Vamos, chicas!!

In my first trips for Heifer International to Uganda and Guatemala, I’ve learned two important things.  The first is how to say, gratefully and gracefully, “Thanks so much but I don’t eat goat/sheep/bunny…” realizing that your hosts have sacrificed to serve you their very best food and you’re probably a jerk for not eating it.

Sheep soup (I ate everything but the sheep)!

The second thing I’ve come to realize is that, as a global community, we really need to keep girls in school.

In the typical indigenous villages we visited in the Western Highlands of Guatemala served by Heifer International and its partner Community Cloud Forest Conservation, the average age when girls marry is about 16. When girls get married so young, they stop going to school. They have more children and are less likely and able to send those kids to school. And their chances of lifting themselves and their families out of poverty sharply diminish.

Clearly, keeping girls in school is one of the first steps to ending poverty. But how do you change a system that’s culturally entrenched and socially unchallenged? Well, you can start by following the example of Heifer & its partner CCFC and develop a system that virtually pays girls to stay in school. By identifying and supporting girl leaders who show a passion for learning and a willingness to challenge the status quo (and bringing their parents into the room, so they can witness the benefits of educating girls and become community advocates), you can really start to shake things up.Elvira and Patricia are two shining examples of what can happen when you empower girls –even in a tiny Guatemalan village off the grid. Twelve young women made up the original Community Cloud Forest Conservation group (there are now 75 girls in the group.. and boys, too!) They spend 5 weeks after the school year ends, learning about environmental protection, life skills, fruit tree grafting, bird watching, and deforestation. In return, they are given a scholarship that helps them pay for their next year of school – with the understanding that they will teach others what they have learned and do community service projects.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of two girls more worthy of investment. Elvira worked for seven years raising chickens to earn money to pay her own school fees, then went back to the 7th grade at the age of 19. Now 24,  she wants to become a teacher to lead other girls.  “As young women here, we need to learn what our parents didn’t know,” she says. “So our whole community can come back to life and our lives will be better tomorrow and the next day.”

Patricia, who is 17, has become an outspoken advocate for preserving the cloud forest. “When you are aware that our water comes from the forest—that the trees grab the clouds and give us rain – you know that we have to work together now to save it before it’s gone.”

As Elvira was talking, I was watching her father in the group – the man who had forced her to drop out of school. I was half-thinking that maybe there would be some bitterness between Elvira and her dad, but I was wrong. When Elvira stopped talking, he slowly got to his feet and said, “It’s a great blessing from God that you helped my daughter to study, and I thank Heifer for that. But we have to stand up as a community and help all the girls. Young men can go and leave the village, but the girls have to stay here. They’re our future.”

A few hours later, I was driving back from the village with Heifer’s Byron and Vivian (in Spanish it’s pronounced “Bibian” – and how adorable is that??)  when we saw four girls practicing their soccer kicks in a park in Sacapula in the late afternoon. They were seriously whaling that ball, cheering each other on, and were tremendously excited to be photographed doing it.I loved seeing that. I loved cheering with Bibian as she taught me to holler, “Vamos, chicas!” I loved everything I saw that day at Alta Verapaz.

Categories: Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

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39 thoughts on “Vamos, chicas!!

  1. ¡Vamos, chicas! indeed. Lovin’ the blog, girl…keep up the great work you’re doing!

    • Thanks, Nancy!! You should come on one of the trips with me! I already know you’re great to travel with … I’m serious!! We could salsa together!!

  2. Ginger O'Neill

    Hi Betty,

    Great photos and it isn’t too surprising for us first world people to learn that in every country and every culture, it comes down to educating woman. If woman are educated, they are not going to bear children at too early of an age and diminish their ability to grow and mature as adults. In this way, their future children can be raised by adults and not children having babies.


    • It’s such an obvious thing, Ginger, but so difficult to put into practice, given social norms that make it perfectly acceptable to drop out of school, get married and start having babies as a teenager. The good news is, I never saw a Mayan mother who was anything less than devoted, calm and loving with her children (no matter what her age) but the resources are simply not there to allow them to improve their standard of living or achieve good nutrition without education & an ability to control the size of their families. But I do believe it will — and it is already happening. Thanks for the insightful comment, Ginger!!

  3. Children are our future and that is anywhere around the world! Great post.

  4. Awesome read! Back to school at nineteen, now that’s determination! These minds want to know more and have a choice.

    • Elvira was such a beautiful girl and I can only imagine what determination it took to wait and work all those years, and then go back to 7th grade when you are 7 years older than everybody else. I know she will get where she is going … and uplift her family & village while she does it!

  5. This is really inspiring to read!! I wish I could go along with you on your enlightening journeys. I’m posting this to my Facebook page.

    • Thanks so much Suucakes … I can tell you that I was REALLY inspired by the work being done by Proeval and Heifer in these communities. It’s really a long-term investment in changing attitudes and old ways of doing things, but SO powerful!!

  6. Excellent point, Betty! The education of girls is the preservation of our planet. This is not to say that the boys don’t matter. It is to say that we are all in this together and the boys cannot do it alone!

    • Susan — I agree, absolutely. And I think that dis-empowering girls makes it that much more difficult for them to contribute up to their full potential in the community — which is bad for everybody! I really felt encouraged to see the men in the community really getting that to give girls a full opportunity to complete school and be empowered to take leadership roles in the village would really benefit everybody!

  7. The sheep soup looks better than the rabbit stew we both passed on. I know we felt horribly not eating our meal (or at least part of it), but we also know someone else very happily finished our meals for us. Another fabulous post.

    • Thanks, honey — and YES the sheep soup was really very delicious, minus the sheep which I gave to my co-workers who were happy to have it! I loved every minute of the journey …

  8. Beautiful insight, Betty. Girls must be supported and nurtured, for they will be the women that nurture their communities.

  9. It is always a shame to exclude half of a population from getting an education. You never can tell what piece of information in a certain persons hands will change the world..

  10. I especially love this post, Betty. Women and girls are the greatest underutilized resource on the planet. If this world is to be saved, it will do so by empowering women of all ages. To paraphrase Nicholas Kristof, “Enable a man to succeed, and he will. Enable a woman, and she will then enable her family and her entire community.” Again and again, I say “Bravo to you!”

    • I love Nicholas Kristof and his book “Half the Sky” — he is so correct in noting that the benefits of anything that is “given” to women is usually passed along to the community in ways so profound it is almost hard to measure. When we met these young women and started to think about the effects they would have on their villages and towns, it was so inspiring!! Thanks for the comment, Renee!!

  11. Go go, vamos!!! 🙂 Haiti is next? My goodness you get around!

  12. Vamos chicas y Vamos Heifer!! You are living a dream, and I get to read about it! Well done.

  13. It is things like this that make me realize what matters in life! I know I will find my purpose helping others! Thanks for the wonderful story and photos and Congratulations on being “Freshly Pressed”. What’s funny is I pressed the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” button on your last post…right before you were freshly pressed and then started getting lots of e-mails. It didn’t dawn on me at first! Sending you much love and peace…Sherry

    • Always so great to hear from you, Sherry — and to share your journey! As a fellow adventurer, I feel like we’re both on a similar path & am so happy our helping paths crossed!!

  14. Great stories Betty. I have missed the last few posts and have some back reading to do. I agree with your take on the need for empowerment. Let “vamos chicas” be a motivating call for us all.

  15. Bonnie O'Neill

    Hola chica carina ,

    Lovely post!

    We were in San Marcos yesterday helping at a new feeding program for the village’s impoverished elderly. There were about 20 “abuelas”, grandmothers, there . ..tiny and frail but so beautiful in their traditional colorful “traje”. Your post made me think how once they were young girls with dreams like Patricia and Elvira but there were no opportunities available. Bravo for Heifer and Proeval Raxmu for feeding dreams and changing the world, one girl at a time . And bravo for you , chica extraordinaria for bringing their work to life for us, your devoted readers! Muchos besos, Bonnie

    • Bonnie — You are a beacon of giving in the Atitlan area, and I’m sure that Connie had a blast going along with you! I miss the Laguna & your great hospitality (and my hat!) … but know that we’ll see each other soon. It was a wonderful thing seeing those young women in Alta Verapaz so on fire to learn, to teach and to lead their communities — and how they’d inspired the men in the village to get behind the entire program,too. Change happens!! besos, baby — b

  16. I am humbled by your work and honored to have the opportunity to read your blog! Thanks!

  17. Betty, what an inspiration your blogs are. You’re showing all of us parts of the world we would never know. With much admiration,


  18. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Love it! That says volumes that the Father stood up. Keep the adventures coming!!!

  19. intrepidtraveller

    I love hearing such inspiring stories. especially about the importance of educating girls! The small loads scheme seems very successful too, it reminds me of the story about how The Grameen Bank was set up in Bangladesh by giving out small loads in women…such a success story!

  20. I took the click and came on over. Wonderful website. Love the pics and the mission. Count me as one of the ‘Chicas’ who will follow your journeys as you ‘Vamos’ around our planet. ~ Ayanna Nahmias

    • Fellow Chica — So happy you’re in … and I love your beautiful blog & mission to empower women and girls around the world as well! Mutual fan club!!!

  21. speakupanyone

    Sometimes we too think we have it bad! This is deep & I am sure it can be worse. I can appreciate anyone in a situation such as this to stay strong & have the will power to go further.

  22. Amber

    😀 awe, too bad you couldnt accept the offer of the sheep soup. . . I’m sure they understand (:

  23. Kinda makes you wonder what sort of world we might have if women were in charge … 🙂

  24. Truly aided me a fantastic offer. Thanx

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