Bountiful Children's Foundation

Bob Rees’ Trip to Guatemala 2013

Aug 28, 2013 | News and Updates, Rees 2013 Guatemala | 0 comments

Tuesday, June 25

Arrived at 11:00 last night, to the hotel, run this morning in Guatemala City (terrible pollution), picked up at the temple at 1:00, four hour trip through incredible scenery, mountains, lakes, volcanos, etc. At Lake Atitlan this evening, visited our interns who were helping a family build an indoor cooking space (made of concrete blocks and tin). Helped another member get some corrugated tin sheets to replace the rusted ones for her place. It is amazing what passes for a home here and how little it takes to make one better. We stayed in the branch president’s home. I’m always a little uncomfortable when people give up their bed for me — and then I remember how many times Ruth and I did that for others. Giving and receiving both take grace.

Big day tomorrow. Fascinating place and particularly gratifying to see how the gospel is blessing people’s lives down here. This week we open four new areas, weighing and measuring kids, working with our coordinators, etc.

Thursday, June 27

Yesterday morning up at 5:30 leave at 7:00 to drive a couple of hours to St. Lucas Tolimán and a ward building where we weighed and measured a dozen kids (another team from our group did the same for another branch [Patalul?). Then had lunch and drove three hours to Guatemala City and on to Cobán, an additional 6-7 hours across incredible landscape—like watching a day of National Geographic specials–seven volcanic mountains, plains, up to 6,500 KM to another mountain plateau, down into another verdant valley. Guatemala is one of the lushest places I’ve ever seen. Ten thousand shades of green—and fields and orchards of many kinds of fruit. Absolutely beautiful, incredibly enchanting.

But, it is a country of dramatic contrasts, especially between the rich and poor. Many people live on the margin, many more below it.

Today we are in Cobán. This morning we weighed and measured sixty-one infants and small children and an additional fourteen this afternoon to ascertain their levels of malnutrition. Everyone is so small in stature here, even I feel like a giant. The people are beautiful, and many of the childrens (as our translator calls them) have the charm and beauty that one associates with children all over the world. Some are shy, some mischievous, some scared, some gregarious. It is great fun to interact with them. We give them chocolate or a sucker for participating and it is like Christmas every time.

Brianna and Stacey measuring a child

It is truly gratifying to see the Church in action down here. I said when Ruth and I were in Lithuania that we didn’t have the luxury to getting involved in some of the complicated and nuanced issues that face some members at the heart of the Church. I feel the same way here. Life is much simpler and the faith of the people purer in some sense, but the truly gratifying realization is how much practical sense both the Church and the gospel make in their lives.

Ezra holding an infant being weighed

The Church is very smart in the way it builds communities. Once a certain number of members is reached, the Church builds the first phase of a meeting house. I’ve been in three so far, and they are models of practicality (if not aesthetic and architectural beauty!). They are behind secure fences or, walls (due the high level of crime) and have flexible, multi-use designs. When the level of tithing worthy members reaches a certain level, the Church builds a second wing (a larger chapel, a recreation room, kitchen, et al.).

I’m working with four of our interns, two nutrition students from Utah State University (Briana and Stacy) and two brothers from Eastern Washington, Ezra and Isaiah Stanfield (likely related to Ruth’s family). Isaiah is 19 and Ezra soon to be 17). All of the interns are terrific and really help with our work. They were here two weeks prior to my arrival.

Isaiah, Brianna, Stacey, Ezra

The coordinators are really terrific and totally dedicated to this work. They are the only people paid by the Foundation and they are worth every quetzale we pay them (not much, really, but in this economy a little bit goes a long way and they are obviously grateful for the work and the opportunity it gives them to serve the members of their respective congregations). One of the truly gratifying aspects of our work is that all of the money we raise goes to help the children. In discussing our work with the coordinators, I discovered that some of them take the money we pay them for their work and spend it on the families. When I made it clear that we didn’t expect them to do this, one of them replied, “We consider this holy work.” And indeed it is.

Coordinators and Gringo

On to the far country tomorrow and to a much poorer area. Saturday and Sunday to other new areas where we are expanding our work.

Friday, June 28

After driving so many hours to get to Cobán on Thursday, our translator had difficulty finding a hotel. Apparently, one doesn’t make reservations. Anyway, he and his wife set out on foot and returned half an hour later with the news that we, apparently, had rooms in the last hotel in town. Not exactly the Hyatt, but after a long day on the road, anything soft and horizontal is inviting.

As I mentioned previously, we screened 75 kids in Cobán and interviewed a number of mothers of these kids. Stacey and Brianna ask them about the source of their water, whether they boil it and for how long; how many meals the kids eat a day and how big the portions are; how often they eat fruit and vegetables; how frequently they eat meat and eggs; etc. Mostly their diet consists of beans, rice and corn, although they do get some fruit and vegetables.

Clean water is a problem throughout the country. We drink only bottled water and soda. Hygiene is also a problem everywhere. One has to be cautious eating out except in the more established looking restaurants and even the one can’t be sure. I needed to change some dollars into quezales so in the evening (after a lovely dinner at an inviting McDonalds!) Estaban (our translator) took me to a bank. Actually, it took us three banks to find one that would accept my credit card. As Estaban was explaining to the clerk what we were doing in Cobán, she said that she was a member of the Church and had a daughter who had stopped eating and wondered if we would be willing to talk to her, so on our way out of town we visited the family and met the girl. As we were asking questions about eating habits, etc., the girl asked if she could be interviewed alone, so the translator and the two interns took her into another room to find out why she wasn’t eating. It turned out to be complicated (as many such things are) by the fact that she is emotionally upset about her parents’ fighting (and likely many other things) and has withdrawn emotionally. Obviously, mental health services are not high on the list of priorities when there are so many other pressing needs. Stacy and Brianna were able to give some comfort to the girl and her mother, but it is something one continues to worry about—and to be aware that there must be many thousands of people without adequate mental health services or emotional support in a country as poor as Guatemala.

We left Cobán around 11:00 am and drove for over six hours over very rough mountain dirt roads, up over large mountain passes, down into rich farm area, called lac (sugar cane, pineapples, corn and other fruit and vegetables), up onto another high mountain area to a small village where we are to evaluate over a hundred children on Saturday. A long, hot, tiring day. We stopped for lunch at a roadside eating place, but none of us Americans felt it was safe enough to eat the local food so we ate some protein bars and some packaged things we bought in a service station (Pringles taste good!)

We arrived at the local church building around 7:00 p.m. and met the local coordinator and the branch president (as well as the district president who was conducting a meeting). Several of us walked down the road to the home of the coordinator (photo).

An extended family lives in a sort of compound consisting of three buildings made of bamboo, red dirt floors, an open area covered with tarps and corrugated metal, and an open fireplace/oven where they do all of the cooking. Dogs, ducks and geese run about hoping for scraps, which, to look at them, suggests they are not very successful. In spite of the fact that they have little, these people seem very happy and immensely resourceful. Many of the men are out of work but they hunt, plant some crops (Mandarin, cardamom, tomatoes), and try to find other ways to make a living.

We are sleeping in the church tonight since there are no other options. Two padded pews pushed together make a suitable bed—and it’s not like I haven’t slept in Church before!

Lots of kids to evaluate tomorrow.

Saturday, June 29

Up in the morning, walk down the road to the coordinator’s house for breakfast, back to the chapel where we evaluated 175 kids. It is enchanting I must say to interact with so many beautiful children; even those who might not be classified as “beautiful” are beautiful. Lots of infants which the mothers carry around in a sort of sling like blanket on their backs (photo) or which the mothers hang on a wall or on a hook. (photo).

Sleeping baby hanging from a hook

Many of the children are a bit scared, likely because they aren’t used to seeing so many strangers and because they are uncertain as to what awaits them. Some kids burst into tears and kick as they are held to be weighed (the ones too small to stand on the scale by themselves) or laid down on the table where we measure them. Others are timid and compliant, although a few are also clearly frightened of what is happening. In the meantime, lots of older children crowd around the windows to see what is going on. Then there are those kids who find the whole experience great fun: they jump on the scale, climb up on the table, and joyfully hold their sucker or chocolate (our bribe!).

Coordinator and her baby

Since I love kids and babies so much it is like a feast for me. I love to tickle and tease them, rustle their hair, help them get their shoes off and then on. For the most part they are clean and well dressed (not in the sense of having great clothing but in terms of looking good—I suspect mothers prepared them as if they were going to church. The women wear their beautiful native clothing, which is quite colorful (photo). And their white blouses and white shirts are very white, although when I saw them doing laundry, I didn’t see how they could be. It is a pretty primitive arrangement. It is clear that they take a lot of pride in their appearance. The women nurse their babies openly.

The village people here in the mountains speak a native Mayan language (Qú‘eqchi = keck-chi). Most do not speak Spanish. It is a very beautiful and even musical language.

Waiting women and children in colorful native attire

Some of the kids were dirty, some had skin diseases and some were clearly malnourished (although it isn’t always easy to tell because with their diet of rice beans and corn tortillas they can be pretty chubby and still be malnourished). There are also some sad cases. I interviewed one woman about thirty four who had been widowed for five years. She has ten year old twins and an eight year old daughter. (see photo, below) She is unable to work and so has a hard time making ends meet. She said one of the twins had not gone to church the last couple of weeks because he was embarrassed at not having shoes to wear. I gave his mother enough quetzales to get him some shoes and some food for the family and talked with the district president about more resources from the Church.

Widow and her three children

The district president and his wife showed us their two year old daughter who has feet that turn in. She had an operation, but needs special shoes which they can’t afford to buy. I told him I would see if I could find some way to help them. (see photo)

District president’s wife and daughter

One father brought a child who was ill (apparently from a previous diagnosis he has only one healthy lung) and asked if we had any medicine. We informed him that we were not medical doctors and had no medicine. The nearest clinic is a couple of hours away and sometimes they have to walk to it.

It is our hope to expand our adopt-a-stake program whereby a stake in the developed world adopts a stake in the developing world. This particular district would be a good one to adopt. It consists of five branches all in the mountains and, from what an area representative told me, is the poorest in Central America.

When one considers that our foundation can provide the nutrition supplements for one child for an entire year for $50, it wouldn’t take many people in an American stake to provide for this critical need. We estimate that a stake could provide the nutritional needs for a stake or district down here for around $5,000 a year. That would also provide nutrition supplements for pregnant mothers who need extra nutrition (one of our areas has twenty such women). If a stake could raise additional funds, they could also help kids go to school. At present in the mountain district there are at least twenty kids who don’t have shoes or pants that they need to go to school.

We consider this a great opportunity because the return on investment is so great. A kid who doesn’t get sufficient nutrition suffers from cognitive and physical impairment. Such a child is not likely to go to school, acquire the skills necessary to get a job, be capable of serving a mission or taking leadership positions and unlikely to make a good marriage decision. This means that he/she is much more likely to be dependent on both the Church and his/her own government—possibly for a lifetime. For $50 a year for a few short years, the chances are just the opposite: the child goes to school, acquires a skill, goes on a mission, serves others, makes a good marriage decision, is a good parent and citizen, earns a salary, pays tithing and fast offering and thus repays many times what it cost to give him/her a healthy beginning.

Our foundation is fortunate to have a group of competent, dependable, well-trained coordinators for each stake or area down here (and in Ecuador, Peru and Cambodia). They receive the money for the supplements, distribute them to the needy families (but only for a month so they can ensure they are being used properly), and help monitor the program.

Sunday, June 30

After we left the mountains Saturday afternoon we drove for five hours to Rio Dulce a city on the second largest lake in Guatemala (Lago Izabel). We ate in a good restaurant (notice I didn’t say “safe restaurant”!) and then went to bed. We are so blessed in so many ways, that I am embarrassed to complain about anything but . . . no air conditioning, cold showers and electricity going off unexpectedly . . . well, not ideal for getting sleep!

Coordinators and interns at Lago Izabel

This morning we left at seven and drove an hour and a half to Morales where we went to Church (all in Spanish, of course, but I was able to understand the sacrament prayer—and the hymns were familiar—at least the tunes were). We then left and drove another four hours to Guatemala City where we were blessed to stay at a one star (possibly) hotel. Still a cold shower but the electricity stayed on!

Monday, July 1

After breakfast this morning we went to a two hour meeting with our coordinators and the staff of the Area Welfare Office. Interesting meeting, to be sure. There is a conflict in Church welfare system between helping people and creating dependency, although it seems to us that there is more of an emphasis on helping people avoid dependency than seems warranted when it comes to children in need. Anyway, after a few fits and starts and considerable caution on behalf of the Area staff (they weren’t sure what our Foundation is doing in Guatemala), things settled down to talk about the realities in the field. It is difficult to know if any of the staff has really been to the places we have been the past week, especially the remote areas, but that may be an unfair judgment.

The biggest problem in the past is that the policy has been to limit nutrition to a couple of weeks, which then could be extended for a couple of additional weeks, but of course that isn’t nearly sufficient for a child who is malnourished. Our foundation provides nutritional supplements until a child reaches five and can go to school where he/she can get nutrition. Fortunately, we learned just last week that President Monson said there should be no limits on nutritional supplements. It was uncertain as to whether that information had reached Guatemala, but my impression is that it hadn’t. The doctor who is the area Welfare director was very supportive of our work and very generous. He offered to supply the supplements for our program here in Guatemala. Also, I had mentioned that the congregation up in the mountains where so many men are unemployed could use some help with learning how to plant and harvest mandarins, cardamom, and other crops. The area office said they would provide that assistance, which would be an enormous blessing to those people.

Following that meeting, we went to lunch and then to the local artisan market. The people here make beautiful things and each region has its own particular style and designs.

Tuesday, July 2

Up at 4:30 in the morning to catch an early flight (which was delayed 2.5 hours), on to LA (where I missed two connecting flights to San Francisco), finally home by 6:30 p.m. It has been an enormously busy and productive week. My head is swirling (and my stomach churning, but we won’t talk about that!)

It was a great trip, but it is always good to be home and sleep in one’s own bed.

July 4, Independence Day

It is a blessing to be an American. Normally, I would take that to mean, “citizen of the United States,” but after my trip to Guatemala, I realize more keenly that citizens of Central and South America are also “Americans” and that we are all citizens of these linked continents.

While I was in Guatemala, a headline article in Prensa Libre reported that there are 1.3 million malnourished children in Guatemala ages 0-5 (about 10% of Guatemala’s population), and that of these 23,000 are at risk of dying within a very short time because they suffer from acute malnutrition. The article lists areas with the numbers of malnourished children and anticipated deaths. One of the areas is the last one we were in (Chúlac). Put in LDS terms, there’s about 8,000 malnourished LDS kids in Guatemala, of whom about 160 or so are at risk of starving/dying immediately (or about 4 per stake or district). We’ve had some deaths reported this year in some of the stakes where we work.

A three-year-old who has the weight of a 6-month-old baby, is being treated at a health center for malnourished children. Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America. (photo, Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald)

Clearly, children’s malnutrition is a critical problem. Not the only critical problem in the world to be sure, but, since it involves children who are unable to meet their own needs, one that requires the attention of individuals, governments, corporations, foundations, churches and other groups and organization. Any of you reading this report who would like to contribute to the Bountiful Children’s Foundation can do so by clicking on “Donate Now” in the lower right-hand corner. Remember: just $50 pays for a year’s nutritional supplement for one child.

Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.

— Bob Rees, 2013

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