, after having accomplished some crazy plumbing repair without help, “If you know how to read, you can do anything.”
I second that sentiment … and offer a tweak: If you know how to read, you can be anything.
When children read, even amid the most challenging circumstances, they really can.
You can help change a child’s life by donating to ChildFund’s Just Read! program.
Reporting by Abraham Marca, ChildFund Bolivia
Born three and a half years ago to a 41-year-old mother after a risky pregnancy, Rebeca was small but still within the normal range. However, when Rebeca was 9 months old, her family learned she wasn’t developing properly.
Wiñay Mujo, ChildFund’s local partner organization in her Bolivian village, offers early childhood development evaluations to young children in the area, and Rebeca had her first at 9 months. The evaluation revealed that Rebeca didn’t have enough strength in her back, legs and arms to crawl, so Wiñay Mujo staff members showed her mother some exercises she could do at home with Rebeca to stimulate those muscles, and soon Rebeca began making her first movements around her world.
But then, just before turning 1, Rebeca suddenly began losing weight; she was diagnosed with mild acute malnutrition, so Wiñay Mujo helped her get the dietary supplements she needed. She gained weight over the next few months, but she still couldn’t walk, even at 15 months. After a new course of exercises and diet, she learned to walk, and by the time she turned 3, her growth and development were on track.
But Rebeca developed a parasite infection and suddenly lost weight again. After her successful treatment, Wiñay Mujo looked more deeply into her situation and discovered that Rebeca was spending her days in the care of a teenage aunt while her mother worked. To provide a healthier environment for the little girl, Wiñay Mujo invited the family to have her participate in ChildFund’s center-based early childhood development program in her community.
Today, Rebeca and her family are doing better, and they attend programs at Wiñay Mujo, where they learn about good nutrition and other healthy practices. Rebeca is 3 and a half. She has had all of her vaccinations, and her development is considered normal for her age.
Children in developing countries face many obstacles to healthy development. For the youngest in particular, early nutrition is especially important because it supports their ability to grow and learn — without adequate nutrition in the early years, children may never be able to recoup developmental losses. ChildFund works through local partners like Wiñay Mujo to provide the monitoring, stimulation, nutrition and learning opportunities children need to stay on track.
Reporting by ChildFund Ecuador
According to Ecuador’s last census, 44 percent of the country’s mothers had their first children between the ages of 15 and 19. For many of these women, becoming mothers meant an end to their formal educations. In Ecuador and other countries around the world, though, women are learning — and sharing — important information about raising children, eating healthy diets and making an income. Here are the words of Evelin, a young mother from Ecuador whose life changed after going through training supported by ChildFund.
My name is Evelin. I am 20 years old, and I have two beautiful daughters who are my reason for living. Naomi Marisol is 4, and Emily Lizet is 3 years old.
When I was 16 years old, I was pregnant, so Segundo, my husband, and I decided to move and begin our lives as a family. He is 32 years old, and he works as a day laborer at a farm close to our house in Imbabura Province.
With the arrivals of my little girls, my life completely changed. I had to leave my studies and assume my new responsibilities in my home with my girls and my husband.
One day while I was in the community store, I met a neighbor who told me that ChildFund was carrying out workshops for the mothers of children under 5 years old and that she was participating. She told me that it was a wonderful experience because she was learning about stimulation, nutrition and some other things.
This sounded very interesting to me, so I decided to talk with my husband and ask him to let me participate in this training. At first, he said no, but I argued that this could be a good opportunity for me to learn new things that could help me to keep my family healthy. And besides, I would share with other mothers and would not feel so lonely at home, so he agreed.
When I began as a participant in ChildFund’s Early Childhood Development program, the trainer mother introduced me to the rest of the group, and since then I have felt comfortable and enjoyed the meetings very much. Despite my home chores, I always did my best to not miss any classes during the 10 months that the process lasted.
During this time, I realized that I had been doing some things the wrong way. I had a bad temper, was very rude with my daughters and my husband, and I was not sociable because I spent all day at home. So, I was isolated from the rest of the people in the community. I also was afraid to speak in public. I was very shy.
Since I participated in the program, though, a lot of things have changed. I learned how to prepare healthy and nutritious food for my family. Since starting our family garden, I have been contributing to the family livelihood because I save money by not buying vegetables and fruits in the market. I am more sociable too, and now I am more involved and interested in the community. My older daughter goes to the community’s child care center, and I was designated president. Now, I feel valued and self-confident, and I know that if I express what I feel, people will listen to me.