Posted by: Project MicroMundo | October 31, 2010

What’s Behind an Education

Hi everybody—Steph here.  I want to react to some of the things that we’ve seen through our work with the Family Aid Program over the last few weeks.  It’s been intense and there is a lot to say, but first I want to give a quick update on Caterina:

The family in the doorway of their new home on moving day.

She has moved into her new house!  The construction took a bit longer than originally expected because of what we were able to do with the extra funds we raised, but they moved this week and are finally out of the terrible situation with her family.  We’ll do a post wrapping up the project (with lots of pictures, we promise!), but we’re waiting for Mayan Families’ carpenters to finish up some furniture—we want you to see the finished product of your efforts.

Caterina’s house is a success story from the Family Aid Program.  For the past several weeks, Jess and I have been spending almost all of our time working to jumpstart this program, which has always existed as part of Mayan Families’ ability to respond to emergencies, but which hasn’t had a consistent presence on the web (a main source of fundraising for Mayan Families’ other programs).

The first step in this process, and the one that has taken up most of our energy so far, is to interview the families in need. During these interviews, we go with Gloria (a Mayan Families’ manager and patient Kaqchiquel translator) to the family’s home, in order to get a sense for how they are living, find out what kind of help they need, and put together the material for a compelling pitch to potential donors.  To do this, we ask a lot of questions: where they sleep, what they eat, how they spend their time, and how much money they’re making, etc.  These aren’t easy things to talk about with a stranger, and it is difficult to keep asking questions when such strong emotions are evident on the faces and in the voices of the people we’re speaking to.

Though taking pictures can be extremely hard, Juan Pablo (7) and Juan Carlos (11) are always willing to pose. Their story is on the Family Aid Blog--see the link at the bottom.

In a situation that’s inherently emotionally charged, the final stage of the interview—picture taking—is especially difficult. Part of what makes Mayan Families so successful is that it gives its donors photo evidence of everything.  Pictures are an essential part of fundraising, but that doesn’t make it any easier to raise a camera to photograph a foodless kitchen while a mother’s eyes tear up in helpless embarrassment that she can’t feed her kids.  (Kids, for the most part, have no such reservations—they love getting their picture taken, and most will immediately befriend a stranger for a glimpse at the screen of a digital camera.)

We’ve visited over a dozen homes over the last weeks, and we’ve seen a lot of things. Hunger and malnutrition.  Pain and disease with no medical care.  People taking shifts to sleep because their house is too small to hold the whole family at once.  Bedsheets and trashbags for a roof; wooden planks and cardboard for mattresses. Kids that have never been to school, parents that can hardly find work.  Alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment, but also teenagers lovingly caring for sick relatives, or sharing beds between four, five, or six siblings.

This family of 10 has no beds, so the children sleep on thin mats on a cement floor.

I knew, coming here, that I would see things I’d never seen before.  That’s a big part of why I came.  And I knew that it would be hard to see hunger and suffering during the day, and go home to a full table and warm bed.  And it is.  I feel it when I go for seconds at dinner, or when I get into a hot shower.  I know that feeling guilty is illogical, and what I’m feeling isn’t guilt exactly—it’s sadness, it’s frustration, it’s a sense of injustice.

While I expected to feel those things when I ate nutritious food, or drank clean water, I never expected is to get that feeling—that gut twisting, life’s-not-fair feeling—when I pick up a book at night.  But that’s exactly when it has hit me the hardest.

This crowded shack is home to 19 people. None of the adults can read, write, or speak Spanish.

On our very first interview, we spoke to an extended family of 19 living together in a makeshift one room house.  None of them could read or write, and only the younger children, who go to school on scholarships from Mayan Families, could speak Spanish.  They live within easy walking distance of our apartment.  How is it possible that I can come home and open up Madame Bovary to relax, and a few blocks away, an entire family exists on the margins of society because they can’t read, write, or speak the predominant language? Hunger is terrible, but it is also, at least potentially, temporary.  A stroke of luck—a steady job, a second income, a house with cheaper rent—and it could change.  Losing the chance for an education is a permanent, dramatic loss, like losing a limb.  Going back to school is an option far beyond the reach of most impoverished parents here—making a living doing unskilled labor means working whenever work is available, not arranging your schedule around classes.

Being forced to drop out of school changes people’s lives—it freezes them in place socio-economically, and stifles intellectual growth.  Dropouts can happen because families can’t afford to pay for school: tuition, plus fees for uniforms, tests (you have to pay for the paper), etc. make attendance a significant and often impossible expense.  But the price is only half of the problem—often, especially in the poorest families, kids have to drop out because they’re needed elsewhere, to steady an otherwise very unstable family situation.  This might mean getting a job to help pay for groceries, or caring for younger siblings or an elderly relative.  Of course, children are better able to do all of these things as they get older, and that’s a big part of the reason that they’re more likely to drop out with every passing year.

This three year old's mom doesn't speak Spanish, and has few options but to wash clothes for very little money. Food aid for her family will ensure that she can go to school, rather than dropping out to add a few pennies a week to the family income.

It’s impossible to overstate the devastating impact that a lack of education has on a kid’s chances, especially for children in Kaqchiquel speaking homes.  If they don’t go to school, they could end up unable to speak Spanish—the language in which business is conducted here—as well as without a titulo (diploma) which is required for all but the most menial jobs. School sponsorships like those offered by Mayan Families (and many others) are perfect for keeping kids in school when it is the cost of attendance that keeps them out, but the Family Aid Program is going to be essential if we want to make it possible for the poorest kids to get an education.  If we want them to stay in school, we’ll have to give their families the support that the kids would have provided if they dropped out to work.  If the extra help doesn’t come from outside the family, it will have to come from the children, and they’ll be caught in the same impossible situation as their parents—too much responsibility to have time for an education, but no way to fulfill that responsibility without one.

The Family Aid Program’s blog, which contains the stories and pictures of the families we’ve interviewed, is now live.  We’ll be spotlighting individual families with particularly urgent needs here on MicroMundo, but if you’d like to get to know some of the families we’ve met and see some of the progress we’ve made, click here.


  1. Hi Steph,
    I also posted about some FA Families on my Blog and did a slide show of FA43.
    I also have linked Family Aid and Elderly Care people on the right side of my blog hoping that more people would see their needs.
    Let me know if you have specific families you would like me to add. I can add up to 3 families in need at a time. Thank you for all your work with the Family Aid Program. Bonnie from MFC

    • Thanks Bonnie, that would be great! We’ll talk to Sharon and Gloria this week, and be in touch after that.

      Thanks again,

  2. Steph, Ronnie and Jess:
    I have passed your latest blog along to some people that haven’t been getting it regularly. Will keep sending as I think of new people to send it to. It’s a very important blog to get out there as far and wide as possible.
    I’m in touch with Jess to see where the need is still greatest after about a week.
    Keep up the MOST EXCELLENT WORK.

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