Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A few years ago I started sponsoring Abelino, a Guatemalan boy, through Foster Parent´s Plan,, now called Plan. I got the idea from those long, sappy infomercials that can make you cry, usually early on a Sunday morning when you`re hungover and feeling emotional. I had been wondering about the real value of this program and others of the like for as long as I could remember and one morning CTV`s Rod Black was on it and he seemed so sincere and handsome so I decided to go ahead and order one up.

I`ve been kind of a lazy sponsor. I only sent a first letter last summer. Plan sends annual updates and photos which I appreciated, however, when I decided to come to Latin America, I wanted to check it all out for myself and it`s actually one of the reasons I chose Guatemala to study Spanish.

Despite communication issues with the Toronto office, I finally got the opportunity to meet Abelino and his family on my last day in Guatemala.

I met up with the Plan staff in Cobàn, located in central Guatemala, who were very welcoming and informative about the services they provide for over 12,000 families.

As far as tourism goes, Cobàn, a major coffee-growing area, is a stopping-off point for the Alta Verapz region which is filled with gorgeous scenery of mountains with orchids, waterfalls, and forests. The town itself is pretty uninteresting with a MacDonald`s and modern mall on the outskirts contrasting with the old street markets and a plain town square.

This office staffs 37 energetic people who work on a large number of projects, including santitation and water, human rights, inter-active school initiatives, etc. Since the area is still so undeveloped, they use dirt bikes and 4X4 Toyota trucks to travel around the communities. I was impressed by all they do and the challenges of working with the government and other NGO`s to actually get things done. .

What they failed to brief me on was the visit to Abelino`s school. His community of San Antonio IV is near Carcha, a small town about an hour outside of Cobàn. Apparently I was lucky since the previous visiting sponsors had to travel over 6 hours to visit their family.

I knew we were going to the school, but I had no idea that I`d be received like a celebrity. Each of the 50 children greeted me with Buenos Dias and warm smiles. They had laid fresh-cut grass and decorated the room. It smelled wonderful. There was a formal presentation of speeches, songs, and dancing, with a lot of thanking going on. The well-rehearsed spanish was impressive since they speak Q`eqchi and most have only learned a little Spanish so far. Some children were very shy with me but others were trying to catch my eye and when they did, would beam and laugh. It was actually quite embarrasing since I hadn`t brought them anything and it all seemed to be so much. I found out later that I was the first sponsor to ever visit this particular community, and possibly the only foreigner they had ever met.
Guatemala has about a 10-minute long national anthem. Nice though... and it gave me a chance to memorize `thank you` in Q`eqchi. Only a few of them were attempting to sing it, but they all seemed sincere.
I felt nervous when I was about to meet Abelino´s family. I only had my backpacking clothes to wear and I wasn´t sure what gifts would be appropriate.... I took a soccer ball, some books and school supplies, and a few kitchen things for the mom. I wondered what they expected of me.
Abelino´s sister, Aurora, was at the school and this beautiful girl was so shy she couldn´t even make eye contact with me at first. She came with us to their home, which is about a 15-minute walk through rugged terrain. The landscape was breathtaking.
Abelino actually completed the primary school we visited last year and now goes to middle school on a scholarship he received. Aurora is twelve and has the very important function of caring for her younger siblings. Like the other girls in her community, it is unlikely that she´ll have the opportunity to go any further with her education since it´s a long distance and the parents are concerned both for their daughters´ safety and finding suitable husbands.
It´s not my place to say that isn´t right, but Abelino´s mom, Juana, does attend some of Plan´s women´s programs which teaches them the benefits of education, as well as child care and women´s rights (spousal abuse is a major problem there). At the moment she is going to meetings regarding baby stimulation. Often the mothers are too busy in the fields or cooking and caring for so many other children so the babies are left in the care of older sisters, etc. and just end up sitting like little lumps.
Fourteen-year-old Abelino was waiting rather anxiously with his family. He was very shy and seemed uncomfortable, but he gave me a kiss when I hugged him.
Their 5-month old baby has some skin disease, which Juana says is seasonal. They have a Plan-supported health clinic in the community but apparently the cream that normally takes care of it can´t be used on him since he´s too young. I set him on my lap and he immediately shit his pants, causing a lot of laughter.
The house was similar to the ones in the other village where I did the stove project, but more isolated. They have a dirt floor and an open fire in the kitchen. It´s long and narrow, with partial walls separating two bedrooms and a sitting area where a table and lawn chairs were set out for us. The coffee was surprisingly good, although sweet... sugar is luxury apparently. They had decorated with palms inside and out and there were a few football (soccer) posters on the wall. The clothes were all hung together on a rack. It´s hot and usually humid during the days and can be very cold at night.

Despite the heat, it was very comfortable being there. They didn´t fuss too much around me and didn´t even seem that curious at first. Although they, along with every other Guatemalan, can´t believe I´m not married. Overwhelmed and shocked were the words the translator used.
Juana, in particular, has a lovely nature. After she was finished cooking, which was almost the whole time we were there, we had a nice conversation, with the help of Herminia, the Q´eqchi translator/family case-worker, and the Spanish translator, Alma. Alma kept forgetting to translate as I wasn´t doing too bad with the Spanish at first, but as the day progressed... nada.
Juana married Abelino´s dad, Nicolas, at 14, which was arranged by their parents. Now she´s 28 and has five kids. I wondered why she kept trying to hide her mouth with her hands since she seemed to have a great set of teeth.. in fact, the only Mayan woman I´ve noticed with all of her teeth. She´s actually very beautiful, like Aurora, and funny. She said that if I lived with them, they´d have to raise their roof so I could walk inside the house. She said she wants to learn Spanish so that we can talk to eachother some day. I do too.

While waiting for lunch outside, Nicolas, who´s missing most of his teeth, went on several times about how much he appreciated my support. Embarrassing too. You know, it´s only $35 per month and I don´t even notice it. I mostly feel by how little I thought of it prior to my meeting the family.
For some reason they, too, felt embarrassed for what little they had to offer me. They kept saying that they wish they had something to give me.
This is their house from the road, with the small farm in front. They grow mainly coffee, corn, and the spice, carmadon. I had read that the Cobán area is the biggest exporter of carmadon in the world, mostly to the middle east. His crop hasn´t produced much lately, though.
Plan has been in the San Antonio IV community of 100 families for the past seven years. So far 67 are sponsored, while the rest are on a waiting list.

Seven-year-old Edgar, who is the most brazen of the bunch, is getting water from the barrel. He is sooo adorable and fun-loving. It´s amazing how one can be so happy with so little.
Their only water source is rain. They have gutters on the house and trees airmed at the top of it, but now it´s the dry season so they´re struggling. There´s a river 45-minutes away, but it´s very polluted. Plan is currently working with the community on a water project and, God-willing, one day that part will be easier on them.
The family goes to Carcha once a week to sell their products and they all take baths and do laundry after they´re done at the market.
In this photo is Alma, who grew up in the US, the driver, who also translated Q´eqchi, and Carola, another Plan worker.
The tortillas are on top of and fill the inside of the container which is actually a dried melon that I wasn´t familar with. It´s the traditional tortilla-warmer bowl. The big bowl of turkey soup in front was mine. I was told that I didn´t have to eat it all, but that I had to wrap what I couldn´t finish in a tortilla to take home. Being the guest of honour, I got to use one of the only two spoons.
This meal is reserved for special occasions, like weddings and funerals. The soup was quite tasty and even spicy, which isn´t typical in Guatemala. Me gusta! The leftovers were wrapped in banana leaves and Abelino presented me with a special cloth napkin to go with it.
Hermiana told us that Abelino had stopped going to school this year, but when he heard that I was coming to visit, he went back to his teacher and asked if he could return because he thought I´d stop sponsoring them.
After pressing Abelino, we discovered the reasons he didn´t want to go to school. It takes over an hour to walk there cross country. Plan had lent him an old bike to use for a while, but it kept having flat tires and he´d end up pushing it or changing the tire, then get there late. Another, more challenging, issue is that he finds it incredibly difficult. He misses weeks at a time to help harvest so he can never catch up, and most of his classes are in Spanish, which he barely understands. Most members of these communities believe that the eldest son should only have vocational training so he can farm. However, the one thing Abelino has going for him in regard to education is Juana´s belief that he can do something better with his life, like becoming a teacher.
The pressures must be great for Abelino. I could see it on his face. The odds are against him. I bought him a bike in Cobán before I left and the Herminia will deliver it to him, but he needs continual and postive motivation as his path, no matter his choice, will be difficult.

There wasn´t a lot of traffic in these parts, but we saw a few trucks such as this one, and a few picops, with about the same amount of people.

This is a field across the road from the family´s farm. You probably can´t zoom in enough, but you would see that all the labourers are women. Can´t imagine how hot and tired one would be after a day of work like that. We were there at least three hours and I never saw them take a break. Where are their husbands??

The impact of my visit to Abelino´s home didn´t really sink in until after I was in one of the many airports enroute to Chile from Guatemala the next day. It dawned on me while I was watching everyone go here and there that Abelino´s family would probably never in their lives see an airport. There´s so much I´ve experienced that their lives will never be part of. I don´t know if my life is better. They seem to be surrounded by great community and loving families. But I know mine is much easier and I have choices.

Entonces, it turns out those infomercials are pretty legit. I know that no organization is perfect, but I´ve learned that even a little really can go a long way. It´s also pretty hard to complain about an uncomfortable bed or a home away from the comforts of Canada when I know exactly where they´re sleeping

Keeping Abelino´s family in your prayers... Ilsa recommends.


At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 10:56:00 AM, Anonymous Dad said...

What a wonderful experience and great story. Thank you for sharing it,and for being you. I am soooo proud of you. Take care. Dad.

At Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your experiences are awe inspiring.
Thanks for taking the time to share them...Up close and personal!

Take good care,

At Thursday, May 22, 2008 12:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa, you have left me speechless (not many can) and in tears. What a truly incredible experience for you and for Abelino and his family. I think you are an amazing teacher to us are living life to the fullest! Thank you so much for sharing yourself and your experiences with us all. Don't ever stop! Please send me some info. as I now have $35 burning a hole in my pocket that I'd love to use towards sponsoring someone just like Abelino. Love Carmen xo

At Thursday, May 22, 2008 5:56:00 PM, Anonymous Sara said...

Hey travel buddy!
Love your blog, as usual ~ so many great details and pics. Glad that the Abelino thing worked out, sounds fantastic! Something to consider when i get a job and a paycheck. Hope you are enjoying Chile and the rico pan! Don't forget to look for chimichurri sauce. And take that unflattering pic of me in Livingston at the hotel off your blog ASAP!
Miss you,

At Sunday, June 08, 2008 9:18:00 AM, Anonymous Diana said...

Lisa, What a great reminder of how lucky we are and what a difference we can make. It was especially poignant on a Sunday morning when it's rainy and I am feeling blah. Blah about what?

I'm curious, has this visit inspired you to do something differently or to choose another path?

I'm really proud of you for doing this.
Lots of love. Miss you.


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