Over time, the pictures we take of mission trips start to look alike. “And here’s a shot of the clinic in San Lucas. Here’s the clinic in Santa Catarina…in San Miguel…in Panimaquip….in Agua Escondido and this other place…” I noticed that in this past year, I took fewer photos than ever before. I guess it’s like kids; the more we have, the fewer photographs get taken. (Sorry, Cait! Honestly, I love you just as much as the others.)
So we’re sharing photos with a friend from the States when we get to this photo of three young indigenous girls in the streets of a small mountain town. Our friend says, “Aw! How cute. It’s like they are taking care of the young one.” I looked at my friend. “Really? How old is she? Like eight? Is that normal?” Indeed it is a little too normal, not only in Guatemala, but wherever poverty preys on the children. We explained to our guest how else this cute photograph offers five clues to the potential tragedy they are living with every day.
1. Let’s start with the easy one: Three girls….One pair of shoes. You might think that’s not a big deal since the street is paved; but the girls will tell you they prefer dirt roads that don’t get hot in the harsh Guatemala sun. In the rainy season, unprotected feet walk through mud and rolling waters carrying all sorts of trash and waste, including fecal matter. They are not barefoot by choice, either. Like girls all around the world, their eyes light up at the prospect of new shoes. But the fact is shoes are hard to find and afford in their neighborhood.
2. Another easy one: the fashion of poverty! Their clothes are a mish-mosh of hand-me downs and make-dos. We can still make out the word “Princess” and some leaves on the oldest girl’s tee shirt. The rest is faded and pealed to history. Her traditional wrap is worn and undoubted passed down over many years. The child on the right’s wrap is ill-fitted, obviously not made for her. She wears a pajama top as a shirt. The youngest is wearing a toddler’s dress with the bottom section cut away to make it a shirt. Her pants legs are also cut to make them fit for her. In their neighborhood, none of this is particularly embarrassing or uncommon; but it is part of why they hate to go to the city market.
3. Who is caring for whom? Another thing that Guatemalan girls care about as much as their American counterparts is their hair. Yet these two look a little disheveled to say the least. In talking to these sweeties, we learned that both of their parents are harvesting fields about fifty kilometers away. They will not be home for another week. Their grandmother is caring for them right now, but she “can’t” get up early. She cooks one meal a day, relying on a neighbor to bring firewood and water in the morning. Before the parents left, the mother told the eldest daughter that she is really in charge of the other two. Among the instructions is which neighbors to go to if they are hungry and who to trust if they are scared.
4. You eatin’ that? At first glance, it appears the youngest girl is carrying three peeled oranges in the plastic bag. In reality, it is three balls of ice sprinkled with sugar and flavored syrup. A vendor just gave them to the girls in return for a fifty-cents piece they found in the street. According to my wife, it is even-money that the syrup is simply water with food coloring. We can see that the oldest girl’s stomach is a bit larger than we would expect. It’s hard to see in this photo, but their eyes belied what is probably chronic hunger. Our friend asked if the oldest she was “like eight?” years old. Their real ages are eleven, nine and three. The youngest looks healthier than the other two, but is still small for her age. Her older siblings will undoubtedly deal with the effects of chronic childhood malnutrition the rest of their lives.
5. School’s out! Except that it’s not. This photo was taken during school hours during the school year. The girls told us that they have been in and out of school at times. The oldest doesn’t like it because she thinks she is not smart enough. (It is possible that her nutrition status impacts her cognitive abilities.) The other wishes she was in school because the teachers are always nice and they learn things there. She is not in school this year because her parents could not pay for the books, shoes and other supplies needed to attend.
There are thousands of at-risk kids like this throughout Guatemala and the world. Is there a solution? It’s a bit too complicated and expensive to effect a quick-fix. But here are two things that provide significant assistance and give them a chance at a healthier and more prosperous future.
The first is school sponsorship programs. Getting these children into school is more important than anything else. In Guatemala, a high school diploma is as vital as anywhere else in the world. It is impossible to get a legitimate job without one. But school programs are more than the classroom education. Most school sponsorship programs include some type of food supplement, like free lunch or a hot breakfast.
Teachers and administrators, either consciously or subconsciously, monitor the child for health issues, family issues and more. They account for the child in times of disaster. Many programs offer a mechanism for sponsors to send extra donations like Christmas gifts or shoes during the year. Throw all that in with the known benefits of childhood education and socialization and it is difficult to beat the bang for your school sponsorship buck.
The second best thing for these kids is reliable feeding programs. By reliable, I mean programs that are open all year; with consistent resources for food and staff to help monitor the children. The best programs can tell you where their kids fit into growth charts and whether that is an improvement over years past.
Just like school is more than classroom learning, the feeding programs are more than just a meal. These programs provide a means to monitor other needs and issues in the children’s lives. Bringing the children together creates an opportunity for group prayer, discussion and educational programs. The children learn social skills and become part of a community that will miss them, look for them and wants to make their lives better. The implication of that on their future attitudes and actions cannot be over-stated.
We can’t say “Thank You” enough to the people who donate to our program and similar programs throughout the world. If you have money to donate; or if you will travel with a short term mission team, please make school and feeding programs part of your plans. You won’t regret it.