Thursday, June 7, 2012

Butterflies and Heart Songs

Hola de La Antigua, Guatemala
April 26, 2012
This is my first attempt at blogging; here goes .....!

I've been here in La Antigua, Guatemala since September 28, 2011 -  exactly seven months; although I can't prove it by my language speaking abilities!  People have been very nice and encouraging; they compliment each verb in the subjunctive or a new adverbial expression I might come up with; even though they may, or may not, be absolutely correct.  All I have to say is I'm certainly glad Spencer pointed out to me, early on, that learning a foreign language is a life-long endeavor.

First off .... what about the name of the blog - Butterflies and Heart Songs?  Well, I've met some really interesting, exciting and talented people during this venture so far; one of the things I notice that seems to permeate all the travelers' personalities is a hankering for adventure  - adventures of  numerous different sorts.  For example, we all have lots of fantastically interesting stories about from where we come.  How would you describe where you were born?  How would you describe where you live now?  What's great about the locale?  What's not?  Put something together that you think others might find intriguing, interesting, irresistible about your 'home town' or maybe the place you live now.  But, I digress!

Butterflies are FREE - they fly around and when caught sight of, they're appreciated.  They're not feared or hated or obnoxious or ugly.  They're free.  What a wonderful way to live life.  So that's the meaning of the 'butterfly' reference in the title.  Heart Songs may be a little harder to define, but it feels right to me.  Here's how heart songs came into being ...

I first came up with the idea of coming to Guatemala when I saw a "60 Minutes" special on Casa Jackson, a hospital for malnourished infants and children here in La Antigua.  Nuestros Ahijados (The God's Child Project) is a Non-Governmental Organization [NGO], founded 20 years ago by Patrick Atkinson of Bismarck, North Dakota.  He'd come here to study Spanish and ended up the founder of one of the most successful NGOs functioning in Guatemala [and now in Africa, India and China].  When I saw what Casa Jackson was doing for these severely malnourished youngsters, I just had to come and see for myself.
I did, in September, when I signed up for three weeks of Spanish lessons and also to offer volunteer assistance at Nuestros Ahijados / Casa Jackson.  Well I'm still here.
To get back to the Heart Songs, what I realized very quickly is that this country of about 14.5M people is badly in need of assistance of all kinds:  healthcare, poverty, education, politics, business, etc.  There are so many systems half in place and half broken or not completed or .... The list goes on.
Again I digress.  I was confused and uncertain what the 'right fit' might be for me, in terms of volunteering time, effort, etc. I volunteered a few times at Casa Jackson - and realized that, although the work being done there is incredible, both for the patient and his / her the entire family, when I held those tiny angels I felt wonderful - but my heart wasn't exactly "singing!"  I need to explain a little more thoroughly.

Oh, of course my 'heart' feels incredible when I hold these tiny wonders; they're so precious.  And, there are so many volunteers wanting to feel that 'heart singing' sensation there aren't enough volunteer slots in the work schedule at Casa Jackson for the number of volunteers waiting to give their often limited time and love to these special children on the road to recovery from some of the worst malnutrition I've ever seen. [As I explained earlier in my stay here in Guatemala, this infant and child malnutrition is rampant in Guatemala - 49% of all children under the age of 5 are malnourished.  This is NOT because they're not loved or cared for.  It's because of all the broken systems in this country.  These parents and families do the best they can.  All babies are breast fed, by far the best opportunity for health; but often by a malnourished mother who has had no prenatal care or education and is often working full time as well as caring for several other young  children.  The 'family' is often extended, with many many people living in the same, often primitive, house.  The housekeeper in the house of my "family" here in Antigua and her husband and three daughters live with her mother and two sisters and their spouses and children; I believe it's at least 16 people in one house.  All adults work and share expenses - mainly for food and electricity (they're lucky - they have electricity).

I've had so many opportunities, in my nursing and family life, to love and care for babies.  By "heart songs" I mean that overwhelming sensation that comes to one, often very suddenly, just when the time, the activity, the participants and the Cosmos are aligned; one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry - and for me the need to continue is almost overwhelming.

I've decided to try out several volunteer opportunities and have found that, so far,  I resonate more into the "project" type scene.  Here's an example:

A couple of months ago I was invited to visit a small pueblo, only about 8 miles from La Antigua; but eight miles can be a very long way, depending on the roads, or lack thereof; and if one has no mode of transportation it can be almost a lifetime away.  My friend, Liz Flinn, a Canadian volunteer with an NGO [Non-Government Organization] called Integral Heart Foundation, with whom I've done a few projects, invited me to accompany her to this little pueblo of San Mateo de las Milpas [fields].  She represents donors to her organization who 'sponsor' several children in a school in that community; whose Director is a Guatemalan woman, a 'native' of La Antigua, who determined about four years ago that the children in this particular community were not attending school of any kind.  She gave up her teaching job in Antigua and put together a school in San Mateo without any help from the government.  Integral Heart Foundation, and others, have stepped in to help her keep the school in operation.  

San Mateo de las Milpas is a very poor pueblo with little opportunity for employment - it had been impossible for families to send their children to a nearby community (or Antigua) to a public school; as, although public schooling is "free" and "mandatory" through grade six; it's only possible to attend if one can purchase a school uniform, shoes, books, notebooks and school supplies, as well as supplying money for brooms, mops, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, etc. for the school building itself.  [This is a good example of 'broken systems' that are rampant throughout this country - systems are in place - but broken somewhere along the line - preventing the aid from reaching those most in need of it].

The day I visited with Liz, I saw not only a school for about 100 happy children from the ages of six to about 14 or 15, happily participating in classes and 'study halls' in a very simple but clean school building.  Integral Heart Foundation has a tradition of giving a pair of shoes, as a birthday present, to each of the children they sponsor.  Liz was going to gift a boy and a girl whose birthdays were occurring that week.  Oh what smiles and congratulations when each of them put on their new shoes!  All the kids gathered around and shared in their pleasure.

The 'directora' gave me a tour throughout the small school; as we entered the classrooms of the older kids, each came forward to be introduced to me, offering a handshake and a "Mucho Gusto" ["Nice to meet you"].  But when she introduced me to the classes of the younger children (maybe 6-9 year olds), the entire class ran up to me and threw their arms around my legs along with their greeting, "Hola Doña María."  That started my heart singing!  After I'd been given the tour we went to the 'office' with its one chair and one table and one closet - no phone, computer or writing materials, etc.  I asked the directora if she had a First Aid Kit; she answered 'yes' and went to the closet and came back with a shoe box containing a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a couple of clean rags and that's all.  I asked how difficult it would be to get help in the event that a child would become ill or injured; she indicated that San Mateo has no doctor, no nurse, no fire or police department; the nearest help is Antigua - remember that it's more complicated than simply the eight miles.  She said 'help' could arrive within an hour of notification!!!

Well, I went 'home' to Antigua and couldn't get that shoe box First Aid Kit off my mind.  And the more I thought about it, the more I felt I could do something to make things just a little bit better for those kids.  First I talked with my 'father' Otto, who is a physician and surgeon in Antigua.  We discussed what might be needed and sat down to make a list of components for a rudimentary "Primeros Auxilios" box.  Nothing fancy - band-aids, soap, gauze, tape, aspirin, treatment for head lice, etc.

The process of putting the kit together hasn't been difficult, except for the fact that materials are not available in Antigua; I had to wait until I could 'bum' a ride to Guatemala City with María Isabel (my 'mom').  She took me to Walmart (yes, even in Guatemala) where I was able to purchase most of the items on my list.  And, during the process of putting together this kit, I became aware of the fact that many many schools, particularly those in out of the way pueblos, have minimal, or non-existant supplies for giving first aid.  So, I bought supplies for the first box; but have found that I have more than I need for only one kit so I'm beginning to plan for more.  Now I'm developing teaching materials so people will know how to utilize the contents.  I'll keep posting as I go along.