Can One Person Make a Difference?

When I first met Gloria she was a bubbly 12 year-old dressed in indigenous traje, who went to school in the mornings and spent her afternoons in Antigua’s Central park selling  woven bracelets and beaded necklaces.  She was part of a group of young women from a neighboring village who I came to know during the time I spent fostering my daughter.  I met Gloria before I had spent any real time outside the “bubble” of Antigua, before my Spanish was proficient, before I had worked with rural poor in Guatemala, before I met and started a relationship with my daughter’s birth family and before I had any idea about the dynamics of relationships where one person has so much more access to resources than the other.

Over the years that followed I would see Gloria on our biannual visits to Guatemala, always bringing her a T-shirt or backpack from the States.  By the time my daughter and I moved to Guatemala to live full time, Gloria was studying in diversificado (Jr high school) and I offered to pay her tuition and buy her uniform and school supplies knowing this would be difficult for her family given their only source of income was selling tipica to tourists.  Gloria would happily babysit for me when I needed help on a weekend or evening and her family would regularly invite us to their home in a village just outside of Antigua for delicious homemade pepian.

When it came time a few years later for Gloria to select her “career” she chose tourism and I made the commitment to continue to support her studies financially. A few months after Gloria had started her tourism courses I came home one afternoon to find her entire family camped out on the lawn in front of my house.  My stomach sank when I saw her mother, father, older sister and older brother all with serious faces.  It was her brother, Lionel, who started by telling me how much his family appreciated the support and friendship I had given Gloria over the years and how much it meant to them that she had someone to sponsor her education.  He talked about how proud they were that she would be the first person in their family to ever graduate high school. Then a tearful Gloria explained how she had made a mistake in her career choice and had realized after starting classes that tourism was not the career she wanted to follow. She explained that she wanted to withdraw from the program which would mean losing much of the money spent on registration, uniforms and books but she wanted my permission to do so.  She said she instead wanted to study to be a primary school teacher and had found a program which would accept her even though classes had started for the year and wanted to know if I would help her.  The entire family apologized profusely and told me they would understand whatever decision I made.

My first reaction was annoyance at the money that had been wasted.  But as I listened to Gloria the annoyance turned to compassion for a young woman who, of course, did not know what she wanted to do with her life having never had a role model to follow in regard to education. Before they left I renewed my commitment to help this family produce their first high school graduate.

Gloria enrolled in a primary teacher education program. It took her close to 6 years to finish the 4- year program due to stops and starts and health related issues (which her family was quick to blame on the stress of studying and at one point counseled her to quit her studies completely). In October of 2014, at the age of 24, Gloria became the first high school graduate in her family.  The pride I felt for her was well worth any small sacrifice I had made to help her achieve this dream and I hoped with all my heart that her family, especially her younger cousins, would see her as an example and work to follow in her footsteps.

I wanted Gloria’s education to open doors for her.  For her to get a job as a teacher and begin to help support her family and prove to them all the value of her education.  This is after all the story I'd heard again and again from charities who worked to raise girls out of poverty  --  the promise of education.  But while I have worked the few contacts I have in Guatemala, almost 2 years later Gloria has not been able to find a job as a teacher and can be found today where I met her almost 14 years ago -- selling tipica in the park in Antigua.

My relationship with Gloria is just one such relationship I have tried to navigate during my time in Guatemala -- the relationship with my daughter’s birth family being another.  I often think about what these relationships have taught me about compassion, charity, hope and one person’s ability to fight poverty and positively and respectfully impact the life of someone else. I think about the line between support and paternalism and where I want to fall on that line.  So while Gloria has not (yet) had the results I had wanted for her or she wanted for herself,  I don’t for a moment regret helping her and am in fact grateful for what I have learned.  

Last month when visiting Guatemala, Gloria’s sister-in-law Gladys (who may be my favorite person in the family because of her warmth and the caring she has always shown me and my daughter) approached me shyly and asked if she could talk to me.  She had that look I now recognize well that means a request is coming.  Her oldest daughter, Karin, had just finished diversificado and was now taking a year off from studying as she wants to study nursing but the family could not afford the program on what they earn selling tipica in the park.  She said Gloria had suggested she ask me if I could help, the implication being since I was no longer providing support for Gloria’s education I must have some extra money.  At first I bristled at this implication and the request that would mean for me a return to monthly tuition payments that, while within my means, are not insignificant.  But as with Gloria years before, I asked Gladys to do her research on what the program would cost and what they would need from me and to send me this information.  I tried to be as noncommittal as possible, but seeing the tears in Gladys’s eyes replaced by hope I knew I’d do what I could to help educate another generation of this family.  

Thinking more about this request, I’ve come to see it as a sign that I did in fact accomplish my initial goal.  This hard-working indigenous family does value education for their children. And while I may be just one person helping just this one family -  that gives me hope.