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Have you ever reflected on an opportunity that you passed by or didn’t value? When opportunity knocks, how is it that we don’t move heaven and earth to open that door? How do we evaluate the value of an opportunity at any given moment in time? And why is it that sometimes we only can realize the value of said opportunity when looking back. 20/20 in hind sight only?
I live in Guatemala, the land of few/scarce opportunities. Open doors to a better future are rare for the average/non-connected folks. Opportunity for a higher education, better nutrition/health, a living wage, a safe neighbourhood, or a domestic violence-free relationship are hopes yet to be discovered. They are an unknown land that the poor have only heard stories of.
If someone offered an education to the children of a farmer in the highlands of Guatemala, this opportunity could be passed up, because the value of education has not been experienced and acknowledged – it is heresay. If someone offered a pickup truck to the same farmer, it probably would be valued more than the education because he can see the immediate benefits and culturally it is a sign of “getting ahead”.
What I value, like access to information, the privilege of travel, a meaningful vocation, a wonderful, loving relationship and a healthy diet are not high on the list of folks in the Village of Chivarabal. What is valued is survival, getting by and perhaps the hope of a better house.
We have had more than a few mothers with children, living in extreme poverty, pass on the opportunity to come and live at Project Somos. It was hard to get my head around it, but then it dawned on me. The value of the opportunity is not immediately visible, it has some tangibles, but also some sacrifices. What I consider a valuable opportunity for someone else is not necessary valuable for them in the context of who they are and where they live.
We continue to maintain the door of opportunity open at Project Somos for those mothers with children who see it as valuable. But I can say it is very difficult to see families not seize a chance at Somos and return to their extreme situations, where there are very few opportunities to improve the basic needs of life.
For several months leading up to my 50th birthday, I adamantly declared that I would NOT have a party. I guess I was hoping that my fifth decade on the planet would just quietly and unobtrusively sneak in with minimal fanfare. Turning 50 did not seem like a reason to celebrate. Then I was introduced to Project Somos and all that changed.
For years I had been searching for the “right” charitable organization to work with in order to satisfy my need to volunteer and to serve others. My daughter, Alexandra, who had attended a presentation at Capilano University given by Heather and Greg, suggested that I look into Project Somos. A few days later, I called the number on the website and connected with Greg, one of the co-founders of the organization. On the day that I called they had just arrived in Calgary, where I reside, for their annual trip to Calgary. I met them for coffee and immediately knew that this was the right connection for me. I was so excited that I could barely figure out where to start.
All of a sudden, turning 50 seemed like a great way to celebrate and raise much needed funds for an organization that resonated with me in every way. The planning started and the invitations were sent out. I imagined a night filled with family and friends and was immediately grateful for the diversity of the communities that I have built, with my family and because of my family, over the years.
The day of the party began with my dear friend, Colleen, and her two daughters, Briana and Sarah, surprising me from Vancouver to attend the party. It was a remarkable testament to our friendship since they had to fly back to Vancouver the following morning to catch an 11 am flight to Paris!
The party was all that I had imagined and so much more. Everyone wanted to help and the most poignant contribution was made so carefully and deliberately, with so much love – my mom baked two beautiful cakes for me to share with my family and friends. My dad came for the week before the party and helped in the many ways that he is so capable of – building, cleaning, chopping, etc.! Without hesitation, my husband and children all rose to the occasion and helped in any and every way that they could.
My usual worry of how many would come was replaced by thoughts of how much of a difference could we make? In the end, I needn’t have worried about anything – we raised over $4,000, 104 adults and children came, the weather cooperated and much fun was had by all. Hands down, I had the most fun of everyone and found out that turning 50 was incredible. It felt more like “finding” 50 and it seemed as though I had been looking for a long time.
Now that the party is over, all I can think about is what can I do next to help support the Mamas and their children at Project Somos??
We have to share with our people. Suffering today is because people are hoarding, not giving, not sharing. ~Mother Teresa
-Michele Gole, Calgary
Yesterday morning we had a visit by a young mother with three young children under eight. They came with her sister and knocked on our gate to inquire if she could find a home for this abandoned sister and her children. She was married for eight years and her husband abandoned her 4 years ago. Her sister, with whom she is currently living, has four children of her own and can only manage to support her own family.
Unfortunately this is a story we have heard too many times. These children are eating only tortillas and salt with coffee every day. The coffee suppresses their hunger. This is a common practice with those who have no means to buy or grow food. The developmental damage this does to a child is devastating for a lifetime. I am simultaneously saddened and angered.
My sadness comes from the persisting question of how this has persisted in this country and the world for so many decades-centuries. Why have the poor been left to languish in a vacuum while in reality there has always been enough food, shelter and decent employment to go around?
My anger comes from the knowledge that there has been a system in place for decades–centuries that enables such poverty to persist. To say it feeds off of the poor may be extreme, but they are the recipients of the negative side of that system which allows some to soar and some to plummet.
It is heartbreaking to sit face to face with the beating hearts and bright eyes of those who are in the grips of extreme poverty to have a conversation about the extreme struggle of their life. It is infuriating to know that there are those who are indifferent to the dark plight of their countrymen and women and disconnect themselves from millions of undernourished mothers and children, living in this small country.
It is not a lack of information that keeps the elite from reaching out to assist.It is a decision and it is justified by a soul-killing attitude of indifference. These kind-hearted people did not chose to be born poor, do not deserve to suffer the severe lack of basic necessities of life and would tirelessly work to change their situation.
The entitled attitude of “let them eat tortillas” must end.
It seems as Project Somos develops in its depth and width of activities, the quantity of competing priorities intensifies. This is not as easy to sort out as financial capacities or targeted and committed priorities, but has a complexity exponentially complicated by the human factor of families with mothers and children.
On a daily basis, I have to prioritized my activities and some days I feel like an air traffic controller bringing in the airplane/task that has been circling for days/weeks and nearing an empty gas tank. Of course we have predetermined weekly meetings with the therapist, the mothers, my foreman, social worker, and interns, which assists in keeping the train on the tracks. But we also have unscheduled meetings with our lawyer, accountant, family doctor, local mayor, school principal, teachers, our mothers, community leaders and people from far and wide wanting tours.
As well there is flow of phone calls that arrive all the time from all locations. Antolin, our foreman calls me at least 5 times a day and I call him at least twice that many. Alicia and I need to implant earpieces, like the CIA, so we don’t need to constantly be answering each other’s calls. And then there is the messaging back and forth and back again. Emails, well, as you can imagine there are a lot, everyday, all day.
But the cause of all of this flurry of activity and competing priorities is human generated and actually very beautiful. The cause is the mothers and children that reside at Project Somos. We have just received another mother with two children and one on the way. This addition should up all of the activity mentioned above and the families make all the administrative suffering worthwhile and gets me out of bed in the morning ready to face it all.
Although there are moments of overwhelm and feelings like we are not doing it fast enough, good enough or for enough families, there are the sweet moments. The moments of seeing the mothers and children laughing in the security of knowing they are loved, they are safe, they have a bright future. There are moments when I can see the big vision unfolding and realize, everything is as it needs to be for now. For me, this is the priority that wins every time.
According to child psychologist, Boris Levinson of Yeshiva University, troubled, withdrawn children became more talkative and engaged when he had his therapy dog around with the kids. An interesting study done by psychologist, Sigal Zilch-Mano said that people’s stress levels went down when taking a test with their pets close by. Another study showed that people’s stress hormone, cortisol went down when they were interacting with their dog.
You don’t have to read a scientific journal to know this. I for one, could have told you…or you could look at the photos of me with the kids. Yes, the kids spend time with the other dogs too but I have a much better grasp about how all of this works.
There are 11 children that live here at Project Somos now. Some of them were afraid of dogs when they arrived but all have learned that we are here to protect and love them. I intuitively know which kids need my attention most and make an effort to quietly sit close to them. I let them pet me, lay on me and scratch my belly. I listen to their problems when they want to talk. And I keep everything to myself. I respect their confidentiality. These are my “clients” or “patients” and I take my job seriously.
I can see that the other dogs try to emulate my way with the kids but they don’t quite have it mastered. Sparky can get a little hyper and distracted. Bindi is getting pretty good at it but I would never admit that out loud. She is so huge, takes up so much space and gives way too many kisses.
I believe dogs make the best therapists for children. I think most kids would agree with me on this one.
-Tika, Somos Village Dog #1
p.s. Pick up a copy of “Scientific American Mind” with the picture of the cute black and white border collie on the cover to read more about dogs and our amazing impact on humans. (May/June 2015 issue)
Yesterday was another monumental day at Project Somos.
Yesterday we welcomed our fourth family to the Village!
For the last number of weeks, Lucy (our recently hired local employee) has been out in the “field” meeting with different community leaders and groups. She has been introduced to various women and their children, who are living in extreme poverty. The stories she has shared, have been heartbreaking.
There have been countless incidences of babies conceived from rape, many abusive situations and sad stories of young women becoming widows. For me, it has been a roller coaster of emotions hearing the stories, and then meeting the women.
Greg has written about the situation here-it is not straightforward. We do not have a line up of women ready to come. It is a slow, careful process on all parts. We came close a couple of times and for various reasons, it did not work for different women.
One, in particular, was very sad for me. The 28 year old mama of one, wanted to be here so badly. Her parents joined her on the tour, raved about what they saw and to our faces said they felt it would be a good place for their daughter and grandchild.
A few days later, we got word from Lucy that when she visited the woman, she cried in sadness, sharing that her mother would not allow her to come, that she needed her to do work in the house and for other family members (for little or no money). The father told his daughter that if she left without their permission, she would never be allowed to return to the family. The woman remains in the family home, sad and disempowered.
Enough of that heartbreak.
Onto the good news…
On Monday Marta and Antonieta and their seven children moved out of Casa Creo (the blue house they have all been living in together) and into Casa Valentía. It was an exciting day for everyone because they knew what was next…
Yesterday Myra and her two children; Mariana and Daniel arrived. Both children will celebrate their birthdays during their first week here! Mariana will turn five next Wednesday and Daniel will turn two on Sunday! Unlike, Marta’s kids who waited for nearly a year to receive their quilts, these two sweeties will get to choose their quilts right away!
When Myra came for her visit last week, she looked like she had completely lost hope. You could see the trauma in her eyes. She barely smiled. Yesterday, after a few hours, I saw this calm wash over her. I saw her smile and laugh with the other mamas.
The children settled in very quickly. They immediately start to play with the other kids, run around and explore. In the afternoon, Mariana could not wait to put on her new pyjamas. When I dropped in for a visit, she ran into my arms and gave me the longest most loving hug ever. I felt her gratitude spilling over and mine matched hers.
It has been a long time and lot of work to get us to today. We are still far from reaching our completed vision but it feels like we are well on our way. Two houses with four families feels good. We have space for two more families. Our four mamas and their combined 11 children make this place feel like a true Village.
As always, I feel an incredible amount of gratitude to all of you who have supported and cheered us on. Thank you. Gracias. Matioche.
Please join me in welcoming Myra, Mariana and Daniel to Project Somos, where we hope they will feel welcome, loved and safe.
Where there is no vision, there is no hope.-George Washington Carver 1864-1943, American Scientist
When the candidate families arrived for a first visit at the Somos Village, I reflected on what they might have hoped to find. Our social worker, Lucy, had previously informed them about the structural layout, the programs and some of the Somos principles of empowerment, but after that, what was the mother’s hope for themselves and their children?
I have observed over the past years there is the undeveloped ability in many here to imagine or envision a future. This can be a disability to change one’s negative circumstance of poverty, sickness, or trauma. Can we see our selves as self-sufficient, healthy or free of fear?
When the mothers arrived, I saw the signs of the trauma of poverty, beyond the cultural cordialities. I saw the indicators of poor nutrition in the mother’s and children. Not like they chose to eat a mono diet of corn or even knew it was a factor in the stunting of children’s growth.
Part of our educational work here is to offer a brighter vision of the future for the mothers and children. Not only to demonstrate a vision for a better living circumstance, but enter into the vision for their positive personal development. To be a parent that is patient and loving with effective tools to raise a healthy child. And children are encouraged to become creative, playful and confident in their learning.
Project Somos offers hope that mothers and their children can rise to become happy, healthy and productive citizens of Guatemala. Hope that they can rise out of poverty and heal the traumas of violence. Hope they can raise children to become intelligent and compassionate adults. Hope that they are worthy of love, affection and respect.
I believe the hope Somos holds for our mothers and children and offers to them is not a gullible optimism, but grounded in a realistic outlook. I have witnessed their personal transformative journey in the past year. Their health, life skills, openness, and self-acceptance have all improved. These steps are the beginning of the realization of their comprehensive hope for a better life for their family.
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful. -Madame Marie Curie 1867-1934, Polish-born French Physicist