Oct 26, 2017

Helping is Not Helping


Since inception, Creamos has focused on increasing financial independence and security for the most vulnerable women in the community surrounding the Guatemala City Garbage Dump so they do not have to work amongst the dangers of the landfill.

When first starting Creamos, we were convinced that in order to have the most impact, we needed to do whatever we could to make our constituents lives better according to what we thought would “help.” We adapted rules, we allowed lateness’ to slide under the radar, we spread ourselves too thin as a staff and we made exceptions for timeliness and quality of our products because we told ourselves “we understood.”

 We want to be very clear - none of these decisions were out of pity. At no point did we feel badly for our affiliates.  We never thought they were incapable nor did we ever believe they were unable to comply with anything we asked from them. We thought we were being empathetic and accepting of the extreme factors that were preventing them from meeting their asked responsibilities. What we did not realize was by trying to adapt rules and meet the multiple, individual needs of our participants we were actually hurting the organization as a whole.  

In any non-profit there are constantly ethical dilemmas that workers have to navigate. Take a look at the following examples. As you’re reading I want you to think of how you would respond in these situations:

Example 1. Would you let a woman who is blind, hand in paper beads that are not up to the desired quality?

Example 2. Do you discount the pay of a woman who handed in her order late, despite the fact her son has just got into an accident and needs to pay his medical bills?

Example 3. We have a strict policy where women are not allowed to sell their paper jewelry outside of Creamos to ensure equal pay for our women. When sales were low, we discovered that two women were independently selling in a local store, selling as “Creamos” – an organization that helps various women when in reality it was just those two. Would you ask these women to ask the women to leave the program?

 Undoubtedly, these examples pull on your heart-strings. I am sure most people reading this would think we were inhumane for even categorizing these are ethical dilemmas. I am sure most people would think the answer is obvious: you help as much as you can. This is what Creamos did at first. We bent the rules and made exceptions to meet the distinct and unique situations of each affiliate.

However, let’s look at the above examples from a different perspective.

Example #1: In this example we are wondering whether or not we should permit our woman who is blind to hand in lower quality products since she cannot see. What if the client who received the order does not continue to buy with Creamos since “some of the pieces” were not of desired quality. What if this was a large order, which would have provided a consistent source of income to 25 women? Now no one will receive an order again from this company.

Example #2: We are asking whether or not we should discount the pay of a woman who handed her order in late but has to pay exorbitant medical bills for her son who was just in an accident. What if you discounted another affiliate’s pay last week for handing in jewelry late, but due to this woman’s circumstances you pay her in full? The rest of the women could see it as favoritism and feel they have been treated unfairly. Can you risk having other women lose trust in you?

Example #3: Here we are looking at two women who clearly broke the rules. It seems pretty black and white, right? By kicking them out of the jewelry program, which has been their primary source of income for the past 10 years, it also makes them ineligible for our emotional support program. One of these women is in a severely abusive relationship and has been making strides in her journey to safety. Is it the right to take these services away?

We were listening, but only to individuals. We were not seeking feedback in how these isolated decisions were affecting our organization as a whole. We have always had weekly meetings with our constituents, and these individual situations would be brought up, one by one. We found ourselves defending our decisions, and having to explain choices we made to maintain the integrity of our leadership.

As a non-profit, you set up rules, by-laws, and contracts to try to create documentation that will foster stability and veracity amongst populations that do not receive the same treatment outside the institution. There is no class, education, nor experience that can prepare any organization for the diverse and intricate challenges they are faced when working in such vulnerable communities.

That being said, we have learned that there were protocols and systems we can put in place that will prepare us as an organization to respond to these multifaceted crises instead of proceeding in such a reactive manner.  We realized there are ways to provide empathetic, individual support while still acting in a just way that does not inhibit but actually fosters the growth of Creamos and our constituents.   

After countless discussions it became clear that we needed to shift the tone of these conversations. Instead of defending ourselves, we began to engage and dig deeper into the concerns, questions, and criticisms of our constituents. We utilized our weekly meetings to work with the women of the program to compromise, create rules, and procedures until we finalized a group contract all women felt comfortable with.   

As a staff, we utilized their feedback to create internal systems to respond to the anticipated challenges and crises face. When creating these boundaries and procedures, we have tried our best to be as delicate and vigilant as are the situations we are dealing with. 

We designed an emergency response for when landslides occur in the dump, which is a common occurrence here in the community, and often leaves our families with lost loved ones. We are committed to having phones available, providing copies and prints while also providing a safe place to process the trauma. These were all needs that were identified by our participants. 

We have implemented a crisis loan program to provide financial support to women who are undergoing any level of emergency. Each loan is provided based on an analysis of need by our emotional support program, the viability of our financial means to provide the loan, as well as ultimate approval from our executive director. This was a way to streamline the process of managing these extreme emergencies while avoiding our women being subjected to high interest rates from loan sharks in the community. This was an identified need from our constituent feedback.

As staff that did not grow up in this community, we will never fully understand what it is like to live in the area surrounding the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. These are just a few examples of how we, as an organization have tried to act in a more prophylactic manner and tried to increase our understanding. Striking the balance between holding our constituents responsible while exercising empathy to the extreme environment that undoubtedly affects their asked responsibilities is an unachievable equilibrium. Never the less, by listening and working together, we feel confident that each day we come closer.

This project report is a submission to GlobalGiving's 2017 Fail Forward Contest, where organizations are asked to share a story of when they tried something new that didn't go as planned and how they learned from it. Enjoy!

Sep 1, 2017

The Power to Change

Katarina sewing in our new sewing workshop!
Katarina sewing in our new sewing workshop!

It has been three hours since class has concluded and Flori is still sewing. This is normal for Flori – she loves sewing and she always goes above and beyond to learn to the best of her ability. She is a nurturing mother of four children who embodies the phrase power to change. She began attending our mindfulness and movement programs at the beginning of the 2017 and that was just the start for Flori. She recruited her sister and niece to accompany her after she started seeing the positive effects exercise was having not only on her physical body, but her self-esteem.

Shortly after, Flori started becoming more interested in other services Creamos had to offer. She approached Creamos staff and asked to join our Financial Literacy Workshop. She stated she wanted to learn how to manage her money better since support from her partner was dwindling every week. After six weeks, Flori graduated the course with her sister by her side. She states that the course has taught her the importance of saving for the future, and creating a budget. Currently, she is participating in our Matched Savings Program with hopes to accumulate a long-term savings account for her children’s studies. In addition, Flori just began participating in our Healthy Relationship Support Group and our sewing initiative . She full takes advantage of every opportunity that is presented to her, and has inspired many more women to strive for the change they want to see in themselves.

Flori is one of the 134 women who have been served by Creamos in 2017. In the past three months, Creamos has enhanced current services while also offering a few additional opportunities for Creamos participants. Here are a few of the highlights from the past few months.

Sewing: Due to the phenomenal supporters of Creamos, we were able to re-build our sewing program after a devastating fire that took place in March. Sewing participants have finished their initial 6-week training and have already begun production for a local fashion company, My Ethical Wardrobe. Out of our 10 women who were initially selected, 9 women have continued in the program. One woman dropped out due to unforeseeable, personal circumstances. Of the 9 women, 6 women used to work in the garbage dump. In addition, they average 3 children per family while 5 families have reported intra-familial violence. Our sewing participants appear to be more motivated and inspired to be the driving forces behind our sewing company.

Based on a skill assessment given at the end of their training, women have been divided into three groups, - quality control, measuring and cutting and sewing - in order to make production more efficient and of higher quality. Our sewing teacher has been diligently working to seek feasible orders for the participants.

Jewelry: Throughout June and July, jewelry sales have increased by 38%. This increase has made a huge difference in the lives of our mothers. One of our participants, Mirna was finally able to save enough money so she could put a second level on her house – a dream she had had since she moved into the house over 10 years ago. Our jewelry participants have been working diligently to develop new styles for our newest collection…stay tuned!

Wakami: In early 2017, Creamos signed an agreement through which women belonging to the GCGD Community have become Wakami producers. Wakami is a Guatemalan hand made fashion accessories brand whose products are designed by rural Guatemalan community artisans. Creamos currently has 9 women who are producing for the social business. Through this collaboration, Creamos aims to increase the consistancy of the women's income.

Financial Literacy: As of August 2017, Creamos has graduated 43 women from our six-week financial literacy program. After women graduate, all participants are eligible to participate in our matched savings program. Of the 25 pilot participants who began in February 2017, 100% opened a savings account, over 95% saved greater than Q100, and 70% achieved the program’s goal of Q400 saved during the first five months. In our next cycle, there are 40 women participating in the matched savings program. As of now, approximately 80% of our participants are saving on a weekly or biweekly basis. 

Healthy Relationship Support Group: Our healthy relationship support group has concluded its second cycle, and graduated four members. All members reported a higher sense of personal safety and self-esteem according to Rosenbergs Self Esteem Scale. On the final evaluation, one participant stated “Before the group began, I was sad, I did not have anyone to support me, nor the knowledge that I have now. I am now a happier person, with a higher self-esteem. I finally have a group of people who I trust.”

Individual Support: Currently, Creamos is providing individual support to 37 individual clients. This support consists of 12 individual sessions, where the client and social worker work together to minimize or resolve whatever their presenting problem is. 

Working in Creamos, we continue to meet so many women in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump Community, like Flori, who are ready to make positive changes in their lives. Creamos continues to provide the opportunities for women in the community, however we always flawed by the effort and discipline women put forth to make these changes.


Flori and her son after exercise!
Flori and her son after exercise!
Jun 5, 2017

A New Chapter for Sewing

Our newest sewing participants and teacher!
Our newest sewing participants and teacher!

“Sindy, we want to congratulate you. You have been chosen to be part of the Creamos Sewing Program.” After years of working in the dump, Sindy decided that she wanted to make a change. For seven years, she spent 10-hour days working long hours under the blazing sun. Last year, she lost her cousin through a landslide in the dump and she relives that trauma everyday she goes to work. Sindy knew that she was not spending enough time with her two daughters, and lived in constant fear of the dangers that working in the Guatemala City Dump presented on a daily basis. After weeks of vetting, Sindy was one of the ten women chosen to spearhead Creamos’ new sewing initiative. Sindy will finally have an opportunity to earn a safe and sustainable form of income outside of the dump.

On the night of March 26th, the Creamos staff was swarmed with phone calls from concerned community members as they watched our sewing workshop burn down. The next morning, staff, affiliates and other volunteers worked together to salvage whatever we could of the remains. Unfortunately, we had lost most of our industrial machines, fabrics, and essential materials that sustained our sewing initiative.

We were devastated by the loss, however, the encouraging words and action from our Creamos supporters ensured us that with their generous response, we would be able to rebuild our sewing initiative and continue to support the women of Creamos. We are tremendously grateful that Global Giving provided us with a reliable and accessible platform, which enabled us to raise our goal of $7,000 in a week to restore our sewing initiative.

Since our campaign, we have wasted no time and met our ambitious goal to launch our program by June 1st –less than two months after the end of our campaign. We have hired a new sewing teacher who has her degree in apparel design and production and currently runs production for four fashion brands. She is the owner of a local Guatemalan fashion company, Casa Flor. Not only do they have their own line, but in addition, have established clients in the United States. The ultimate goal is that the Creamos’ sewing company will be not only Casa Flor’s main producer, but fulfill orders on both a national and international scale.

In honor of our new beginnings, we changed protocols to require stricter procedures and demand a high level of accountability for our participants. In order to participate in the Creamos’ sewing company, women were required to fill out an application and then interview with the Creamos administration. We received over twenty applicants from which we chose ten women that we felt would be the highly dedicated to this project while also exhibiting leadership qualities. 

On May 30th, our ten women began their six-week intensive training program in our new sewing workshop. The women are planning to go straight into production after the training is over. Our hope is that these women will be the driving force to grow and expand the program creating further economic opportunities for approximately 30 women by next year. In addition, these ten women will be required to participate in our financial literacy program and have access to our weekly educational groups, therapeutic services and mindfulness and movement activities. 

Like Sindy, all ten participants have a unique story and dream of how our sewing initiative will impact their lives. We are eager to see not only the growth of our sewing program, but how each woman reach the potential we know they have.

Our new and improved sewing workshop!
Our new and improved sewing workshop!
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