The Freedom of Speech in Guatemala’s Highlands


This is a first-grade class at Patzite, Guatemala’s primary school, where more students stay in school than in other communities in the highlands; only 4 percent of its 150 students drop out before sixth grade. Still, a high school in town has only 60 students.  

By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer

This is the first of three articles this month about Kate’s recent trip to report on ChildFund-supported programs in Guatemala’s highlands.

When ChildFund staff members travel to the field, we often hire translators, even when we have some command of the language being spoken. But in Guatemala’s highlands, I needed two translators: one who could translate Spanish to English, and a second to translate from the local language to Spanish. Often, we asked our local partner organizations to help us out.

Felipe, my Spanish-to-English translator, holds a homemade horse toy at a local home.

Felipe, my Spanish-to-English translator, holds a homemade horse toy at a local home.

It definitely made reporting interesting. A couple of people compared the process to the childhood game of Telephone, which isn’t too far from the truth. Since it was hard to get direct quotes, I relied a lot on skills of observation in Palima, Patzite and Pachichiac, mountain villages that I visited in late April.

Bumpy dirt roads, bright blue tarps draped over mud-brick house frames, the scent of greens cooking on a rustic stove, chickens and dogs running loose, the smell of rain as a storm approached — they all fed my senses. So did the peal of 4-year-old Heidi Karina’s voice as she named colors in her native tongue of Kaqchikel, part of the Mayan family of languages. She’ll learn Spanish in school, but right now, she says räx for green instead of the Spanish verde.

People in these highland villages are isolated from the rest of Guatemala, particularly the capital of Guatemala City and nearby Antigua, where schools, jobs, running water and electricity are far more accessible. Although the highlands are just a couple of hours away from the cities by car, a lack of reliable transportation and job opportunities keeps many families in poverty.

Heidi Karina, 4.

Heidi Karina, 4.

As does the language barrier. Children learn Spanish in school, but most in the highlands don’t attend past sixth grade. How many of you reading this story took high school Spanish or French? And how much of it do you remember?

Anyone hoping for a professional job in Guatemala needs to be fluent in Spanish, and I overheard one person in our party advising a young woman that she also should study English to improve her chances for a job as a social worker. Such advice seems unreachable for people who stop school in the third grade, take up farming or weaving, marry in their teens and have six or seven children to care for. Hopes may be somewhat higher for the children, but few of them progress to high school even now.

A state-maintained highway runs near the district of Quiché, which gives people there an advantage over other communities like Pachichiac, which is far from any main roads. José Mario Lopez Ixcoy, general director of ChildFund’s local partner in Quiché, says that most people there speak some Spanish, at least enough to take menial jobs in cities, although, he adds, “sometimes they feel discriminated against in the city because of their customs.” People can walk half an hour to a bus stop, where buses come twice in the morning and return from the cities twice in the afternoon. School, health care and jobs are easier to reach, as a result.

The people in Guatemala’s highlands will need many things to happen to make school more accessible: better roads, regular transportation, funding for school uniforms and other necessities.

And, according to Aura Maria, a guide mother who lives in Pachichiac, the communities also need more job opportunities, reliable electricity and financial assistance for education and health care.

I learned how to say “thank you” in Quiché, another Mayan language: Maltiox, pronounced mal-tee-osh. It took a fair amount of practice, and although I got comfortable with saying it during the visit, the word is already starting to fade from my memory a month later.

Let’s not let the same happen with children who depend on us to think of their futures.

A boy outside his classroom at Patzite's grammar school.

A boy outside his classroom at Patzite’s grammar school.


Drawing a Line on Violence and Alcohol Abuse

Video by ChildFund Bolivia

In La Paz, Bolivia, members of the Avance Comunitario Youth Club are talking about alcohol abuse and gang violence, two serious problems in their community. In the video, one girl points to bushes where gang members hide from police lights. If you were to draw a map of your neighborhood, the way these teens did, what kinds of dangers would you draw? By creating awareness of community issues, the members of the youth club — one of several supported by ChildFund and our local partner organizations in Bolivia — are leading the way toward solutions.

A Mobilizing Force for Healthy Children


Community mobilizer Lucia Rosa (in blue shirt on front row) with mothers she’s training in Ecuador’s Imbabura province.

Interview by Veronica Travez, ChildFund Ecuador

Lucia Rosa works as a community mobilizer for an Early Childhood Development program supported by ChildFund and our local partner FOCI, in Ecuador’s Imbabura province. Lucia serves as the link between our local partner and people in her community, and she invites mothers, fathers and other caregivers to learn methods that will help their children develop skills they need to achieve success later in their lives. We asked Lucia, a mother of two children, ages 9 and 13, about her experiences.

I got married when I was 25 years old, and I was at university studying — as a distance-learning student — to become a lawyer. When my children were born, I had to abandon my studies and devote myself to their upbringing and care. In my free time, I also helped my husband in farming.

One day, I met a community mobilizer who told me about a program for girls and boys under 5 that was being implemented by ChildFund and FOCI in my community. At the time, I had resumed my studies at a university in the province where I live, but I changed my career to become a preschool teacher. Because the ChildFund program had a lot to do with my career plans, I found it very interesting, and I began to attend the weekly meetings.

Lucia (left) graduated from ChildFund's training program in 10 months.

Lucia (left) graduated from ChildFund’s training program in 10 months.

In my community, I helped form a group of mothers who had children under 5 years of age, where I passed on the information I learned in the training sessions. Since I had no children younger than 5, the other mothers appointed me workshop leader and gave me the opportunity to share with the group and to get more experience working with parents and children.

I always had my husband’s support throughout this process. On the days I had training sessions or workshops, I did the housework ahead of time, and then I could go out, feeling content.

After completing the training process, which lasted about 10 months, I now realize how much I have learned: for example, how important it is for children to develop according to their age, and how a good diet and living in a peaceful household contribute to their development. Children grow up safe and happy if they live in a home where there is no abuse among family members.

At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to apply to be a FOCI community mobilizer, and I won the job. I am now part of this organization that gives me the opportunity to serve my community. I finished my preschool teacher studies, and I am very happy because my family lives in harmony. My husband and I learned that to devote time and love to our children helps them grow up healthier and happier.

Representing Her Peers on the World Stage

Maria Antonia in New York

Maria Antônia at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

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.”

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Washing the Germs Away

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.

A Mother’s Letter of Love

antonio 2

Antonio and his mother, who is reading a letter she wrote to him while she was pregnant.

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.

Nicolas and his mother.

Nicolas and his mother.

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.

Learning About Life in Guatemala’s Mountains

A Guatemalan family
A Guatemalan family in their home.

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.

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Girls Get a Hand From the White House

Indian student

Sheela, 19, is attending nursing school through ChildFund India’s Udaan scholarship program. Photo by Jake Lyell.

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.

In Ecuador, a Family Sees a Bright Future

Paul and Robinson with their grandparents, Victor and Martha, at their home in northern Ecuador.

Paul and Robinson with their grandparents, Victor and Martha, at their home in northern Ecuador.

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.”

Robinson_playing soccer

Robinson, playing soccer with friends. 


Victor and Martha at their home

Victor and Martha, the boys’ grandparents.


Paul riding his horse_lightened

Paul, riding his horse.


Honduras to Washington: A Sponsorship Story

By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer

Bob and Margaret Erickson

Bob and Margaret Erickson, ChildFund sponsors.

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.

photo of Yunior

Yunior’s smiling picture from Christmas 2014.

“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.”

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