Posted by: Project MicroMundo | January 25, 2012

Give a Man a Fish!

Driving through Solola, just minutes away from Panajachel

Greetings, all, from Panajachel! Blissfully wrapped up my first full day of work here and wanted to share with you the updates (not to include a very unpleasant flight odyssey, compliments of United Airlines…)

First a few non-work reflections. Going back to Pana has been a homecoming. I’ve had such a warm reception by the ancianitos from the Elderly Care Program (ECP), Mayan Families (MF) staff, street vendors, taxi drivers, hobos—you name it. It’s a small town and everyone knows everyone. Of course the main feel-good thing is seeing people whom I’ve missed and being (a little) helpful again.

Hanging out at the Mayan Families office while waiting for assistance

But the sensation of walking these familiar cobblestone streets and weaving through these narrow passageways… It is amazingly comforting and disquieting all at once. Sometimes I feel like a ghost, and sometimes (especially in the buzzing setting of MF work) I feel as if I haven’t skipped a beat.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so much progress on the part of Mayan Families. They’ve grown a lot and have a bigger (albeit still overcrowded) office to show for it. Their student sponsorship now has over a whopping 2,000 members. They are in the midst of launching a Trade School, and their Sewing Project has been getting quite a bit of business for its artisans. Just yesterday they cut the ribbon on their seventh (!) preschool. And—which is especially pleasing to me—The Elderly Care Program has expanded to a whole other town and now has a total of over 60 members.

Some of the ancianos in Pana gathering for lunch. While the ancianos socialize and enjoy their time here already, we´re considering adding a TV to the room as well. After lunch the ancianos give us their tupperware, and we provide them with dinner, too. The dinner is thanks to a local hotel that has started donating extra food to Mayan Families.

Lucia getting medical attention from a Mayan Families nurse. Because of a lack of funds, we often cannot get the elderly what the nurses and doctors prescribe-- even things as simple and cheap as off-the-counter pain medicine. This leads to unnecessary suffering and premature death.

That’s the good news. Within hours of arriving in Pana, I sat down with directors Sharon and Dwight to discuss the bad news and which of their programs need the most attention. Sharon immediately focused on the ECP. While the elderly program has physically expanded, it has so with very few added resources. What this translates to is more people being fed, but fewer of them getting the critical medicine and attention that they need.  [For related posts on the ECP, click here and here.]

I didn’t quite understand what Sharon meant by all that until I tried to get pain meds for Maria Germana, one of the warmest and sweetest ancianas, who keeps photos of MF staff with her, invites us to her home like family, and cries when we leave.

No tenemos los fundos, lo siento,” a staff member told me. We don’t have the funds, I’m sorry. What do you mean, you don’t have the funds?! These are just a few ancianos!

The reality is that, while Mayan Families have been doing pretty well with some programs, elderly care just doesn’t seem to be all that popular. As you’ve probably noticed, the flavor of the year in international development is sustainability (Teach a man to fish! Or at least grow an organic coffee bean). But the fact is that you cannot teach Dolores to fish. She convulses and can’t even get out of bed. If you want to help her (and I’m sure anyone who’d meet her would want to help), you have to catch the fish and feed it to her (or make sure someone else does).

Like many others, I’m intimidated and sometimes paralyzed by the amount and complexity of world challenges we face. Even if you want to help, it’s very hard to decipher between the (trust)worthy movements and the unworthy ones.  With the ECP, though, I sleep with a clear conscience. Sure, my support of the Elderly Care Program doesn’t teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t disincentivize a man to fish, either. I may not be saving the environment or preparing the world for a growing population, but I am helping people who are alive now to live with dignity, minimal pain, and even happiness. I present to you a rare thing—a cause that is unambiguously good. And because the elderly care cause gets so little attention, your individual help—small as it may be—makes a tremendous, obvious difference. It is measured in sighs of relief as Maria Germana finally takes some pain medicine, in joy as Rosa hugs MF staff and chats with the other elderly care members during the lunch program, in every day of life that many of these people otherwise wouldn’t have.

Please consider helping. You can make (tax deductible) one-time or monthly donations to the ECP, and you can also sponsor an individual elderly person (someone listed on the ECP blog). To make a one-time donation to the Elderly Care Program, please click here and enter “Elderly Care Program” in the Other box. To sponsor an elderly person or make monthly contributions to the general ECP, please click here and put the details in the Other box.

Manuel Parajon enjoying some watermelon during the ECP lunch.

Maria Luisa Coraxon in the doorway of her room

Rosa saying thanks to the ECP donors. She has actually learned some English and says ¨thank you¨ to me!


  1. You’ve gotten it right and written it beautifully–the elderly care program is pure good. Nice job. Wish I was there too.

    • I wish it, too, Steph! Just got back from a baby shower for Lety. The entire MF staff crammed into two pickup trucks and went to a restaurant on the lake, all volcanoes visible. I took Pedro to the doctor today for a shot. He asked if Id come with him on Friday, too, and hugged me. All the ancianos are so sweet. Except one, who only knew that she knew me from somewhere, and tried to sell me some textiles. Manuel Parajon (the anciano brother) and I have smiling contests (he obviously wins). Ana Isabel finally has a wedding date (next month). The new staff and volunteers are great (but I already knew that, given their work). And Mayerlin says hi. And ¨whats crackin,¨ she asks (although I already told her whats cracking). Also, her hot water doesnt work, so that means 2 weeks of cold showers for me. YES! Seno Helen has been running very successful diabetes clinics and elderly clinics each month. Also, I cant find the apostraphe on this Guatemalan keyboard, sorry about that.

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