Girls Mentoring Girls in Guatemala

by Women Work Together
Nov 11, 2013

Teen Girls Are Agents of Change

Mi Hermanita is the culminating project for middle school girls in San Pedro Sacatepéquez.  By the time they become Big Sisters, the girls and their families have already participated in earlier projects about the importance and benefits of staying in school. They’ve learned about their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives as compared to their own, and have taken responsibility for reading to their families at home.

Mi Hermanita challenges the teen girls to become agents of change, not just for themselves and their families, but now out in their communities. Through this service learning project, our girls actively use the knowledge they have gained in school in order to become a mentor and tutor, helping a second or third grade girl who is struggling with her studies. 

On our recent trip to San Pedro in October, we again saw first-hand the growing impact this project is having in the rural communities where it is in full swing. Increasingly, the Big Sisters are taking ownership of their experience, renaming the project Mi Hermanita (My Little Sister) rather than Las Hermanitas (The Little Sisters) to reflect the personal empowerment that speaks directly to their individual experience. Now why hadn’t we thought of that?...Of course!

Mi Hermanita is fairly complex to run since it requires organization among our middle school girls and their teachers plus coordination with teachers and Little Sisters in the primary schools, along with parents of both sets of girls, so that the Big Sisters can visit their Little Sisters in their homes once a week.

While positive and encouraging overall, Mi Hermanita has its individual challenges. Hearing directly from the girls, we learned about some of their more difficult experiences, such as having to walk alone past fierce dogs or, in one case, feeling uncomfortable in a house where the father was drunk and angry. (This girl was quickly reassigned to a different Little Sister.) Some talked about how frustrated they felt at the start of the year, when their Little Sisters didn’t mind them or were not very motivated to learn because they were already behind in their schoolwork. At the same time, these same Big Sisters burst with pride, eager to explain that now, at the end of the school year, their Little Sisters had caught up to their peers, were excited for their Big Sisters to arrive each week, and eager to read, write, and practice math with them. 

In one of the villages we visited 36 girls had adopted Little Sisters from five primary schools in surrounding communities who had been identified by their teachers as likely drop outs. Typically these younger girls have no one at home to help them with homework, as most mothers barely went to school themselves. And so the little girls struggle when they begin to confront academic subjects.   

We met with this group of Big & Little Sisters and many of their mothers and grandmothers in the community hall, a cold dark building that came alive with their presence. There, on the stage, were a cluster of long legged girls in jeans, (their school day would begin in the afternoon so they were not yet in uniform) busily assembling the sound system for the program. There was not a teacher in sight. Soon clusters of little girls in school uniforms arrived with their teachers, then more and more until we had about 50 hermanitas in the room, and the program for the day was announced - again by the older girls. They spoke with great poise (using a microphone) about the program, sharing what they had learned and how important it had been for them and for their Little Sisters. Then Little Sisters spoke along with some of their mothers and grandmothers, all of it orchestrated by the older girls. It was truly impressive to witness the command, presence and poise these girls had on stage, when just 2 years ago they would have been giggling and looking at their feet in even a one-on-one conversation. Then 2 older girls were invited on to the stage with their 6 little sisters, who launched into a 10 minute choreographed dance performance Gangham style, complete with synchronized moves of hands and feet, shy smiles and a few giggles - but they carried through to the end. They were terrific, and received thundering applause. The older girls later told us that they each work with 3 little ones, and then they switch off, because they found it easier to overcome the small girls’ shyness if they all worked together - problem solving in action.

We later spoke with the Director of the middle school who is also a primary school teacher in the morning. He was very positive in his assessment of the project, describing the many benefits to both the older and younger girls. He said overall it was the most successful project that had come into the school to date, and was hopeful we would be able to continue with another group in the 2014 school year. He said it was the only tutoring program in the state, and urged that it be widely replicated. (We heartily agree!) 

Throughout the 2013 school year, which in Guatemala runs from January – October, the staff of our local sister nonprofit, ADIMTU, has worked with the Big Sisters to develop participatory activities to use with their young charges. At their suggestion (and with support from donors) we equipped each Big Sister with a satchel of books, art materials and games to foster curiosity and a love of learning. This year we were able to provide additional book titles which included such classics (in Spanish) as: The Hungry Caterpillar, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and Clifford the Big Red Dog Goes to School. All of the books, screened in advance by the ADIMTU team, proved incredibly popular and sought after by both Big and Little Sisters, and gave a big boost to the girls’ weekly sessions together.

With the addition of Dr. Theresa Preston Werner as Director of Evaluation to the WWT team, we’ve been able to implement a more comprehensive evaluation of all aspects of our work. Particular to this effort is to measure the girls’ own perceptions of the changes they have been able to make through their year-long work with their Little Sisters. At the end of this recent 2013 school year which runs from January thru October, the girls rated their Little Sisters as 5.73 out of 10 on average for academic abilities at the start of the year and 9.46 at the end, with an average increase of 4.08, thus demonstrating the value they themselves place on their time and contribution. In addition, teachers and parents of both the younger and older girls appreciate the responsibility demonstrated by the older girls along with the increased levels of academic achievement by the young ones.

This year we were also able to recognize the teachers who supported Mi Hermanita, gifting each of them a briefcase of school supplies that included such basics as pencils, pens, markers, staplers, rulers, pencil sharpeners, as well as a collection of 10 books for them to read for their own pleasure and interest. These were very well received and much appreciated, as normally teachers must supply themselves with everything they need.

Looking ahead, beginning in January 2014, Mi Hermanita will be folded into our newly restructured Leadership Institute, and will engage all Grade 9 girls in all of the 13 rural  middle schools in San Pedro.  This will be a capstone project for the oldest girls in middle school, and will build on our work with the grade 7 and grade 8 girls who will be involved in La Vida de Mi Mamá (My Mother’s Life) and La Lectura Familiar (Family Reading Time) respectively.  All 3 projects have been in pilot phase with some girls over the last 2 years, and now, after testing, evaluation and restructuring as needed, are ready to be expanded to all rural middle school girls across San Pedro.

Simply put, it takes more to do more. Your continued and increased financial support is key to this expansion and highly valued in all of these communities, motivating and inspiring them to send girls to school.





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Project Leader:
Tracy Ehlers
Boulder, CO United States

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