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Fostering Indigenous Knowledge: Utilizing the Community Within

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Erin Head ShotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Erin Crandell

Mayan Families operates in underserved, primarily indigenous communities in the rural highlands of Guatemala. 87% of the families we work with are living under the poverty line, most have little formal education and many do not even speak Spanish. For a foreigner, the prospect of working with and identifying with the people living in these communities is daunting. How can an organization work with communities to create sustainable change without familiarity of the culture or even the ability to speak the language? The secret to Mayan Families’ success is in its staff.

Mayan Families LOGOAna Can goes out into the field at least twice a week in home visits. As the program coordinator for the Elderly Care Program, the Children with Special Needs Program, the Well Mother, Well Baby Program, and the Kids in Critical Need Program, her clients are among the most critically underserved populations Mayan Families works with. Every day she works with infants, elderly, orphans, and mothers–empowering them through education and care. Although much of her time is occupied with logistics and program management, a large part of her job is checking in with each client, and monitoring their needs and progress.

Ana_Can_working_with_the_elderly_(photo_by_Anna_Watts)[1]In addition to managing all of these programs, Ana is studying to finish her degree in social work. Most girls in Guatemala do not continue their studies past primary school, and the drop-out rate for the indigenous girls living in the communities around Lake Atitlán are even higher. Mayan Families’ 85% indigenous Guatemalan staff is on the larger end for most NGOs its size, but when the programs are run by accomplished, talented women like Ana Can they have a big impact. For every program and team, there is an indigenous Guatemalan director, and a team of Guatemalan staff doing program implementation. The few foreign staff on each team manage tasks such as program monitoring and evaluation, donor relations, and fundraising.

A few weeks ago, Ana’s assistant Lucia visited Sabina, one of the elderly women in the Mayan Families Elderly Care Program, who lives in San Jorge la Laguna with her husband Nicolas. Lucia is Kaq’chikel Maya, and was able to help Sabina without encountering a language barrier. Sabina is separated from 81 year-old Nicolas due to a chronic illness, but Sabina has still dedicated her life to supporting him. Sabina and Nicolas have children but, like most of the elderly in the Mayan Families Elderly Care Program, the children do not care for their parents.

Lucia_doing_weighing_and_measuring_for_Well_Mother,_Well_Baby_(photo_by_Anna_Watts)[1]The Elderly Care Program works on two models: individual sponsorship of the elderly for $35 per month; and the broader Comprehensive Elderly Care Program which gives each of the elderly a hot meal five times a week in two Elderly Care Feeding Centers in San Jorge la Laguna and Panajachel. Like Sabina, many of the elderly in our program have been abandoned by their families, and are suffering from illnesses related to a lifetime of poor nutrition and hard labor. Many of the elderly are also suffering the psychological effects of the recent Guatemalan civil war, in which over 20,000 people lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands were disappeared (many from rural indigenous communities).

Ana_Can_working_with_clients_(photo_by_Anna_Watts)[1]Without knowledge of the roots of these physical and mental traumas, an NGO worker would never be able to give these elderly the care that they need. But having someone like Ana Can or Lucia with both the background in social work and the connection to the community running the program means that we can slowly heal the wounds of the past, and move forward in building a community without leaving behind these populations.

NGO workers should always be cognizant of the needs and context of the communities that they work in, and without strong ties to the community there will never be an effective dialogue and sustainable change. This is a lesson that Mayan Families has learned in its over ten years of working in the rural, indigenous communities around Lake Atitlán. While the founders of Mayan Families (Sharon Smart-Poage, Dwight Poage, and Patty Mort) are not indigenous Guatemalan, the rest of the Executive Team are. This partnership and trust has been why Mayan Families has been so effective in bringing community development projects to thousands of families in isolated, underdeveloped communities in Guatemala.


Erin Crandell is the Communications and Marketing Manager for Mayan Families, a nonprofit who’s mission is to facilitate sustainable development programs in impoverished communities throughout the Lake Atitlán region of rural Guatemala.

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