Communication and understanding between the staff of a charity and their sponsored families is crucial if the empowerment of the families is to be successful.
At the Integral Heart Foundation we could not be any luckier in that regard. Our social worker and family liaison, or social warrior as we like to call her, is Marisol; a 34 year old all-terrain woman.
Marisol is the mother of three children and a grandmother of one girl. She is happily divorced and also the owner of four dogs. In addition she is both the heart and soul of our interaction with all of the families with whom we work. She also plays a significant role in the running of our school, La Academia, in Antigua. Marisol is the motivated, reliable, responsible and loyal person we could wish for. She always said that she was very lucky to have met us, but on the contrary, we think that we are the lucky ones.
We met Marisol in March of 2010. Debora used to give talks to the moms of another local NGO on empowerment and hope. During one of those talks Marisol, who was in the audience, broke her silence and began talking, sometimes crying about the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of her life in the slum. Debora calmed her down and afterward they talked in a private session together.
Marisol´s life was something like this: She lived in a one-roomed tin shack on the side of a rough hillside slum. She was married to an alcoholic and abusive husband. They had three young children and almost no income, the little that the husband would earn was spent on drinking. After that he would come home and abuse her physically and verbally in front of her children. On occasions the kids would also get a good part of the abuse. He also had relationships with other women, and would spend part of his earnings on them and not on food or clothing for his family.
Marisol grew up in an environment where the request for help from her culture was:; “That´s God´s will, we all deal with the same thing”. But Marisol could not and did not want to understand this.
So she came to this talk for moms in the desperate hope of getting help.
That was the beginning of her relationship with us and what was to become The Integral Heart Family. At that point Debora offered her some part time work as our housekeeper. Over the first few years, and as our foundation came into being she then began to help us with that work.
Marisol, with our guidance and support, separated from her husband and finally got divorced.
Our work at that time involved many visits to our sponsored families, a process which we trained in at another charity. Marisol learned from us and began talking to the families. We soon realized that many of those mothers trusted her with more information than they would impart to us because they considered her more like a friend than us ‘gringoes’ from a NGO. Slowly she began earning their trust and the parents began to trust us with their children who had begun attending our various programs. Marisol had a knowledge and understanding that came from her life in a slum, and she knew all the tricks that abused women use in order to deny their situations. She also knew how to respond from their perspective. She is still learning by attending our Critical-Thinking workshops, invited guest-speaker events and by taking other outside courses. She even took the step of introducing herself to meditation. She works in many different fields, such as social work, family visits, and receiving donors and visitors. She helped paint the school rooms and cooking and we see her all the time playing with great love and care with our younger students. Now, she is teaching and giving talks herself to the students on potential, pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted diseases, and training to the new staff on the operations of the school.
Today Marisol is the mother figure at our school, La Academia, but also the boss; she can be strong and inflexible when needed. She manages the budgets, salaries, social visits, school times and food baskets for the families and she, and her children no longer live in that horrible slum
Below you a little more of her story through photos:
One of the biggest questions concerning on-the-ground non-profits and charities is what is going to happen when the founders step aside or can no longer do the work. At the Integral Heart Family we have a solution to this question already manifesting through a group of six senior students who are carrying on our mission and vision in the best way imaginable.
Today we will tell the story of one of our senior students, Saul, and how our Critical Thinking and Philosophy classes made him one of our brightest stars and also changed his future. Saul is 21 years old and currently studying to be a psychologist. He lives in Jocotenango (a dangerous slum area) which is about three miles from Antigua, with his dad, grandmother, two aunts, one cousin, his girlfriend and his little dog Rex.
When Saul was 9 years old, his parents divorced and his mom decided to completely abandon him and his two brothers. Saul has also a sister, but when she was born she was adopted by a relative of the family who couldn’t have children. Although the mother would come once in a while to visit, she never supported any of the needsof her other children. This left Saul’s dad with all the responsibilities for food, health, clothes, housing and school. Nonetheless the father, a mason, always wanted his children to study and to have better opportunities than he did.
But at that time Saul had a very different opinion than that of his father.
He did not like to go to school and even had to repeat some school years. When it came time to attend high school, Saul suggested dropping his studies and going to work, but his dad would not allow him to do so.
But then, in the middle of his first year of high school the expenses were too much for his dad so Saul had to stop in the middle of the year.
So his dad brought Saul with him to work as a mason's helper. On one hand, Saul began to understand the sacrifices his dad was making in order for him to continue to study; he didn’t fully understand it but thought that if he was going through so much trouble there must have been a good reason to do so. On the other hand and after months hard work, Saul decided that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing manual labor and that the only way out was to get a college education.
He also didn’t want his dad to feel that he had failed Saul for not being able to give him a proper education. So, over the next year and with some effort and money saved he began studying again.
This is now 2012, the same year that we met Saul for the first time. He began studying at a school run by another local charity in which he didn’t have to pay monthly fees, only books, uniforms and materials. But, as he tells us, he was just going through the motions with little genuine interest. At that same school we were teaching philosophy and critical-thinking concept to the students of the graduating class. Saul came into this class and, in his own words, was fascinated about the “crazy stuff” we were talking about and how he never in his life had thought about any of this before.
He joined the class and we quickly noticed his great interest. His curiosity and interest in the philosophy class helped him to develop his interest in his other subjects and he went from not wanting to attend to school to wanting to go to college, and even beyond that. Because of the generosity of Sustaining Sponsors of the integral Heart Family, Saul could find sponsors who paid for his studies and he has been with us constantly since 2012. Today he is studying to be a psychologist; he quit an earlier idea to be an auto-mechanic because of this love of philosophy. He is also a part of an intense program run by the our foundation called the Isa’s Kids. In this program six of our philosophy superstar students have embarked on a three year journey of intensive, full time training to be teachers. As part of this training, they also tutor the youngest students of the Integral Heart Family and also help them with their homework since many of their parents don’t know how to read or write.
These changes in Saul, his sense of responsibility, reliability and courage has far exceeded our expectations and this year he has represented us in some official events here in Guatemala. In his own words:
“Now I realize that life offers us many options and we only have to find out what is it that we really want for ourselves and others. I understand now that in the same way I am being guided through this healthy path and I, too, can eventually guide others too.
In Integral Heart I found a way out towards a different way of living. I learned that in this life we are the only ones who place our limits on ourselves and others. We are the ones who prevent ourselves from doing great things. I also learned that in order to achieve something we need to act.
I have received psychological, nutritional, and financial support. And now I am even more eager to keep learning as many things as I can (because you never can stop learning), to keep growing as a person and to help others as much as I can.”
Thank you so very much for making this possible because without you Saul would probably be working as a masons helper today. And there are many other ‘Sauls’ that you are helping, so thank you very much.
Because of you, yes you, we have the perfect space, a safe container where the magic of learning can happen.
A space in a country where even moderate success is difficult, especially if you haven’t been born into a “good family”. Where the threat of extortion, drugs, and gangs is rife—we have created together an oasis where children and teenagers can learn, play, dream and be at home.
Because of you, we are proud to call La Academia not a school, but a home. That is the feeling you get when you visit La Academia, a place where all of us; founders, staff, volunteers, teachers, students, donors, and parents feel at home, surrounded by their huge family.
In this late summer newsletter, we are going to mention some of happenings at La Academia that make it such a home!
Our language teachers are doing a wonderful job with our senior students. For Spanish, ‘Profe Arturo’ is like a grandfather figure (I hope he forgives me for this) and although it may seem silly, he teaches grammatically correct Spanish; the average language level in State-schools is pretty bad—and we have even found typos in legal contracts. These classes will greatly aid our students as they move on to university and eventually to their own careers.
“Seno Andrea”, as she is known, is our certified English teacher and is from the United States. She is the ‘adventurous cousin’ who takes the students to the local central park to practice their English on unsuspecting tourists. “Moma Sonia” is actually a great-grandmother at the age of 53, she runs the home and is responsible for the production of 1,500 meals every month.
Marisol, our social worker, and a grandmother herself at 34, is known warmly as ‘Dona Mari’. Her constant presence at La Academia and in her interactions with our sponsored families provides a loving and stable presence—the moms like to chat with her so we can glean so much more information about where to offer help as sometimes they are afraid to ask.
Then of course there is “Tio (uncle) Orlando”, the father of one of our sponsored girls who comes in every day before his own job as a pastry chef to help out in food preparation.
In addition, we have Tasha, Pito, Pinky, Sparky and Muneca, for what family is not complete without canine companions (no group photo available!). And, as a another sign of our caring family and the great work that the teachers are doing, the senior students are teaching the younger ones at La Academia. This means that they learn and they share what they have learned with the younger generation. In this group of seniors, we have the ‘wild son’ Felipe, the ‘go-getter’ Saul, the ‘thinker’ JC, the ‘quiet one’ Conal, and the ‘tough career girl’ Gaby. The younger ones are Ingrid known as ‘Ta-ta’, no one knows why, and we have Stephanie and her daughter, also Stephanie who are an example to all, that education can continue, even with an unexpected pregnancy.
We couldn’t feel more proud of them and we are deeply grateful to all of you for supporting our wonderful home and family. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you so very much!
PS: for the last quarter, the ‘numbers-man’ Mick underestimated the operating costs leaving us about $6,000 short for this period, so if there is anyone in your family who can help us close this, please forward this newsletter on to them.