Set out to wonder how people are doing

Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing.

Father Greg Boyle

Earlier this morning, during the first hour of my three-hour Spanish class, my teacher shared about her experience of the pandemic here in Guatemala and how it has made an already difficult situation that much more so. She talked about her two daughters, ages 13 and 17, who are in public school and don’t have access to live classes. They have a ton of schoolwork to complete—similar to handouts and worksheets—but no teacher to help them. They haven’t had an in-person class in 15 months, and they likely won’t for the rest of this year, equating to two academic years without school when the school year ends in October.

Before the pandemic, the family had one cell phone that they used sparingly, paying for minutes of data as they needed them. Now, they have two, one for each daughter to use to receive assignments during the day. The girls never leave their house in Vista Hermosa because they are terrified of becoming infected with COVID and not having access to healthcare. The lack of access to quality healthcare is a pre-COVID issue exacerbated by the current situation. They complete their homework in the same room where they eat, sleep, play and pray.

When I first arrived in Guatemala in 2017, the level of poverty convicted me in a way nothing else ever had. My first home visit will forever provide the framework for how I understand poverty in the developing world—no running water, limited electricity, dirt floors, holes in the ceiling and extremely limited access to food.

That was back when the average income for families at Escuela Integrada was $277. Per month. Now, with the onset of the pandemic, the average monthly income is $183. That’s $6 per day in a month with only 30 days. Six dollars to pay rent, or six dollars to buy food, or six dollars to take the bus to another town in hopes of selling enough to make a marginal profit. 

This level of poverty is far too abstract for many—if not most—people in the U.S. In fact, I would argue it is so abstract that it is easier to dismiss it than to face the fact that people in other parts of the world live like this every single day.

As my teacher and I talked about the impact of the pandemic, we spent some time in conversation about education in Guatemala. Children face an exponential problem of the loss of learning approaching two years and the problem of a decreased overall family income, which will likely result in not returning to school at all in the future. The kids need to work to support their families. 

In the U.S., we complained (myself included) about what format of education children had access to—online, in-person, hybrid, etc.—and every conversation was riddled with political debate. Mask wearing became political, business operations became political, and vaccines became political. We had the privilege of debate and the privilege of choice. 

Contrast that with a place and, more importantly, a people who don’t have a choice. What type of vaccine do Guatemalans want? Any type of vaccine. How do they feel about wearing masks? Not only is it the law, but it’s for the good of the other person. Are they able to have their business open even with limited hours? “Gracias a Dios” for the opportunity to work. 

Simply put, their level of resilience is far superior because that is what is required to survive here.

It’s an enormous undertaking to try to provide education in Guatemala in a regular year. During a pandemic, it is near impossible. But the work of Escuela Integrada continues. The teachers teach live classes through Google Meet and WhatsApp, they meet virtually with their students to provide additional help, and they keep marching on. They don’t know any differently, and they value their profession and the opportunity to work far too much to just give up now. 

In a normal year, the kids would eat two hot meals at school, which provided much of the sustenance they had access to. Now, every 15 days, the school provides food bags to supplement what the families are able to purchase. This is a massive operation of shopping, packing and distributing food both at the school and in the many small villages where the students live. The food bags include rice, beans, milk, eggs, pasta and oatmeal. If the students complete their assignments, they get a bonus package of cleaning supplies, oil and cereal.

When we went to San Felipe de Jesus on Wednesday to deliver food bags, one of the dads brought us juice and a small snack to express his immense gratitude for the school. They would not make it if it weren’t for the support of the school. Literally. 

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been able to visit families in their homes to see how things are going, both academically and economically. Not once has someone complained. More often than not, they share stories of how God is blessing them during this time of struggle. 

As things begin to return to normal in the U.S., I encourage each of you to spend some time praying for the people of Guatemala and countries around the world who still do not have access to vaccines, whose businesses are operating with extremely limited revenue, and where the schools are still closed. The effect of the pandemic in developing countries is far different from the inconveniences we faced for a year.

This year, more than ever, don’t forget that we have an incredible amount of wealth and privilege—even on the days it feels like we don’t—while others face every day as another day of barely making ends meet. And, certainly, if you are interested in learning more or contributing, I am here to answer your questions.

The Faithful Writer

By Autumn (Jones) Hartley

Writer. Educator. Social Media Strategist. Gonzaga ’10 (B.Ed.), CU-Boulder ’14 (M.A. Journalism).

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