This summer my family and I spent a week in Central America as volunteers for Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala. This nonprofit, grass roots organization partners with indigenous communities in northwest Huehuetenango to empower youth in the region through education and training. Frances Dixon, the 75 year old Canadian woman who founded the organization more than 25 years ago, continues to work tirelessly in the poverty-stricken region to develop nutrition, gardening, literacy and skills-training programs for indigenous youth and families.
My husband, Ritchie, and I have always felt that it was important to expose our daughter, Jessica, to people and cultures that are different so that she will gain a broader understanding of the complex world in which we live. The organization’s mission of empowering impoverished youth, including young girls, was especially appealing to us. In July, after weeks of researching this top-rated nonprofit organization and corresponding with Frances Dixon by e-mail, Ritchie, Jessica, and I set out for our extraordinary immersion week in Guatemala.
Guatemala is a beautiful country, but our journey to Huehuetenango was not an easy one. We rode for two days in the back of a pick-up before we reached our rainforest destination where we would spend the next week in a rustic, but cozy cabin. We washed our clothes by hand and hung them on the line to dry. We mastered the use of the outhouse. At age seven, our daughter chased grasshopper, picked flowers, and marveled each night at the endless blanket of stars that covered the darkened sky.
The Mayan Jaguar Educational Center is AAV’s teaching and learning hub. Because of its remote location, the educational community is self-sustaining. Students who attend the school range in ages from 14-20. They live and attend classes at the center for 18 consecutive days, and then return to their families to work. When school is in session, collaborative learning activities are held throughout the day in the gardens, nutrition center, and classrooms.
Completed in 2009, the center’s robust curriculum includes Spanish, science, reading, and computer training. Lessons in everything from good hygiene to filling out college applications are also offered to students so that they are adequately prepared for opportunities that will allow them to care for themselves, hone their skills, gain employment, and lead meaningful lives.
This year, AAV opened a new middle school on campus to give opportunities to the most vulnerable youth—indigenous girls. Only 10% of girls in this area finish primary school. Few families can provide financial support so their daughters can attend middle or high school. As a result, most girls face early marriage, and become mothers as young as 13 years old. The lifetime of servitude and inescapable poverty indigenous women face is heartbreaking. AAV’s middle school gives disadvantaged girls in the region access to education so that they can achieve their full potential.
One of the most rewarding experiences during our visit to Guatemala was meeting Margarita, the young girl we support through AAV’s annual Child Sponsorship Program. For only $250 a year, a sponsorship funds programs that benefit all the village children. For instance, Margarita and her siblings now enjoy nutritious vegetables since the sustainable gardening program was introduced. Aid for the school construction was provided, along with a library of books. The look of intense curiosity in Margarita sweet face the morning we arrived at her humble home to drop off several books, a small chalkboard and chalk, and a ball, is something I will never forget. We also participated in donation drops to widows and their children in neighboring villages. Jessica worked side by side with Manuel, an AAV teacher and the organization’s child sponsorship coordinator, to tote 100-pound bags of corn, as well as beans, powdered milk and other nourishments to children who so desperately needed them. Several of the children, thin and small in their oversized hand-me-downs, stared at Jessica’s blonde hair and fair skin and asked to touch her. Some of the men and women we met along the way did not have many teeth. On one delivery we stopped to visit with a disabled woman who was missing the lower half of her arm.
Guatemala has the highest level of chronic child malnutrition in the western hemisphere. Many of the county’s poorest children suffer from stunted growth and developmental problems. With little to no aid or educational opportunities available to improve the conditions of rural women and their families, AAV created the Sustainable Gardening Program. Theory and hands-on practice at the campus gardens allow students to work with poor families in outlying villages to train them to grow their own organic vegetable gardens.
Jessica and I spent many hours with the village women helping out in the kitchen. We talked with them about cooking and nutrition, and exchanged details about our respective families. One morning in the kitchen Candelaria, the campus cook, quietly shared with me how Frances and AAV had changed her life. “I had no food and Frances, she helped me. I had no clothes for my children and Frances she helped me. I had no work, and Frances gave me work. And now I earn money by working at the school. I thank God for Frances.” I found myself fighting back tears of joy and heartbreak. Candelaria is sending her children to school and is helping her daughter get through college. Sadly, there are hundreds of other poor indigenous families who are in desperate need of food, jobs, and education. There is much more work to be done.
Our volunteer immersion experience in this thriving and vibrant learning community was life changing. Richie plans to return to the Maya Jaguar Education Center in early 2017 to help with the construction of a dormitory for girls. We are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to lend a hand to an organization that is committed to a mission of educating and empowering children in poor indigenous communities. Students enrolled at Maya Jaguar have been given a rare opportunity to escape the burden of poverty and experience a life that is safe, and where there is nutritious food to eat, and numerous opportunities to learn. We are proud and honored to be a part of a movement that advocates on behalf of the vulnerable indigenous people of Guatemala. To volunteer, donate, or learn more about Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala, visit www.adoptavillage.com
Lindsay Miller and her family live in San Antonio, Texas.