In San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, mothers are used to supporting their families by picking coffee for $2 a day when the crop is in season. The rest of the year they scramble to find ways to supplement their incomes.
Their financial distress is not for lack of industry or desire. For example, one mother named Rosa embroiders constantly. Her thread and needle flash nearly unceasingly as she embellishes women’s blouses. For many years she collected her sewing supplies from a middleman and returned the finished product to him. She was paid about 50 cents per blouse.
Her life and economic circumstances have now improved tremendously thanks to the generosity of some Weber State University students and faculty.
MUCH MORE THAN A TOUR
In May of 2009 and again in 2010, foreign language professor Alicia Giralt organized trips to Guatemala to give students a chance to practice the language, experience the culture and bond with native Spanish speakers. The students donated their time and $50 to make small loans to each of 40 women in the village.
Money from the loan now allows Rosa to buy material and thread and then sell the blouses herself. She has tripled her income by eliminating the middleman.
“You don’t need much money for microloans,” Giralt says. “We give to the poorest of the poor, and they don’t need hundreds. They need, for example, enough money to buy a pot or a pan.”
With those pots and pans, Guatemalan women can build small businesses making and selling tamales, tortillas or hot drinks.
“One mother earned enough money to put a roof over her kitchen. Another one bought shoes,” Giralt explains. “One woman told us she had cornflakes with milk for the first time, and several told us that before the loans they only had meat for Christmas, and now they are eating meat once a week. For us that was a ‘Wow!’ It’s really a major thing when you can increase the consumption of protein that much; it was very moving for us.”
A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY
The ability to significantly improve an individual’s economic situation with so little money is a difficult concept to comprehend, especially in the comforts of a university classroom.
“The experience is definitely life changing,” says Latin American geography major Sarah Rumpsa. “Living with the people, we could relate on a much deeper level. I used to think a hard day was a tough exam at school. The Guatemalan families think, ‘Where’s my next meal coming from?’ It makes my problems seem insignificant, which is good.”
Rumpsa says the experience has deepened her commitment to a career in international humanitarian aid.
Jason Herman, a Spanish major and chemistry minor, also knows about helping people; he volunteered two years of ecclesiastical service in Mexico and wants to become a doctor. Even with that background, he was surprised at the economic impact of microloans. Herman was paired with a woman who owns a tiny store. Together they made plans to increase the store’s inventory and visibility with a new sign.
"On this trip we got to know the people and helped them out in their financial lives by discussing their homes, their needs, their hopes and their goals,” Herman says. “It was a phenomenal experience.”
Rumpsa and Herman were part of the second WSU visit, which was especially rewarding because students witnessed the transformative power of the first loans.
They learned the Guatemalan women had formed a cooperative to collect loan payments as well as to support each other. Each woman is still in business, and in just six months, all have repaid the original loans with interest. In fact, not only are the loans repaid, each of the women has contributed another 25 cents per month savings to their cooperative for the future.
Adjunct foreign language professor and Guatemalan native Dolores Jasmer participated in both trips as a facilitator. According to Jasmer, studies show that when women earn income, it trickles down to their children’s health and education, and eventually the whole community benefits.
“Studies show that the loans haven’t had the same outcome and success when they have been given to men,” Jasmer says. “Women have been shown to be more responsible in helping their families and paying back their loans.”
A third WSU trip to Guatemala is planned for this summer and will include education majors under the direction of Melina Alexander, an assistant professor from the Department of Teacher Education.
The ultimate goal is to create a learning center and museum where Guatemalan women can become literate while still operating businesses in shops below the school.
BIG RETURN ON INVESTMENT
“Anything we can do is going to be a benefit, any kind of service we can provide, not only for the individuals in Guatemala, but also for our students,” Alexander says. “I honestly believe you need to step outside yourself and outside your comfort zone to truly feel as if you’ve accomplished something.”
The teaching majors from Weber State will not only teach the women how to read, but they also plan to teach them how to instruct other women and children, so eventually the education and economic improvement can continue far beyond a summer visit.
“Microcredit is exceptional because it creates sustainable development,” Giralt explains. “It helps whole communities come out of poverty, which could eventually help the whole world.”
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— Allison Barlow Hess, University Communications