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St. John’s Episcopal Church transforms the lives of Mayan families

For the first time in his seven years, Diego arrived at the table to find something green and orange on his dinner plate. Carrots and cabbage. They were sitting there alongside the customary black beans and tortillas. He looked up at this mother, who smiled back at him. He had helped her harvest the vegetables from their new garden earlier in the day.

Thanks to a generous grant received from St. John’s Episcopal Church of Midland, Michigan, hundreds of other impoverished Mayan children are also enjoying a new source of food as well—organic vegetables grown by their mothers. The grant funded a multi-village sustainable agricultural project for malnourished families in northwestern Guatemala. Mayan mothers are learning how to add nutrition to their meals by growing vegetable gardens. They will be able to use these newly acquired skills year after year to provide healthy food for their children.

St. John’s had learned that virtually all the children in this remote region of northwestern Guatemala suffered from chronic malnutrition In fact, the country is listed by the United Nations as the fourth nation in the world for chronic child malnutrition. The consequences are tragic. Not only do the children suffer from physical stunting, they suffer from irreversible brain damage. Adopt-a-Village staff had seen first-hand the degree of chronic malnutrition earlier this year when the newly registered students underwent basic physical examinations at the Maya Jaguar School. With one exception, every child exhibited height and weight measurements well below normal levels.

How do we combat this situation? Using a three-step program, village people are supplied with garden tools, open-pollinated seeds, organic fertilizer and seedlings. Adopt-a-Village agricultural technicians work alongside them, teaching composting, watering techniques, and organic insect control. Finally, classes are given in how to best prepare and cook the harvested produce.

The multi-village initiative was initiated in the remote mountain villages of Xoxlac, Buenos Aires, Ojo de Agua San Ramon, Santo Domingo, and Nuevo Progreso, some of the poorest villages in Guatemala, populated by Q’anjob’al Maya. Many lack electricity, and none has potable water or indoor plumbing. In all cases, the soil has been depleted to the point where it will not produce without enriching it through intensive organic composting.

The training has focused on the use of native plants proven to be resistant to climate conditions, insects and plagues. One such vegetable selected was a cherry tomato known since the beginning of Mesoamerican history. Another chosen was a hardy stalk cabbage, with seeds obtained from an elderly woman who has been producing this unusual vegetable since her childhood. The stalk’s leaves, once picked, regenerate, and the cabbage can be eaten continuously for up to six months, unlike the common cabbage, which once harvested, can be used only for a single meal. A widely known native leaf plant, “bledo” is included, due to its high nutritional properties. Amaranth, a native grain dating back thousands of years, has been reintroduced by the Adopt-a-Village agricultural technicians. A protein powerhouse, it contains up to 20% of protein, easily trumping the protein content of other grains. Moreover, it contains lysine, an important amino acid perennially deficient in the diets of the rural poor in countries such as Guatemala.

Women not only learn sound gardening practices through preparing enriched soil, correct seeding methods, and best watering techniques, but importantly, they discover that through their efforts, they can positively impact the wellbeing of their children. Although illiterate—not one woman has had the opportunity for schooling as a child—through the training they were able to learn how to measure the width and length of the garden beds to be dug, and how to count the number of inches of space needed between the various seeds used—simple math calculations previously unknown to them. They came to understand how many vegetables are required to make a hearty soup and how to safely use the new kitchen knives provided, a tool they’d never owned until now. Most of all, they learned about pride as they came to realize that they could through their own efforts, provide healthy food for their children.

Discovering that they are now capable gardeners, some of the women are expanding their plots. Maria Velasquez, an impoverished single mother of two young children, dug several more garden beds. Early every morning, she takes her children to the fields to gather farm animal manure. Her determination, grit, and hard work is paying off—she now produces more vegetables that any other woman in her village. The money she earns by selling her vegetables allows her to buy clothing and school supplies for her children.

The St. John’s Episcopal Church’s transformational gift has created the opportunity for hundreds of indigenous children to become healthier through better nutrition. The program, designed to teach Mayan women how to produce organic vegetables has evolved far beyond its original purpose. Mothers are empowered to improve their children’s lives. They have learned that despite their lack of schooling, they are capable of earning money to help their families. They have come to understand that the doors to education still remain open to them, and that life presents many opportunities for continued learning. Most of all, they have gained pride, a priceless gift. When the camera shutter clicked for the final time on the last day of training, it was pride that shone through the mothers' smiles.

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