Calendaria practices giving an injection.
Heather Nielsen/Las Amigas
By Julia Kayser*
November 9, 2012—Candelaria is a 27-year-old single mother in the rural highlands of Guatemala. She washes clothes and carries wood to feed her family. She could never afford to go to school. As a teenager she traveled to the capital city to find work. Every day as she waited for the bus, she studied the backs of littered potato-chip bags. She was teaching herself to read.
A program called Las Amigas has given Candelaria a second chance at an education, free of charge. She and 14 other women were invited to a Methodist retreat center at Lake Lemoa, Chichicastenango. There, they learned about hygiene, nutrition, preventative care, basic first aid, common illnesses, reproductive health, family planning, and birth.
After they had mastered basic medical concepts, Candelaria and her classmates were offered additional training in leadership and public speaking. They returned to their homes as community health-care workers and advocates for better health. Today, they attend ongoing monthly training events to brush up on their medical knowledge and share ideas.
Las Amigas was started in April 2003 by Margie Groshong, an RN from Eugene, Oregon. The program is offered through an organization called Salud Y Paz.
So far, local communities have been receptive. After one participant led a program in a local school, its Health Cabinet reported, “We have seen a change in the schools every week when we observe the children: their hygiene is improved. They are getting sick less and staying in school more.”
Another participant has helped a woman reduce her systolic blood pressure from 190 to 135 through regular exercise. Program coordinator Juan Ixtan, a pastor with the National Evangelical Primitive Methodist Church of Guatemala, says, “This is the beginning of a process of education. Las Amigas participants now have understood the work that they should accomplish.”
By educating women, the Amigas program hopes to improve the health of entire communities. In 2011, about 450 people benefited from having an Amigas participant in their community. “Family sizes in the rural highlands average six people, all living with their extended family members,” says Heather Nielsen, program assistant and an individual volunteer with the General Board of Global Ministries. “This means that by educating one person in a household, we can educate others, potentially having a 10-fold impact.”
Calendaria has become an advocate for sick members of her community. Nielsen writes that just last month, Candelaria told the stories of two patients from her community. She had examined the patients herself. In one, she diagnosed the need for gynecological surgery, and in the other—a small child—a hernia. “She was asking how to get them help,” Nielsen says. “It blows our mind that a woman who can barely read and write is able to detect disease and the need for tertiary services.”
Your gift to General Health Programs and Ministries, Advance #3020622, supports programs like Las Amigas.