Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mission Moment: January

Mission Moment
I hope you all had a wonderful Christ-filled Christmas and a happy New Year. I will be spending Christmas with the future in-laws, joining in their holiday traditions and sharing with them some of my own.

As for “Educacion con Esperanza” (“Education with Hope,” it needed a name), I had some great end-of-year visits with the families. Manuel—the community contact with whom I work—drove me around to each of the houses. Each family received homemade Christmas cookies and a Bible for Christmas.

As with almost every visit, there were some highs and some lows. One girl did not pass her classes. She says that she likes school, but her parents say that she doesn't do her homework. Her brother dropped out this year because he felt stupid being a 15-year old in 4th grade. I hope that both of his younger sisters don't follow his example.
Ronaldo holding the Bible we distributed
to each family with his prosthetic hand.
(Yes, it's white.)

We visited another family who has two “special needs” children; one suffers from multiple seizures, and the other was born without his left hand. I found out that my suspicions concerning the educations of their sons was probably correct. The boy without a hand, Ronaldo, just finished 7th grade this year. His younger brother, Efraim, just finished 6th grade. While we were talking, their father stated that Efraim would not be returning to school in January. (Remember: The school year here is from January to October.) He would instead start working in the fields with their 3 oldest brothers because the family can't afford to keep sending him to school. Ronaldo would continue schooling because even with his prosthetic hand—which we obtained via another organization in March—he is not strong enough to do a lot of field work. So, we talked some more. Efraim has the best grades in the family. Via the program, he easily earns more points than are necessarily spent on him alone. In the end, dad decided to send both of the boys back to school in January.


One family prepared a special lunch for us. It was such a special lunch that they laid fresh pine needles on the floor. This is something reserved for only the most special of occasions—such as weddings—or the most special of guests. Our lunch was “caldo de gallina criollo” which roughly translates to “virgin hen broth.” It is completely delicious; it's actually my favorite dish that my future mother-in-law has prepared during my visits to their house. Basically, this family took one of their egg-laying hens which had not yet laid an egg and killed it and made soup with it. That hen was worth a lot of eggs still. So, when it came time to tell them—all of us sitting there in that beautifully pine-covered room—that they did not have enough points to buy school supplies for both of their daughters through the program—a fact I didn't know before eating lunch—I wanted to cry. In the end, I let them borrow points. It's not something I'd do for everyone, but as children who cannot go to school because of their age or physical/mental limitations receive 5 points every marking period, I knew, because of their youngest daughter who turned 3 this month, that they will soon “repay” the points. How did this happen? Well, the short version is that their family felt the need to buy more with the points than their daughters earned during the school year. This either means that the family's financial situation is really bad or that the girls simply aren't getting very good grades. Neither situation is ideal, but now that we've gotten through one year, we'll see how they improve.

We made one surprise visit during our trip. There was a family who had been selected to be in the program which had never come to a meeting. Supposedly, they had been informed of the meetings and simply not come. I know Guatemala, and I was a little skeptical that I was getting the whole truth. So, armed with just the family's name and a vague memory of where they live, Manuel and I set off to find them, and when we found them, I was glad we had gone to look for them. Due to a family emergency, they hadn't been able to attend the first meeting, and after that, they were never informed of any other meeting. It is interesting to me to compare our visit with them with those of the other families who have spent the last year getting to know and trust me. If I weren't used to it by now, it really would have been off-putting how closed they were to my presence.

Wendy, who I mentioned to you all in August 2013 when I first met them, and her family were excited to see me as always, and I was out of breath when I got to their rented house as always. Wendy will be starting 9th grade in January, and the question of what to do with her and Mercedes (who I'll talk about in a bit) is troubling. I won't say much more about them in this newsletter, but Wendy was very happy to receive the Bible. She said that she just started going to the youth group at church and that she felt it would be very useful to her.

Mercedes and her brother Luis are already signed up for school, something most families won't do until January. My fiance, during his visit at the end of September, had had a man-to-man talk with Luis about the importance of education and promised him a soccer ball if he would go back to school. It's not my style, but it was out before I could stop him. Luis agreed. (I just hope we don't have to buy soccer balls for all of the 7th graders.) I was a little chilly having left my coat in the truck; so they decided to give me a beautiful Christmas scarf that Mercedes had made. I was so cold that it didn't make much of a difference, but it is gorgeous all the same. I think in the future I'll use it with a coat.

So, this year Mercedes and Wendy will be the first two to graduate from 9th grade. Mercedes wants to go on to become a “secretaria bilingue” (a bilingual secretary, which is, by default, Spanish/English, not Kaqchikel), and Wendy wants to go on to become a “licensiada” (which is actually just a level of education that allows a person to be titled; I have yet to figure out in what subject she wants to have her “licensiatura,” but the most common is as a lawyer.) However, there are a couple of bumps in this path. First of all, there is no school in their immediate area which provides for schooling above 9th grade. They would have to pay around Q20 (round trip) and travel an hour (each way) to be able to attend high school. In one week, that would be Q100 for each of them. In a month, that would be Q400. In 9 months, that would be Q3,600 or $480 just in bus fare...just for one of them. Second of all, their education up to this point is probably a little lacking. One boy in the second grade told us that he hasn't yet learned how to read. Manuel says that's common which is why he actually moves his family into the city during the school year. However, these two girls have already accomplished more schooling than any of their parents and most of the village; so helping them catch up to where they should be to attend one of these school isn't something that anyone is very capable of.

All of that is why I'd like to bring them to live with me in 2016. And for 2016, that's fine if the families are interested. I have a spare room with a spare bed in my house. The girls could help me with my Kaqchikel, and I could help them with their English and any educational issues in general. However, at the end of 2016, Ronaldo will graduate from 9th grade. At the end of 2017, Efraim, Estuardo, and Luis will graduate. At the end of 2018, Marta Lidia and Olga Maria will graduate. So, if their families are willing (and I think they will be), in 4 years from now, I will have a household of at least 10, counting myself and my husband-to-be. There's a house here in town that would be perfect for housing us, but it's way out of our price range and your price range. However, this situation—specifically this house—is something I'd like to ask your prayers over in the coming year. In the past four years, I've found that if I am in a situation where I don't see the solution and suddenly all the pieces fall into place, that's typically the solution. I have at least two years before I would need something larger than the house I rent right now.

If you want to read more in-depth stories of my visits with the families, you can check out my blog: http://GringaOnTheGround.blogspot.com, if you have any questions, comments, life updates, or just want to get a hold of me, I can be reached at asimmer@gmail.com.

Language Learning
In November, we learned how to say “Good morning” in Kaqchikel. As most of my visits to families took place in the afternoon, I had to learn how to say “Good afternoon.” In Kaqchikel, this is spelled “Xqa q'ij.” The apostrophe in Kaqchikel is a glottal stop. I really wasn't sure what that was or how to do it until someone pointed out to me that Michiganders use it all the time in words such as “kitten” or “button;” it's that little stop that you do right about where that first t should be. If that doesn't do it for you, try “uh oh!” Try saying them out loud. Still not sure what I'm talking about? I'm betting you're probably not originally from Michigan or you've spent a considerable part of your life outside of Michigan. Anyway, back to Kaqchikel. My second struggle with this “word” was the space. It makes the glottal stop nearly impossible to hit; so forget the space is there. “Shcack-eeh” is about how it sounds, so incredibly different from the “buenas tardes” of Spanish or the “Good afternoon” of English.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Little Mermaid: Day 1,624

I am actually not in front of my computer as this post goes live.  I should be at my future in-laws' house getting ready to celebrate my first Christmas with them.  Technology allows me to schedule this post to go live in the future.  YAY!

The other day, I had "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid" stuck in my head.  Why, I have no clue, especially as it has been years since I've seen that movie.  At any rate, one line stuck in my head. "Betcha' on land, they understand. / Bet they don't reprimand their daughters."

No, this post has nothing to do with my parents.  What it does have something to do with is cultures.  When we haven't had the time to live in a culture and the only exposure we have is through "gizmos and gadgets aplenty," we are bound to have assumptions about that culture without really knowing.  And there are two paths those assumptions can take.  We can assume that the other culture is like our culture or unlike our culture.  Ariel (The Little Mermaid) assumes that the "human culture" is unlike "mermaid culture" where, apparently, daughters are reprimanded.

I am a "gizmo and gadget" of US culture.  My can opener is another.  As are a couple other things which I can't think of right now but that my fiance has asked "What's this?  What's it for?"  Sometimes my neighbors ask questions which seem weird to me.  Sometimes their questions reflect their culture so much that I completely don't understand what it is they are trying to ask.

I still remember when one of my neighbors felt offended that I wouldn't buy one of her weavings.  I didn't have the money for it and, quite frankly, I didn't want it.  However, "I don't want that" sounds too much (in my head) like "That's an ugly weaving you've made;" so, I simply told her that I didn't have money to buy it and didn't know when I would.  She said something like "Well, when do they send it?"  And I was like "Who send what?"  "Your parents," she replied.  "They send you money to make sure you have what you need."  And I'm thinking, "Look, lady.  What my parents do or do not send me is none of your business.  If you must know, my mother sends me a care package once or twice per year, and I see them once or twice per year and always bring down a bunch of stuff.  While I'm there, they provide a roof over my head, food in my stomach, and a reasonable amount of gas in their car for me to use.  It is rare that my parents actually give me money, not because they don't think I need being cared for but because they feel that for the most part they have taught me to care for myself."  As for what I actually told her, "Oh, no.  The culture there is very different from the culture here.  I'm an adult and my parents expect me to care for myself.  They don't send me money, and I haven't taught many English classes this week."  (When she insisted I take it and pay her when I did have the money, I insisted that I prefer to not owe anyone money and that if I had the money in the future, I'd go to her house and look at her current work.  I haven't seen or talked to her since...and I still don't have the money or the interest.)

Anyway, this neighbor did the opposite of Ariel in the Little Mermaid.  She assumed that the US culture was the same as the Guatemalan culture.  And I think the assumptions we make are mostly based on whether or not we see something as a good thing or a bad thing.  If it's something we perceive as good (on some level), we assume that other cultures are the same.  If it's something we perceive as bad, we assume other cultures are different.  Don't get me wrong.  It's not bad to reprimand your daughters, but when a girl is 14 or 16 or whatever, she does not want to be reprimanded, and it is bad in her opinion.  At the same time, parents sending their adult children money could be a good thing, but it could also easily be a bad thing as the child doesn't necessarily learn to be an independent adult...which really isn't an issue in this culture as families tend to share more, but I won't go into international financial success in this post (or probably ever unless someone really wants to hear about it).

Anyway, I ramble a lot, but basically we take the parts of our culture that we like and apply them to unknown cultures and we take the parts of our culture that we don't like and assume that other cultures are different.  And then when we get to really know the other culture, we somehow are surprised when the other culture doesn't work out the way we figured.  And sometimes it's a good surprise...and sometimes it's not a good surprise.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Preparing for 2015 and Beyond: Day 1,619

So, as I mentioned in my last post, there was still more to write.  In that post, I told you about the visits to the families, but I didn't say much about looking to the future because the post was already much too long.

There are a few changes/additions I'd like to make for the 2015 school year.  First of all, I'd like to start the Saturday children's program.  This will be a time for the kids to come together and learn about health, educational, and spiritual topics.  It is the largest change/addition to the program in terms of number of kids affected.  The program always had this planned in, but it didn't happen this year due to a number of reasons--not being sure if the other community was going to join back in or not, not having a list of pertinent topics, general unpreparedness, and a lack of good material transportation--which have mostly been resolved for the next year and others of which which shall be resolved before the kids go back to school.  These programs would provide the families more opportunities to earn points which is important to keep some of these kids in school, and they will provide the kids with more information.  My only problem with them is that they will primarily be in Spanish for the time being, a language that some of the younger children don't know very well.

Second of all, we'll start looking forward to 2016.  (I know, you're all like "What?  It's not even 2015 yet and you're already talking about 2016?!"  Hear me out.)  In one month, two of my girls are going to be starting 9th grade.  After 9th grade there is no education available for them in their community.  They are either done or they go somewhere else to keep studying.  
Where they live, the nearest town to continue their education is in the city of Solola.  This would be a 2-hour round-trip and cost them about Q20 each...each day.  On bus fare alone, they would pay more than I pay in rent on my house each month.  
Additionally, according to Manuel (my community contact for that area), the education in the city is much more advanced than the education in the village.  He actually moves his entire family to the city each school year so that his younger children start their schooling in the city and aren't as affected by this as his older ones were.  That means that, when Wendy and Mercedes do get to [the Guatemalan equivalent of] 10th grade, they will be behind.  And considering that they are already two of the most educated people in their village, help is something not very available to them.
That's why, in 2016, with agreement from the girls and their parents, I'd like to bring them to live with me, just outside of Antigua.  It is still a Kaqchikel town even if many people their age no longer speak the language.  They will be able to continue to participate in a lot of their practices such as weaving and habits of dress.  They will have a lot more educational resources available to them as well as many people with higher levels of education who will be able to tutor and mentor them.  They will be able to learn English and will hopefully teach me Kaqchikel (giving back to the program).  I will be able to better pay for their school costs rather than the families waiting a month or two to be able to get back the money that they need for so many other things.  The girls will be able to accompany me for the Saturday meetings and see their families every month, potentially picking up or dropping off weaving work to help with the family's income.  They can help me plan the Saturday lessons and  help present them.  However, if I look forward to 2016 and these two girls, I must also look forward to 2017.

I currently have one spare room in my house.  I can't even call it spare; I sleep in it when it is too cold to sleep upstairs.  (Okay, so I'd probably make a condition that the girls need to make two blankets each for the downstairs bed so that I could use ALL of the blankets on the upstairs bed for those cold nights.)  This is fine because it's two girls.  In fact, I wouldn't want them to have their own rooms because they'd probably get lonely.  (Right now both girls each share one room with their entire family.)  However, like I said, I must also look forward to 2017.  In 2017, Ronaldo--if his family agrees with it--would also come to live with me.  So, the girls could move upstairs with me, but I still don't have any more extra beds.  At the end of 2017, Efraim, Estuardo, and Luis will graduate.  The house that I live in cannot accommodate that set-up.  

Basically, in the next two years, I need to find somewhere new to live.  Now, the great news is that there is an excellent house here in the center of town that would be absolutely perfect for the growing needs of the program. (It doesn't all just end after those three boys graduate.  Somewhere in here we start adding new families and new villages.)  However, from what we've heard, the house--which is a mansion--costs about $120,000.  We haven't yet been able to get a hold of the owner to find out what his real selling price is and what financing options might be available.  This is not an affordable price for me as I've been working for only board and minimal food for the last 4 years, nor is it an affordable price for my fiance who makes about $500/month.  This is 120 people donating $1,000.  This is 1,200 people donating $100.  This is one person who really wants a vacation home in Guatemala donating the whole $120,000.  (Believe me, if you buy a house for myself and these kids, you will have your own special room or two cleaned for whenever you want to come and visit with meals prepared for you free-of-charge.  You'd be our best friend, and there's more than enough room for you.  Remember, Holy Week in Antigua is one of the biggest celebrations of its type you can find in the world; hotel rates are doubled and require a 3-5 day reservation...made at least 3 months in advance.)
Another a house just down the street from where I live now which costs $15,000 and is literally just walls with no roof, floors, electrical work, or plumbing.  The first floor has supposedly been built out of reinforced block which would allow for the building of a second floor.  It currently has 4 rooms (one of which would be my kitchen).  While it's 1/10th of the cost, it would require a lot of work to be livable.  Fortunately, unlike the other house, that's the maximum selling price...not the assumed minimum.  (A neighbor of mine thinks that we could get it for $9,000...and then all that work that would cost who knows how much.)  The piece of land is quite small.
The final option--which the fiance does not like--is a piece of land on the edge of town.  It's roughly the size of the first house and costs about $7,250.  It has no house on it.  The land would need to be cleared.  My fiance doesn't like it because he doesn't feel it's safe for me to be living in such a secluded area.
Anyway, I'm not looking for a solution today.  It's just something that's on my mind for the future that I wanted to share with you.  If you're a praying person, please pray about our future living situation.  If you're a fundraising person and want to share the work I'm doing with others in order to raise money for a house, please do and let me know if you have any questions or need any information.  I don't know what God has planned for us, but it's exciting all the same; I'm just glad He has allowed me to serve during these last 4+ years and am looking forward to 40 more (at least...or however long He gives me life for).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 2014: Day 1,612



Yesterday I went out to Solola and visited each family separately in their homes.  I was able to talk with them, see where they are at, and have some important conversations.  So, I thought maybe I'd share with you a bit about each family and my time with them yesterday and their hopes and dreams for the future.

Manuel and I (with his daughter as our chaperone) started our visits around 9:30 yesterday.  First we went to visit the family of Maria Elena.  She is a widow with 7 children.  She wasn't there when we arrived, but her mother was around and told us that Maria had had an emergency and needed to go to the city of Solola.  So, I had a nice chat with Luis, her 10-year old son, instead.  He was able to help us answer any questions we had.  Both he and Griselda passed! We didn't take a picture with that family because so few people were home.

Then we headed over to see Catarina's family.  You will best remember her for her two children Ronaldo and Carmelina.  (Ronaldo was very briefly mentioned in this post and this post, but not by name.  He's the boy who was born without part of his left arm.) Catarina wasn't there either, but her husband was.  So, we had a nice chat with him during which he told us that Catarina's seizures are still down to once every week or two; while that is good, he feels that mentally she isn't really there, that the years of seizures took their toll.  Ronaldo showed off his new arm (Thank you, Wuqu' Kawoq!), and he was a lot more talkative than he was the last two times I saw him.  I'm not sure if it's maturity, a growing trust in me, or a growing confidence in himself.  They told me that he doesn't usually take his arm to school with him.  The gripping mechanism is apparently controlled by his other arm, and he doesn't have enough strength in that one to really grip very well.  Also, well, his hand's "skin color" is the same as mine...so he doesn't really look quite right anyway.  His dad says that the other kids were making rude comments about his arm, and I couldn't help but comment that they probably did that anyway.  (They admitted that it was true.)  So, Ronaldo and his three younger siblings all passed their classes.  Efraim, the next in age after Ronaldo, finished 6th grade this year.  After completing 6th grade, their three older brothers all stopped going to school and started working, and dad admitted to me that they weren't planning on having Efraim continue (which grows my suspicion that Ronaldo is still in school because they consider him worthless in the fields) because it is expensive to continue his education.  However, Efraim has the best grades in the entire family.  So, with dad across the table from me and the two boys to my right, I asked Efraim if he wanted to stay in school.  He said yes.  I asked him what he wants to be when he grew up.  He wants to be a lawyer.  I asked Ronaldo if he wants to stay in school.  I asked him what he wants to be, and he wants to be a doctor.  (One of my two future doctors said they wanted to be a pediatrician, but I don't remember which one; the other one wants to be a general doctor.)  I explained to dad exactly how the point system works and told them that I'm in this for the long haul, that I want the boys to study, the boys want the boys to study; so, does dad want a doctor and a lawyer in the family?  Efraim is going to stay in school and achieve a higher level of study than any of his older two-natural-handed brothers have.

After that, we went to visit Juana's family (not the Juana who I have written about extensively.  Sorry).  Once again, the mother was not at home.  It was weird since I mostly see the moms; this seemed to be a morning of dads.  The visit to her home isn't much to write home about.  The kids all passed which was good.  I guess the only thing of note is that we found out that the scale I received as a donation in May is a little finicky.  As most of the houses don't have floors, the dirt floors aren't always very level.  If the floor isn't level, the scale doesn't process weight properly.

When we left Juana's house, Manuel let me know that we had been invited to a special lunch by one of our families.  When we arrived, they had put a table in a small room for the three of us.  The floor was covered with pine needles, a sign that it was a special occasion. They served us "caldo de gallina criolla" which roughly translates to "young hen broth."  (Believe me, it tastes MUCH better than it sounds.)  After we ate, we got around to business, but it was a difficult conversation.  While both of their two older daughters passed, the younger of the two is not earning high enough grades to get any points.  That means the older daughter (and the baby) are carrying the weight.  They didn't have enough points to buy school supplies for the two girls as a result.  I've decided to let them "borrow"points from the baby--since they are a guaranteed 5 points every meeting and therefore they'll pay them off--but it almost made me cry as they had just served us this beautiful meal and I couldn't even let them buy anything (via the program) in January.

After that, we visited another family.  It's a family that has given us a little bit of a problem during the year, but nothing too serious.  Mostly it's just the mother of the family insisting that I've totaled her point incorrectly and that she does have enough points to buy whatever it is that she wants that month.  Her husband works in the field and supports both his mother and his brother (who has bad kidneys and doesn't expect to live much longer, currently on dialysis ever 4 hours).  They have 3 children in school and two children who aren't yet in school.  So, somehow one man working in the fields supporting 8 other people on his own managed to build a house (and his wife insists that they don't receive help from any other source).  I'm really skeptical.  And maybe they think that if they receive help from elsewhere that I'm going to support them less or even cut off support all together.  The reality is that I want to know what physical needs are being met and what ones aren't.  One of her sons had broken his leg, but otherwise the family was doing well.  The youngest two even played with me which is something that some of the younger kids are afraid of doing.  The uncle showed up while we were there and wanted to know if there's anything we can do for him.  I'm really bad at "no" so I told him if he showed up at our distribution meetings, he could help weigh stuff and I'd give him a couple pounds of food staples.  I mean, I'm not going to pay him a lot for a couple hours of work, but I do need to make it worth the trip over.  I had been planning on giving an extra pound of whatever to each of the people who helped us weigh stuff last time, but they all vanished by the time I got a chance to address them and thank them for their help.  (They were some of the fathers who had come to help carry stuff home.)  So, this isn't too different...just the uncle instead of the father.

At my insistence, we dropped by another house while we were in that village.  We originally started this community with 11 families, but only 10 had ever shown up.  Despite what I had heard from other people, I wanted to visit the family myself and ask if it was true that they didn't want to be in the program.  Upon arriving, we heard a very different story.  They had heard they were accepted into the program, but an emergency came up, and they didn't go to the first meeting.  At that first meeting, Manuel took down everyone's phone number in order to be able to communicate with them directly.  The other family in their village (the previous one) never went and visited them like they said they would; they simply reported back to us that the other family wasn't interested.  I'll admit, I can't blame them; the second family lives a little far from the first family.  It would be quite the walk just to be altruistic.  (Although, I walk plenty.)  However, I wouldn't have lied about it; I would have just stated that I hadn't yet gone to talk to them.  Anyway, the kids were a little freaked out to see the white girl again after a year and a half.  They had grown so much!  It was a rough visit, but we all made it through.  It was really interesting to see how Luisa greeted me (or not) in comparison to the women I've been working with all year.  She did the old "I speak Spanish, but I'm going to pretend I don't" trick.  She didn't look to me.  She responded to my questions sometimes, but mostly she acted like I wasn't there, talking only to Manuel.  If I hadn't already had lots of encounters like that and survived them all to know some really great women behind the armor, it would have been quite off-putting.

Our next stop was David's family.  I had brought homemade Christmas cookies for each member of each family, and I think David's goal was to double the number of cookies they had in the bag but half the size.  (He was throwing the bag around and breaking the cookies.  Not to be destructive, but because he's a 3-year old that just wants to play with everything.  I have a 6-month old puppy who is about the same; so I understand.)  They were all doing well.  Wendy and Floricelda both passed all their classes and were excited about starting the new year.  They invited us to eat corn--which I'm really not supposed to eat as it messes with my intestines, but I'm still horrible at saying "no."  Besides, I really like corn and it doesn't bother me as much as eggs do--and I ate both ears they gave me, being careful to chew thoroughly (as it's the kernel, not the corn itself, that bothers me).  As we left, Wendy thanked me for the Bible I had given her (and every) family.  She said that she just started attending a youth group at church; so the Bible would come in handy.

We continued on to Irma's family.  Irma had lost a baby in September, and I hadn't seen her since.  So, it was good to see her and find out how she's doing.  The family seemed to be doing well.  Nelson was out working with his father; so only three of the family members were home.  When I first met them, one of their kittens crawled up in my lap while I was interviewing the family.  This year they had puppies...so adorable.  (No, I'm not raising another one in the foreseeable future!)  Everyone passed their classes.  Everyone was happy.  Everyone was healthy.  So, we continued onto the next stop.

It's always a pleasure to visit Mercedes and her family.  As we walked up, there she was weaving.  I won't pretend that kids with special needs don't terrify me just a tiny bit, but that doesn't mean that I don't try to get to know them.  Clara had a bit of a cold, and her mother said that Clara's throat was bothering her as well.  I can't say it surprised me that she was sick as the temperature was cold there!  I had left my coat in the truck as it had been warm during the day, but when Mercedes' mother took my hand, she noted how cold my fingers were.  After a bit, she said something to Mercedes, and she brought me a gorgeous woven Christmas scarf out of her room.  She said it was a present for me.  I sort of felt bad as I knew they had probably only given it to me as I had foolishly left my coat in the car, but I also know that I would have offended them if I had rejected it.  So, I simply accepted it with a smile and wrapped it around me.  If that weren't enough, Mercedes said that they had something else for me and went back in her room (shared by the entire family) and returned with a letter that her father had written for me.  I've never met her father, but from what I know (mostly from Mercedes herself) is that her father likes to drink away whatever he earns making life very difficult for the family especially with all of Clara's health needs.  At any rate, it was a sweet letter thanking me for all I've done for his family.  I don't feel like I've done much, just what I can.  Luis is ready to head back to school; in fact, they've already signed up.

After that, we called it a night.  The other two families live close to where Manuel lives; so we headed back to his place for dinner, conversation, and sleep.  It was nice to see his wife again and catch up.  Evelyn showed off her new weaving project.  Two of his sons are working in a store down by the coast for vacation, but his other two sons were there.  One of them is quite ill, and they're not quite sure what's wrong with him.  I'm hoping it's just the flu.

In the morning, I set out once again with Evelyn and, this time, Manuel's wife.  He had other responsibilities to attend to, and since the last two families live in the same community, his wife could find them.  Her Spanish isn't quite as good as his, but we talked about what I've been asking and saying during conversation the previous night; we even pulled out the scale and the shoe-size measurer.

Our first visit of the day was to Emerigildo's family.  I don't recall ever having mentioned them here, but I know I mentioned them to Madeline's family as they brought me a donated pair of gym shoes for the older girl.  This family has struggled a bit this year.  When the year started, their three oldest children went to school.  Ismael (age 14) started 4th grade.  Wendy Elizabeth (age 10) and Estefania (age 8) started 1st grade.  Sometime around the 3rd marking period, Ismael dropped out of school.  He felt awkward being so old in a classroom full of 10-year olds.  Estefania's grades have been low all year, and every marking period I have had to talk to her about them.  So, today when we got to their house, we found out that Estefania had failed the school year.  It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but I knew it was pretty impossible to pass.  I asked her if she liked school, and she said she did.  So, I asked what the problem was, and she didn't answer.  Her parents stated that she doesn't do her homework.  So, getting down to the tough questions, I asked what the plan is for next year.  They decided that she'll try 1st grade again.  (I personally would have put her to work for a year if she were my daughter, but she's not.)  In addition to the two girls, their younger brother will also be starting preschool.  With any luck, he'll never be in the situation that his three older siblings are in.

Our last stop was the widow Marta.  She has 4 children, three of whom were in school this year.  All three of them were weary but friendly enough, and the two boys answered my questions about school with somewhat of enthusiasm.  The oldest child--a daughter--was a bit shy.  The only place we could find for the scale in their house was up on a chair, so Marta herself declined being weighed.

All in all, it was a good trip, and it was excellent to see the families (even those which led to stressful conversations).  I saw some wonderful grades (94, even!).  I saw some friendly faces.  I had some excellent conversations.  All of the families got a bag of cookies and a Bible.

There is more to write, but I think I'll save it for another post.  I've been working on this one steadily for the last hour and somewhat sporadically for the three hours before that.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mission Moment: December

 I had a wonderful time seeing many of you when I worshiped with you on the 9th, and I had a really great group for the post-Bible Study meeting on the 11th. Thanks to all who came out! We had a great discussion, and we didn't have time to ask and answer all the questions that we wanted to ask and answer. So, we agreed that one of them I would answer here. It was asked "What are the three greatest needs in Guatemala?" This, to some extent, is a fairly easy question to answer, but how to fix them is a much more difficult question. (Prayer is a great start!)

First, although it is hard to quantify, I think that the faith life of these people is worth noting. Just as in the US, there are so many people who seem to be stagnant in their faith. They seem to do nothing most of the year, but then when the big holidays show up, they do them in grand style...sometimes so grand that they miss the entire point of the holiday. Additionally, many Catholics practice an odd form of Catholicism mixed with their traditional Mayan faith practices. Essentially, when the first missionaries (Jesuit priests, I believe, but don't quote me on that) came over, they found it easiest to tell the people that the practices that they were doing were actually commemorating Catholic saints and holidays and that they were simply doing them wrong...rather than risk telling the people that their gods were false and everything they knew about religion was false. It has created a fascinating but dangerous mix.

Second is a living wage. Minimum wage is about Q2,300 (roughly $300, but completely irrelevant as the economy is different too) per month, but most people don't earn that, especially the families I work with. All but one of the fathers is a day laborer; when there is work, a truck drives down the road picking up anyone who wants to work until the limit is reached. Anyone else goes without work for the day. If there is no work, everyone goes without work for the day. (The other father works in a barber shop where he pays most of what he earns to rent a clipper kit; that problem is already being worked on.) Just so you understand how quickly that Q2,300 for the month can disappear, let's assume that I get a minimum wage job in Antigua (pretty much the only place to get a minimum wage job around here) 6 days per week.
Public Transportation: Q4 (one way) x 2(ways) x 26 days = Q208
Lunch (chicken sandwich and tiny pop, the least expensive option): Q9 x 26 days = Q234
Other meals (beans and rice with tortillas, the least expensive option): About Q6 x (31 breakfasts + 31 dinners + 5 lunches) = Q402
Clean drinking water = Q9
House rent = Q600
Electric bill = Q30
Water bill = Q5
That's Q1,488 right there. And I am one person. Imagine supporting a family off of that. Two people (spouses, with only one working) would spend Q1,813 (doubling the water—both drinking and washing—bills and having the other person eat 93 meals of rice and beans during the month and adding in 4 weekly trips to Antigua for the second person to potentially buy vegetables and other necessary household supplies). And neither of those figures is including the soap to wash dishes and clothes nor toilet paper or any other household consumable. What about if they need to buy a uniform for their job or just need another piece of clothing in general? If their shoes wear out? If someone invites them to a birthday party (and have to buy a present)? There is only a Q500 barrier; there is no room to get sick or injured. Now consider the multitude of people who don't make minimum wage. There are no consistent government programs to help them. There are no food stamps. There is no Medicaid. There are no after-school programs. There are no free or reduced-price lunches. So, for people who don't earn minimum wage and for people with families, cuts have to be made somewhere. (For the record, my housing rent is extremely low; even if people owned their own land and house, they would probably be paying some reasonably similar amount on property taxes.) And if cuts aren't made, more people need to work to support the family. This second issue actually covers a great deal of issues, but let's press on.

I suppose the third issue would be the lack of education. Here I'm not just talking about going to school, although that is part of it. However, many professionals are lacking the knowledge and skills to be able to do their job properly. I have a very sadanecdotefrom a missionary in a nearby town. He works with special needs kids and even has a home for orphaned ones. A few months ago, one of his special needs girls went into respiratory distress. Two of his kids started driving the van for the hospital but called an ambulance on the way while he sat in the back with the girl monitoring her situation and eventually starting CPR when her heart started failing. They met up with the ambulance, made the transfer, and as her legal guardian, the missionary went with them in the back. It was soon quite clear that the paramedics had no clue what to do for the girl; so the man made them step aside and went back to caring for the girl. She arrived at the hospital dead. I'm not saying that she would have made it if they had known what to do, but I am saying that without the CPR there is nothing short of a miracle that would have gotten her there alive. The police and hospital staff face a similar problem; they are terribly under-equipped (sorry, that's a snuck-in, piggy-back #4). In the hospitals, it is sometimes the case of doctors taking the hospital goods for their own private practices, but—not to approve of their actions—the reality is that they probably couldn't get those supplies for their patients otherwise. However, I've also heard that some of the Guatemalan doctors have asked to work alongside the medical team that comes down every January in hopes of learning some of their techniques, and I know that US Border Patrol comes down to work with the Guatemalan police to make them better. Now, if only I could get past the fact that a university graduate didn't know that a raisin was actually a dehydrated grape...

The Care and Keeping of a Missionary
It really was quite a pleasure to be in fellowship with all of you in November. Thank you for that time. Thank you for your kind words. Thank you for your encouragement. I ask for your prayers for the 3.5 situations I've mentioned in this article; prayer changes things. Pray for those who are actively working to make a change and pray for the places where there is no one to help that change happen. Pray about being that change.
I look forward to hearing from any and all of you via e-mail: asimmer@gmail.com. Please feel free to send me questions about what I'm doing here, and I can try to answer those in future articles. And, although it hasn't been updated in a while, I also have been a bit better about making more regular updates on my blog which can be found at http://GringaOnTheGround.blogspot.com in case you don't want to wait for the next newsletter to come out!

Language Learning
If you remember, working with the families I work with, they don't always speak Spanish. And they CERTAINLY don't speak English. They speak Kaqchikel which is a Mayan language. Many people assume that it is a derivative of Spanish, but the Kaqchikel were living in Guatemala and communicating long before the Spaniards ever showed up. It was not a written language; so even today there is some disagreement about spelling, and there is some pronunciation variation between towns. Not that I've studied Korean, but Kaqchikel sounds like Korean to me.

This month's phrase is “Shoe-la.” (I have no clue how it is spelled, but that's how it is pronounced.) “Shoe-la” means “That's all” or “No more.” If you are eating at someone's house and they ask you if you want more food but you don't, you'd say “shoe-la.” If you are buying things at the market and you've checked off everything on your shopping list and the store attendant asks if there is anything else you want, you'd say “shoe-la.” I think the expression most similar in Guatemalan Spanish would be “Ya no,” but that's very Guatemalan and doesn't translate very well literally to English.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mission Moment: November

Again, this is the newsletter article for my sending church.  Due to the public-ness of this blog post, some information has been removed for privacy.

 So much has happened in the last month! At the very end of September, I had the opportunity to take my fiance out to Solola to meet the families I work with there. In addition to meeting them, he also had the opportunity to share his story with them. For many of the mothers in the program, they understand this struggle. Two of the ten women are widows. Among the other eight, at least one of them has an alcoholic husband who will drink any money he finds in the house. So, to meet a young man who comes from the same situation as their children are in and who is graduating from the university this year, it gives them hope.
At that meeting, we also checked the grades to see how the children are progressing. Most continue their slow progress upward. One boy's grades plummeted downward, and when I asked his father what was going on, he stated that his wife had lost a pregnancy (which is why she wasn't there), and that the boy was so worried about his mother that he refused to go to school. Sweet, but I really hope he brings his grades up in the last marking period; I don't want a lost pregnancy to be a lost year in school as well. I imagine that if I were in that financial situation, two stresses instead of one would not be preferred. On a happier note, one boy's grades skyrocketed! I asked his mother what happened. “It was the shoes,” she told me. The previous visit, I had brought shoes that they could buy for 2 points per pair. (With the rough calculation from dollars to “points,” it was about $1.) I had brought them for the people who had asked me to bring them, and then I had brought a few more to give some variety. After those who had asked for them had picked out their shoes, I allowed the other families to look through the remaining shoes. Anyway, this boy had received a new-to-him (secondhand) pair of school shoes, and, according to his mother, that got him excited about doing better in school and earning more points! Some of the girls are receiving low grades in gym class because they don't feel comfortable wearing gym shorts. We're looking at the possibility of sweat pants for next year as that is a uniform option that the school allows; however they do cost more than the shorts which is why lots of families don't get them.
We also had the chance to visit some new families which might be added to the program next year. At one house, a woman showed us what she does. Her eyes are no longer good enough to weave, but she does make baskets. It was a gorgeous basket with a lid, perhaps the size of a large saucepan. My fiance asked her how much she sells them for, and she said that she sells them for Q5 each once she has decorated them. (The one she showed us wasn't yet decorated.) Q5 is about 62 cents in US money. Needless to say, he bought it and paid her double (Q10), but we can't do that for everyone nor on a regular basis.
On October 1st, I had the opportunity to attend a seminar via the internet. (Bonus: it was free to online participants!) It was called “Helping Without Hurting,” and it's about the proper way to help people so that they don't become dependent on the help they are receiving. It gave me a lot of thoughts to take with me when I went to visit my families again.
So, two weeks later, I went to visit my families again. I had them sit in a circle with women from the different villages all separated so they could see the women they know best, and I asked them “What are you good at? What do you like doing?” I'm sitting there ready for someone to tell me that they love to write (even though all 10 of my mothers are illiterate), and for someone else to open up and say that she loves to paint (even though even the kids rarely have paint for school). And no one had an answer. The community leader said, “Well, they all weave. That's what they do.” Fine. “Well, what are they good at weaving? Do they have any particular shape they love to weave? Flowers? Birds?” Nothing. So excited about bringing this up, and nothing. So, I gave it one last shot. “What if there was one more hour in the day. No, I'm not God. I can't gift you another hour, but what if? The laundry is done. The dishes are done. The sweeping is done. The mending is done. There is nothing that needs to be done! What would you do?” Well, it got some of them laughing, but one woman said, “Well, I might like to learn how to use a sewing machine.” I asked her if she had ever used one before or if she would have to learn, and she said she would have to learn...but that it was something she'd like to do. And before long, I had about 7 women who were thinking that a sewing machine sounded like a great idea. And another woman said that her husband is a barber, but that he is paid little where he works because he has to pay to use the clippers of another guy. “He's a really great barber, but he needs his own clippers.” I asked them about their dreams for themselves, and most of them said that they would really love to have a real house; one man went so far as to remind me that his kitchen is just 4 poles with tarp wrapped around it. (Don't worry. I haven't forgotten.) One woman said she'd like to learn English to communicate with me better; I told her I'd trade her English classes for Kaqchikel classes for the same reason.
So, the community leader, in front of everyone, decided to ask me how possible these houses were. I said that I really don't have that kind of funding, but if we can work towards sewing machines as a group, the women themselves can work toward houses. The women weave, but they don't have anyone to sell the weavings to as all of the women do the same kind of work. So, people come along and they pay them $10 to weave these typical shawls. If the women can sew the two halves of the shawls together (with a sewing machine), they can earn $31 per shawl. Note: as a beginner, I have been working on something the size of one half of the shawl for about 5-ish months (off-and-on for a year and 2 months), and while I've seen my time go from 2 hours per row to 45 minutes per row, these women are at least twice as fast as I am and dedicate much more time to it per day. Still, assuming that they can do the entire shawl in 1 month, they are earning $10/month or roughly 33-cents per day. Once the harvest is over, that is the only income the family will have for a couple months.

The Care and Keeping of a Missionary
I am looking forward to seeing you all in November. I will be there for only ONE Sunday this visit instead of my typical two; it will be the second Sunday in November. If I miss you in person, well, I'll be here in the newsletter.
Please be praying for these 10 families as well as the other 12 families who I had planned on serving this year. For those who have been meeting with me, pray that their lives be made better from the program, that they feel strengthened and encouraged as people. For the other 12 families, pray that they have gotten through the year well, without illness, injury, or danger. Pray for their community leader who decided he wanted more time with his family and store than he did meeting with other families. (I can't blame a guy for wanting more time with his family, but he could have passed along the leadership to someone else. Please pray he still does so.) One of those twelve families moved, and we don't know where to; please pray that God watches over them and guides them. One of those twelve families is a widow with two children who I have written about before who decided she didn't want to be part of the program; please pray for her family that they continue alive and that their emotional situation improves.
Shoes and backpacks are on the list of items which the families most want for school. If you or family members have gently used backpacks or shoes that you are willing to donate, I will take them!

Language Learning

So far, we have learned “Thank you”and “You're welcome” in Kaqchikel. Today I want to add “Good morning” to your vocabulary. (If you all greet me on Sunday with this, I'll be impressed.) So, in English, we say “Good morning.” In Spanish, we say, “Buenos dias.” In Kaqchikel, we say “Xseqär,which we pronouncesah-car.(It is actually pronounced a variety of different ways depending on which town you are in. I have also heardsah-quer,” “shah-car,andshah-cashin different Kaqchikel speaking towns; however, where I work, the first pronunciation is the most used.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Professional Development: Day 1,540

Today and Monday were busy and filled with exciting things (with more still to come this afternoon).  Yesterday, I just rested.  I was exhausted from Monday, from the weekend, from a lot of stuff.  So, you'll be getting two updates today, the first (this one) about the exciting stuff of today which isn't even over yet, and the second about Monday (which I'll probably backdate to have Monday's date on it).

Today, thanks to a college friend, Bethany, I was able to attend the morning session of a When Helping Hurts (or Helping Without Hurting) seminar at Northland Church via the internet.  Online participation was free and available to me here in Guatemala.  That was a big blessing for me.  It addressed a lot of interesting issues concerning helping the "impoverished."  The church is hoping to be able to make it available later.  If that comes to pass, I'll post the link here.  I know there are lots of short-term trip leaders who could benefit from the information presented at the seminar.  (Yes, I'm looking at you, Shawn, Lisa, and Robin!)  There will also be an afternoon session available at 3:30 EDT (an hour and a half from now) concerning microfinancing if anyone wants to attend.

In addition to having a conversation with my sending church, I'm also preparing to have a conversation with the people in my program.  I need to know what they think their gifts are, and I need to know if the program in its current state is helping the people (without creating dependency).  I need to know if they feel empowered.  I also need to find out why they are buying so much sugar with their points; they're going to need dentists soon...

In addition to the seminar, I'm going to figure out how to post pictures on my blog.  While usually there's some picture I could share, today I have one I'm excited to share.  So, give me some time and I'll be back with the other post for Monday's activities.