In 2002, Sheila, an early learning education specialist visiting Guatemala with her husband Brian, met a woman on the street who asked her to deliver a bag of toys to a small childcare. She agreed not knowing it was across the lake and up in the mountains. Eager to go, but nervous to go alone, she convinced her Spanish teacher to go along as part of her Spanish lesson. They crossed the lake by boat and after much searching eventually found the facility. Fourteen babies lay lined up on the dirt floor of a classroom. In a small wooden enclosure out front, a young woman with a baby strapped on her back crouched over a twig fire cooking tortillas. They hardly noticed the woman at first because of all the smoke in the tiny structure.
When they returned to the Spanish school that afternoon, Sheila’s mind was racing with all the things that should be done to help. She and Brian canvassed other students for donations and bought paper, crayons, some simple games and soft toys plus a big sponge mattress that they covered in denim and carted back across the lake the next day. During that visit, Sheila met with the people in charge and although she understood little Spanish, she promised additional help the next year. True to her promise, Sheila returned the next year with suitcases filled with schools supplies, shoes and clothing. Thus began the Guatemala Daycare Project which just grew and grew.
Before too long, Sheila and Brian realized how more funding was necessary if they were to help in a meaningful way. By that time, they were in love with Guatemala and its rich culture. More and more, they met street vendors needing to sell beautifully handcrafted textiles, jewelry and Christmas ornaments to support their families and pay school fees for their children. They loved the color blends and craftsmanship and realized that others would too. So, they began taking handicrafts back to Canada to sell at farmer’s markets and craft shows. They also sought personal donations. Money, they soon found, was the most useful type of help. It allowed them to purchase needed items in the local Guatemala communities and thus help the local vendors earn income. By 2013, the Guatemala Daycare Project was supporting and enhancing ten of the Infantilis SOS Centers, an international humanitarian organization serving impoverished families around the world.
For more than ten years, Infantiles SOS operated ten early learning and nutrition centers in rural farming villages in the western highlands of Guatemala. Sadly, in December 2013 the organization closed all of them, including the highly popular one in Panyebar. Teachers, families and most of all the 55 children enrolled there were devastated. Word reached Sheila and Brian in Canada who returned to Guatemala to see what they could do to help.
The first person they turned to was Bonnie O’Neill, a longtime friend who lives in Guatemala and has helped many nonprofit organizations there. Together, they gathered supplies, bought needed equipment and solicited startup funding from family and friends Less than three months later, SaludosNiños!, an Early Learning and Nutrition Program for Mayan Children-- was born.
The modest rent free facility with its three classrooms plus a kitchen, was soon again bursting with life. Four dedicated teachers and one amazing cook were back doing what they love and do so well: teaching, feeding and nurturing children. More than 55 happy children returned that first week. Their mothers lined up to volunteer in the kitchen. . “It seems like a miracle, “one mother said, and in many ways it was. In fact, a well named US based NGO, Miracles in Action that works exclusively in Guatemala, was the first to endorse the new organization. Passionate about combatting child malnutrition, Miracles in Action sent its nutrition consultant to Panyebar to review menus and advise Maria on how to produce meals that were top quality, healthy and cost effective. SaludosNiños! is now a partner organization of Miracles in Action.
It is hoped that overtime SaludosNiños! will serve as a model and be the first of many more early learning and nutrition centers in this very poor and struggling area of Guatemala.