Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults

by Atzin Mexico / Atzin Desarrollo Comunitario AC
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Atzin Helps Special Needs of 80 Children & Adults
Midwife Victoria in a pensive moment
Midwife Victoria in a pensive moment

Dear Friends, 

Lately, I have been thinking about the “long haul” in Tlamacazapa, Mexico. Sometimes people comment, “What? Are you still working there?” as though there is something amiss with continuing to focus on work in a tough setting. Or perhaps, that somehow everything should be fine by now, and Atzin should have moved onto somewhere else.

Victoria never married having dedicated her earlier years to the care of her paraplegic younger brother. While drawing water from an open well, she explained, “I cannot read or write, but I completed Atzin’s training for midwifery. Because I attend deliveries at night, people have called me a ‘streetwalker’ and sometimes talked bad about me. They still do until they need my help with a birth! Now I am stronger and go about my business, ignoring their talk.”

When faced with continued suffering, brave women are now taking unprecedented risks and are slowly transforming their fear into action and greater self-confidence. These experiences accumulate to strengthen their personal resilience, allowing more effective responses to the demands of their lives and the needs of their children.

There is no “wow” of rapid change here, not when faced with such oppressive circumstances. Instead, each person finds her voice in her own time and steadies her feet in her own way when she is ready to do so. We then witness the rising of a stronger inner resilience that permits a weathering of life’s inevitable storms.

Our job in community development has always been the creation of opportunities - ones that allow glimpses of possibility. Each person then decides “yes” or “no” to participation. Such is the nature of life-affirming advances that are based on decisions to keep up the work over the long haul, both for us at Atzin and for individual women and men of Tlamacazapa.

Until next time, Susan


Midwife VIctoria draws water at the well.
Midwife VIctoria draws water at the well.


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Dear Friends, this report addresses a basic need of all families: clean and sufficient water and adequate sanitation. This story speaks to the everyday realities of development work in difficult settings. Here is what happened and what we learned from the experience. It is a bit long so you might want to grab a chair... 

In Tlamacazapa, a rural mountainous village of 6,200 people, over an eight-year period, the Atzin team constructed a total of 60 dry toilets and rainwater catchment tank units in family households plus several rainwater catchment systems and dry toilets at local schools. In a nutshell, a dry toilet separates urine from feces using a specially designed toilet seat. Feces drops into a large vault that forms the base of the toilet building and is stored for several months until dry and then removed. Urine drains via piping into a small garden plot or into a container. Most families were using open-air excretion and an assortment of barrels and buckets to store water. A few wealthier families had constructed water flush toilets and dug a septic hole nearby. This was problematic because of the proximity to water wells and acute shortages of water during the six-month dry season.

Our dry toilet and tank construction program (DTT) was doing very well – families with the units were clearly more than satisfied and all units were in daily use. The program incorporated the training and ongoing supervision of a local construction crew of four village men; educational sessions on the care, use and maintenance of the unit with follow-up visits; and clear agreements on Atzin responsibilities and family contributions (one adult working each day while the crew was building the basic unit using metal molds for poured concrete; provision of water and gravel or sand; and a small monetary contribution based on a sliding scale). The total cost of a complete unit consisting of a dry toilet, a 7,800L tank, walled garden, piping, concrete laundry washbasin, materials, transport and labour was 15,000 pesos. The program had a waiting list of families that were making payments for their contribution and gathering gravel in preparation for construction.

In 2009 the municipal government announced that it would fund the construction of dry toilets for village households. The municipal president (who privately owned two stores selling construction materials) asked Atzin to submit a proposal and budget, and we quickly did so. We also had received a new visitor the previous week who had expressed great interest in our DTT units and their functioning. He explained that he worked in the western part of the municipality and saw good potential for dry toilets. The team readily gave him a walking tour and our educational materials, explaining the program in detail and inviting him to come again.

Later that month, the municipality announced that the tender to build 500 dry toilets throughout the village had been awarded to a local construction company, headed up by… the man who had visited us, a close friend of the municipal president as we later found out. His crew – all men from outside the village - moved in and rapidly built more than 500 simple toilet structures made of sheets of styrofoam with wire mesh and a coating of concrete. That project had no education, cost-sharing, family participation or follow-up components. The structures had two vaults for feces but the contractor had not understood the handling of urine in the design nor done any further research. Urine flowed from the toilet PVC pipes onto the ground or flowed down the street. The cost of each toilet: 25,500 pesos.

Dismayed, we wrote a letter to the municipal president offering to improve the toilets’ functioning and repeatedly requested a meeting with him. There was no response. Overall, villagers disliked those toilets (many used them only for the storage of goods), saying that they had been denied a “proper” water-based toilet, and a negative attitude toward dry toilets grew exponentially.

The result for Atzin’s DTT program? A total halt by mid-2010, despite the fact that our original 60 family households continued to use their DTT units every day. But no new families signed up.

What did the Atzin team learn from this experience?

  1. The visitor was manipulative and took advantage of the team’s willingness to share information. Could we have detected his ulterior motive at the time? No.
  2. Corruption at a government level is characterized by conflicts of interest and political maneuvering. Could we have known that this tender had a pre-determined selection of winner and underlying profits for all concerned? No.
  3. The overall design of any program really matters. The differences in the programs were glaringly obvious. Ours was developmental in nature, slowly working with families to build knowledge, authentic participation and family ownership, while giving local men training and employment. The other was just a construction project (inadequately) done by outsiders for villagers, and given the high cost of each simple structure, had significant for-profit margin and likely, percentages paid out to intermediaries. A consequent tidal wave of negative reactions from families resulted in an overall public rejection of dry toilet technology.   
  4. A solid program, built over years, can be undermined by sudden, strong external forces in the local context. Could we have prevented this at the time? I doubt it. Several factors were in play: the small size of our team limited our reach; the physical distance to the municipal centre made visits to officials an effort; municipal officials changed often so that we were constantly starting over again in terms of building relationships with government; and, a lack of transparency at the municipal level was the norm, not the exception. Important to note, agreement about participation in the DTT program had been negotiated on a household by household basis, and not on a community level. This program decision stemmed from longstanding animosity between village families and its neighbourhoods as well as the annual turnover and frequent absences of elected village representatives. That made any agreement about any course of action by village assemblies (which only men attended) very difficult, if not almost impossible, to achieve. In turn, however, this meant that we had no broad village-based representation in any negotiations with government.

How did this experience help Atzin improve and increase impact?

As a team we worked to resolve our irritation about these maneuvers and had no option but to put construction of DTT units on a back burner and wait. We focused more tightly on education and health programming - there were specific benefits to this decision. It was tough to find the right words to explain to Atzin Boards and donors that our program had come to a complete halt; and that it was not going to be resurrected any time soon.

Looking back, we could have been more proactive. We could have continued with just the construction of household water tanks instead of waiting to see how the overall situation unfolded. We now invest more time on relationships with allies and supporters; we know better who our (potential) allies are. We document more thoroughly and more readily contact sympathetic news reporters with analyses and photos when necessary, always walking a fine line of assertiveness and safety. For our next major construction initiative (already on our agenda as a wellness centre for women and families and shelter), we will have to have a thoughtful strategy with sufficient preparation time, and a large enough base of organized women and their extended families at the ready.

Thank you all for your support of Atzin programs - much needed and appreciated. As always, Susan.

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April 2018

Dear Friends of Atzin and Tlamacazapa,

Each year the Atzin team summarizes "the numbers" for each of our programs in Tlamacazapa, Mexico. Have a look at the Special Needs Program during 2017 from a numbers perspective. While the administrative procedures, intensive training and accounting activities are done by the team based at the Atzin House in Cuernavaca, Morelos, the day-to-day program activities are carried out in Tlamacazapa by local village women, called "promoters." Each takes responsibility for specific activities in a program. Total of program promoters: 21.

The Special Needs Program (SNP) serves those most in need of support because chronic health problems, acute poverty, malnutrition or family crisis. From January through to July 2017, participants in the SNP included:


  • Total number of individuals:                      123
  • Boys and girls (1-17 years old):                  77
  • Children with disabilities:                            15
  • Adults with disabilities:                                22
  • Elderly housebound:                                    9

Of those 123 people,

  • Children and adults (malnourished) who received a monthly food package:         38
  • Children and adults confined to house who received a monthly home visit:          27
  • Those with chronic conditions who receive monthly vitamins and medications:    25
  • Children with disabilities who attend Tihueliske Education Program:                     5
  • Children of families with special needs who attend Tihueliske Education:             31
  • Children in elementary school who receive monthly school and other supplies:    28
  • SNP families that received ecological stoves, attended class on use and care:    123
  • People who received a gift (footwear or used clothing in good condition):             123
  • SNP children and adults  who received (free) dental care:                                     86

From August through to December 2017, participants in the SNP included:


  • Total number of individuals:                         53
  • Boys and girls (1-17 years old):                   29
  • Children and adults with disabilities:            25

Of those 53 people,

  • Children and adults (malnourished) who received a monthly food package:                6
  • Children and adults confined to house who received a monthly home visit:                 22
  • Individuals with chronic conditions who receive monthly vitamins and medications:    31
  • Children with disabilities who attend Tihueliske Education Program:                            5
  • Children of families with special needs who attend Tihueliske Education:                   18
  • People who received a gift (footwear or used clothing in good condition):                   53
  • SNP children and adults who received (free) dental care:                                            47
  • People who received specialized equipment for their condition:                                  5
  • People who received funding (transport and food) for medical appointments:             7
  • Team accompaniment for medical appts. in Mexico City, total number days:              6
  • Shelter, food, legal procedures, accompaniment: domestic violence case:                 1   
  • Patients eye assessments and cataract campaign:                                                      7

You may have noted the drop in number of individuals between July and August - a major supporter of the SNP withdrew funding; the organization had shifted its priorities in programming to women's groups.  We had no option but to comb through registry and continue to work with those with the most acute needs, while seeking to build up the program funding base once again.

A report of the numbers captures only part of the SNP story but gives an idea of the participants and the activities. For any of us who has had a family member with a special need, we know first hand the tremendous amount of effort that is required to access treament, address personal and social needs, and keep stress at bay. All of you reading this note have donated to help the folks with special needs and living in acute poverty in this part of Mexico. Stay tuned for my next update from the field.... and thank you once again  

 As always, Susan

Executive Director

Atzin Mexico

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Learning to read
Learning to read

Special Needs Program Report. The following account about a young village mom and her small daughter highlights the critical importance of health, education and mutual support.

A young mother, Martina, reads aloud, using her index finger to highlight each word while her eight-year old daughter, Rosa, listens and prompts her mom on occasion. Let me tell you about the remarkable story behind this photo.

Four years ago, Rosa - thin, pale and weak - was diagnosed with leukemia. Overwhelmed and afraid, Martina tearfully asked the Atzin team in Tlamacazapa for help. We said yes, and Martina and Rosa moved into the Atzin House in Cuernavaca; Rosa’s extended treatment started at the regional children’s hospital with financial and moral support from Atzin and lots of accompaniment.

Suddenly everything was new and stressful for Martina. All her life, she had lived with her parents and five siblings in a crowded palm hut with a dirt floor, cooking over a smoky three-rock fire, never leaving the village. All were illiterate and weavers of simple palm baskets, just barely surviving from day-to-day. Then this health crisis hit and they feared the worst. Martina’s only option was to learn to handle life in the city - taking buses, cooking on a gas stove, answering a phone, and most importantly, managing the confusing hospital systems and caring for Rosa while memorizing the many medications and procedures. We witnessed her determined courage to save Rosa, and Martina gradually made herself indispensable in the Atzin House, proudly earning a daily salary, until Santa Rosa recovered completely and returned to live in the village.

There is another layer to this story. Martina wanted to read. “How much simpler life would be,” she said longingly, “if I could just read the medicine labels, the bus signs, the instructions. Imagine If I could read to Rosa!” In response, Lupe and Ana, both living in the Atzin House with a scholarship to attend high school, began teaching Martina to read and write in the evenings as part of their community service. It was slow going, more difficult for Martina than managing the bus and the hospital. Lupe and Ana tutored Rosa as well, and despite her many absences from school, Rosa can now read and write well, having quickly surpassed her mother’s ability. She continues to thrive. Mother and daughter read together, each having helped the other, and their futures are forever changed for the better.

Martina and Rosa’s story illustrates a long crisscrossing thread of people helping people. In a similar way, we can trace the influence of Atzin’s programs. They are interconnected, allowing families to participate in different programs as needs arise. For example, a pregnant woman can be seen by the midwife; her children attended by the dentist; her son enrolled in the tutoring program to help him pass his grade in school; her toddler with special needs registered in the young child stimulation program.

These programs have evolved over time in constant consultation with villagers. They are successful because we carefully listen to people and respond to the best of our ability. Our small Centre in Tlamacazapa overflows with people and materials - the noise can be deafening! There is so much to do, always. Please support us as best you can, and thank you for all your help.

As always, Susan

P.S. Santa Rosa now 11 years old is doing well and recently joined Atzin as our youngest volunteer helping in the Special Needs Program. How cool is that?

Mom & daughter read - their lives change forever
Mom & daughter read - their lives change forever
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Reyna planting corn
Reyna planting corn

This project report is a submission to GlobalGiving's 2017 Fail Forward Contest. 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. Here is our story of Reweaving a Life in Mexico: Failure on Two Fronts.


"Blood will flow if you continue helping these women to have land in our village," exclaimed one older man loudly, getting to his feet and pointing at everyone present. A second man did the same, shouting, "Yes, this is what will happen."

People listening were stunned into surprised silence. This was a conciliation meeting in 2009 attended by five village women and 22 comuneros, all village men responsible for local land affairs. The meeting was chaired by the State Land Affairs Office (Procuraduria Agraria). Also present were representatives from: the State Ministry of Women; the State Human Rights Commission; the Guerrero Institute of Human Rights/ Tlachinollan; the Municipal Government, and the press. The comuneros all started talking at once; no negotiation was possible and the meeting ended shortly after.

Let me fill in some background. In 2005 after eight years of tough development work in Tlamacazapa, a large rural Nahua village of palm basket weavers, the Atzin team decided to work towards the establishment of a small wellness centre for women. Together with our local team members called promoters (people who carry day-to-day responsibility for program operations), we visualized a space for women to gather, to find their voices, to learn new skills and to offer services to the community. The promoters scoured the crowded village of 6200 people, finally located a suitable plot of land on its outskirts, and quietly started negotiating with its owner for possession by one woman who agreed to represent the group. Historically she would become the first woman to have land in her name in the village. However, this triggered the start of reactive pushback from comuneros who believed that land could only be held by men.

The team dug up records and figured out that, of the 196 registered comuneros, all were men but only 173 were actually alive and living in the village, and only 25% of these had agricultural land themselves (supposedly prerequisites for comunero status). This number represented roughly 9% of adult village men and 0% of women. With legal counsel, nineteen women took the first step of a two step process: they submitted documentation to the Municipal and State Land Affairs offices to be formally recognized as born in, and resident of, Tlamacazapa. This then would establish their eligibility to be named as village comuneras and thereby participate in land decisions.

This was the start of multiple visits to various government offices at village, municipal and state levels, the filing of documentation at each level, and domiciliary verification by officials -- in total, a lengthy and costly process in terms of effort and transport expenses. In May 2010 their petition ended up at the State Land Court (Tribunal Agraria). Outside of court, the judge minced no words: "I see where this is going and I will deny your petition." He washed his hands of the matter and passed it back to the village comuneros who predictably ignored his instruction to hold a village assembly for recognition of the women's status.

So the women lost on both fronts. A crushing disappointment, they were denied status as residents of their own village, and despite submission of formal documented complaints, no disciplinary action was taken by government for continued verbal threats against the participating women by village men. Also, the tires of the Atzin van were deliberately punctured repeatedly and the four screws holding the van motor in place were cut, causing the motor to fall out when later driven home. Our lawyers' advice: there was too much tension to continue; stop all action. The women agreed.

The women had butted up against an unresolved contradiction in Mexican law. The 1917 Constitution and subsequent amendments (1992, 2001) stated the right of Indigenous populations to practice their established norms and customs (usos y custumbres).  However, articles 22/76/79/82 of the 1992 Agrarian Amendment to the Constitution clearly outlined the rights of women to own and administer property.

Looking back, the group knew beforehand that a woman´s claim to a small plot of land would threaten the dominant status quo and trigger negative reactions from certain comuneros; but they had underestimated the extent of disinterest or (fearful) reluctance of officials to challenge macho customs. They had trusted that due judicial process if diligently pursued would yield at least some progress. Instead, the judge had supported the continued marginalization of women. So what to do when paternalistic, macho norms in an Indigenous community negate the right of its women to possess land?

Under the circumstances the women decided to quietly maintain a presence on the land -- each year they worked together to clear the lot, till the soil and plant corn, and no one came to kick them off. They brushed aside any insulting comments, always walked in pairs and carried on. In the meantime, the Atzin team continued its community programs as well as weekly learning circles for promoters and children about basic human rights and other development themes.

Epilogue. There is a silver lining to this story, one that reframes the failures. Several years later in 2013 a new person was elected as chair of the comuneros. Several promoters approached him to re-open discussions about women, land and the wellness centre. Amazingly he formally recognized their land document and agreed to allocate plots to several female promoters who were household heads. More lessons arose: a new person in a power position can mean new opportunity and, persistence with right timing of actions is crucial. 

At least twelve individual women now have land and no blood flowed in the streets. The original vision of a women's wellness centre - a goal still closely held by the promoters, one that is biding its time - gradually led to a shift in social attitude and to the possibility of land possession by women albeit in a long and twisting path over nine years.

Promoters clearing land
Promoters clearing land
Panoramic SEcorner
Panoramic SEcorner
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Organization Information

Atzin Mexico / Atzin Desarrollo Comunitario AC

Location: Cuernavaca, Morelos - Mexico
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @N/A
Project Leader:
Susan Smith
Cuernavaca, Morelos Mexico
$64,464 raised of $95,000 goal
640 donations
$30,536 to go
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