A Volunteer Project to Get Behind

Editor’s Note: A big part of long-term travel for many people is volunteering. Volunteering, no matter what you do, is all good, right? How can devoting your time and/or money to help people in need not be a good thing? You might be surprised to find out that many volunteering projects end up causing more harm than good.

A few weeks ago in this column, Jennifer Miller shared her disdain for short term mission trips. Some who read this article thought she was calling for an end to all types of volunteer trips, fundraisers, activities, and experiences, which is the furthest thing from the truth.

Today, Jenn is sharing a personal story about a project that she believes will leave a lasting impact on the community that she currently lives in, which is what we believe most people who get involved in this type of work hope to accomplish.

My boy is hungry this week, but he’s got nothing on our neighbors.

Elisha is fasting this week to raise money for his friends at Konojel. He and about 100 of the expat members of our community in San Marcos are going without solid food in hopes of raising awareness about the dire problem of chronic malnutrition in our village, and in Guatemala as a whole. They are also working to raise the money necessary to provide the 60 most at-risk children in our town with one nutritious meal a day for the coming year.

Since we’ve been back in Guatemala, he’s been working up there every day, going on six months now. It’s going to be hard for him to leave “his kids” when we fly north next month. He’s worrying about that already.

“Mom, do you think I could do the Konojel fast so I can raise some money to keep feeding my friends after I am gone?” He asked a couple of weeks back.

I’ve already mentioned that I’m proud of this kid.

Malnutrition is a serious problem in Guatemala. Here are a few not-so-fun facts to inform your thinking:

  • Guatemala is the 4th most malnourished country in the world (worse than the African countries we hear about)
  • Guatemala is the 2nd most malnourished country in the western hemisphere; only Haiti has it worse.
  • UNICEF reports that 43.6% of all Guatemalan children under age 5 are malnourished, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
  • 80% of the population is indigenous, approximately 70% of those 80% are malnourished. The class divide is huge.
  • 3 million Guatemalans lack access to safe water to drink
  • Over 6 million don’t have access proper sanitation

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are two types of malnutrition; perhaps you already know:

Chronic Malnutrition

Chronic Malnutrition is the kind that you are born with. Did you realize you could be born with malnutrition? Like a disease? Millions of people are. It works like this: Mom is malnourished, and maybe overweight because of access to the wrong foods and no education as to what the right foods are.

Did you know you can be overweight and malnourished? You can. Millions of people are. Mom is probably also vitamin and mineral deficient, which adds a host of potential prenatal complications. The first 1000 days of a life, from conception to roughly two years old, are critical, critical, in terms of nutrition. If a child is born to a malnourished mother, she will be malnourished as well. A mother who is not healthy herself cannot produce the quantity or quality of breast milk necessary for the baby to be properly nourished. So she supplements, but with all of the wrong things, and the baby gets sicker and weaker. The child is susceptible to infections and malabsorption issues.

A child who doesn’t get what he needs, nutritionally, in that first 1000 days, is never going to be okay. He’ll never grow to his full height. His brain will never develop properly or fully. He may lose his hair and his teeth, even at three years old. He will be weak and sick and at a disadvantage forever, even if he magically begins to receive perfect nutrition when he turns three.

That first 1000 days is critical.

Acute Malnutrition

Acute Malnutrition is what we think of when we see pictures of starving children in a war zone or during a drought in Africa. Distended bellies, wasting away to skin and bones and sickly. Acute malnutrition has a range of causes, from political shifts (wars) to natural disasters. It tends to be relatively short term, situational, environmental, or seasonal. In short, it’s not going to last forever, and we can fix it. Unlike chronic malnutrition, the solutions are relatively simple: get people fed and through the rough patch until they can take care of themselves again.

What Guatemala is suffering from, what the children in our village are suffering from, is chronic malnutrition; and there is no quick fix.

Guatemala 6

It’s complicated

People will blame malnutrition on cultural problems, but really, it’s economic. The propaganda machines paint the picture with a cultural brush because they’re trying to drum up aid (much of which never makes it to the intended populations). In our village, food bags and aid make it to the community members who voted for the prevailing political party. Vote for the mayor, get on the list for aid.

According to Dr. Baudilio Lopez, USAID Guatemala Health Officer: contrary to popular belief, Mayans are not, historically, short in stature. The malnutrition problem stemmed from the arrival of the colonial powers who needed slave labor to conquer and rebuild Central America.

“In our village, food bags and aid make it to the community members who voted for the prevailing political party. Vote for the mayor, get on the list for aid.”

One of the ways they managed to subjugate the population was through controlling their diet. Thus began a downward spiral. As more and more of their land was taken from them, their ability to grow what they needed diminished. By the time the US backed CIA coup in Guatemala occurred in 1954, overthrowing the democratically elected leader in order to retain control of the United Fruit holdings that had an economic impact in America, 80% of the land was held by a very few families.

The president was talking about land redistribution. The powerful few didn’t like that, so the USA intervened, using a paper bag puppet of the threat of communism in the region as a distraction and justification. What followed was 30 years of war and the worst genocide in the Western Hemisphere. 200,000 people (virtually all of which were indigenous) were killed, or disappeared. People were driven from their homes and their land, which meant further hunger and increased malnutrition. Families were left without husbands, fathers, uncles or other male wage earners, which left women and children in truly desperate situations.

That war only ended in the late 90s. Less than 20 years ago. This country is still reeling and in recovery.

The problem is multifaceted.

There’s the history, generations of subjugation and what that does to the psyche. The Spanish never really left, they just intermarried. The Ladino population of Guatemala are still the conquerors. The indigenous are still the slaves. Don’t kid yourself, they’re not being paid a living wage. Check out the film One Dollar a Day if you want a window into the day to day reality of 80% of the population of this country.

There’s the absence of clean water and sanitation. How does that affect malnutrition? Well, if your water is dirty, or you get giardia from it because you don’t boil it long enough, and you don’t have access to any kind of filter, that’s going to affect your ability to absorb the few nutrients you are able to ingest, isn’t it? Dissentary is a huge issue. It really is possible to poop to death.

The absence of health and nutrition education is a big issue. The reality on the ground is that people here don’t have access to the nutritional education that a first world second grader does. According to UNICEF, girls here attend school, on average, for three years. Because of their chronic malnutrition and the consequent cognitive delay, they often repeat at least one grade during that time.

So the best case scenario for your average indigenous mother is a third grade education, but the reality is that she might have repeated Kindergarten twice and never gotten any further. She doesn’t know that dark green leafy vegetables provide calcium and iron when she’s pregnant. She doesn’t know that protein and healthy fats are important for brain development. She doesn’t know that the sweetness of a fruit is different for her child than the sweetness of Coke.

And then, of course, there is the issue of economics, and it’s not a small one. Making less than 10Q (about $1.30USD) a day is considered extreme poverty here. Personally, I’d set the bar quite a bit higher than that, wouldn’t you?

So if a pound of vegetables costs you 7Q, and then you have to buy firewood to cook those vegetables (firewood is the greatest household expense, by percentage. It costs 50Q a load in our village, and most families need two loads a week to cook their basic tortillas and broths… are you doing the math with me?), you’re very quickly spending more than you make in a day on only one pound of vegetables.

An impossibility, right?

If someone told you steak and lobster were the best foods to make your children tall, brilliant, and successful and that you must feed them those foods every day, could you do it? If it’s financially impossible, it doesn’t matter how much you love them and want what’s best for them, you just can’t. It’s like that with broccoli and carrots here.

But if you can get a bag of processed Tortrix chips for 1Q, and the processed white flour or potato starch laced with fats and sugars makes your kid feel full, and it’s cheap, and you don’t know better, it seems like a pretty good deal, right? This, my friends, is how it’s possible to be both overweight and malnourished. Enter diabetes and a whole host of other cancers and diseases that didn’t exist in this population until the arrival of comida chatara (junk metal food).

Alcoholism is another factor. The level of desperation that the majority of the population of this country lives with is unimaginable to those of us who grew up in the first world. Understandably, a lot of them turn to drink. A large percentage of the men drink, and many, many of the women do, too. It destroys families.

About 70% of indigenous families lack a regularly employed and sober male wage earner. An interesting correlation to the percentage of kids in our village who are suffering from chronic malnutrition. It could be coincidence, but I suspect it is not. All too often the money that would be spent on food by mom is being spent on alcohol by dad. If that sounds sexist to you, come hang out in my village. Let me introduce you to my Mayan women friends. They’ll tell you how it goes.

I heard someone recently utter a sentence that made my blood boil, in a discussion on this topic:

“In my experience, these people can’t be bothered. They don’t want more. They don’t want to improve. It all comes back to self esteem, and they don’t have it.”

The insinuation was that they are lazy. That they aren’t interested in improving their lives, their diet, their living conditions, or the future for their children.

I could not disagree more.

The friends I have within the indigenous community are some of the hardest workers I know. They desperately, desperately want more and better for their kids. But they’re hamstringed at every turn. They make no money, so they can’t afford uniforms, shoes, and notebooks, without which, their children are turned away at the door of the school. They can afford to feed their kids tortillas, salt, and a little broth. So they do. An adult man might eat 30 tortillas for lunch, it fills his belly. It does not; however, provide the protein necessary for him to have the energy to work a full day.

Here’s a true story from our village, of a boy named Saceo:

  • He’s 15
  • He looks 11
  • He’s the sole wage earner for his family because his parents are alcoholic
  • He supports his two younger siblings as well
  • He cannot work a full day because of malnutrition, but he tries
  • His work? Breaking rocks. By hand.

Does that sound lazy to you? What are 15-year-olds in your community doing? How much food is he eating to get it done? Don’t talk to me about the physical effects of malnutrition being laziness unless you want to eat salted tortillas for a month and break rocks for hours a day in my garden. I’ll be happy to help facilitate your field trip into how the other half lives.

The other reality is that, according to UNICEF, Guatemala’s economy loses an estimated 8.4 million each day as a direct result of the reduced productivity, hospitalization, student failure, and repetition of grades in primary school related to malnutrition.

Think about that for a moment. Even the people with full bellies suffer the effects of malnutrition, as it relates to the economy as a whole.

Guatemala 7

What can be done?

I think about this question a lot as I have a yard full of malnourished kids enjoying the green grass in my garden and the tree forts my boys have built this winter. We share a lot of fruit plates and family dinners with our local friends. There are a lot of great organizations out there doing their best to have an impact, and I’m so thankful for that. So many of the best solutions are small ones, in which the hearts and passions of a small group of people are stirred to help their neighbors.

Nutrition Center Konojel is one of the best, in my opinion. Of course I’m biased, because I have had the benefit of watching them in action, daily, for the past six months. I have the benefit of being good friends with the men responsible for the work. I’ve watched them grow and change, respond to criticism, interact with the indigenous community, work hard to expand their efforts into women’s cooperatives and the sustainable creation of dignified jobs for single mothers and widows. All the while cranking out 60 meals per day for the most at risk of the undernourished children in our community.

How many 30-something year old single guys do you know who make an entire community of other people’s kids their business?

Andrew and Stephen do. They’re not only feeding these kids and giving their mothers a hand up towards self sufficiency, they’re role models and stand in big brothers to a demographic of boys who are seriously at risk for bad behavior in a few years due to the desperate poverty they live in. They set a high standard, and they hold it. They’re also teachers and tutors, employers and friends. They’re neighbors to these kids and their families.

That, in my opinion, takes humanitarian aid work to the next level.

This week, we are all pushing hard to raise the money needed to lift our community out of poverty and to feed our local children. These kids are my kids’ friends. They’re not just kids on some World Vision poster. They’re Daisy and Miguel, Ami, Josue, Elvin, Pedro-Damian, and Adolfo.

Daisy is 13. She comes to my 14 year old son’s waist. She wants to be mayor, and with her spunk, she could be (if women were allowed to be mayor). Maybe they will be by the time she grows up. But she’s also among the most poorly nourished kids in our village, and that’s taking it’s toll. She has to eat so her brain can grow.

I’m going to do something in this column that I’ve never done on BootsnAll before. I’m going to ask you for something besides your time in reading this article.

I’m going to ask you to change the world for the kids who play soccer in my garden. I’m going to ask you to join my son in feeding his friends. I’m going to ask you to practice compassion and put your money where your mouth is. I’m going to ask you to give, financially, to an organization that is making a difference and doing it right.

By all means, do your research and don’t take my word for it. Read Konojel’s About page. Every dime of the money you spend will go to feeding kids and employing indigenous mothers. Every dime.

Then, follow this link, and give what you can, or this one and help my boy to help his friends.

Konojel means “All Together” in Ka’chi’kel, our local Mayan dialect. Would you be willing to help us? All together, we can change the world for the children of one village.

Filed under: featured, Volunteering