Empower women. Eliminate poverty.

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Visiting Guatemala with Friendship Bridge

By: Meryle Melnicoff

On the recommendation of a friend, I signed up for the November Insight trip, organized and hosted by Friendship Bridge.  As a believer in the power of micro-finance to improve lives, I wanted to see how Friendship Bridge works with its women clients.  The trip turned out to be filled with many wonderful surprises and delights.

My first surprise was the country of Guatemala itself.   At the urging of the Friendship Bridge staff, I went straight to the town of Antigua from the airport instead of staying in the capital of Guatemala City.  Antigua is a lovely tourist town full of shops and markets where you can purchase the wonderful hand-woven articles that are unique to Guatemala.  Anyone who enjoys quality handicrafts and artwork will have a wonderful time in this town.  After Antigua, we went to Lake Atitlan, which is a magnificent lake surrounded by beautiful mountains, which I learned were active volcanoes.

The most meaningful moments of my Insight trip were our visits to the Friendship Bridge clients, many of whom are located in the small towns and villages around Lake Atitlan.  During these visits we saw the power of micro-finance to improve lives.  We met with some long-term Friendship Bridge clients who now have thriving businesses such as restaurants, shops selling local goods, and even a multi-family clothing factory; these businesses now supported the women and their entire families.

Clients Learning about Children Education

FB Loan Officer teaching clients about the importance of education for their children.

During one client visit, we had the opportunity to observe – and participate in – a repayment meeting and that is when I learned how special and unique the Friendship Bridge micro-loan program is in Guatemala.  Once a month each Trust Bank (a group of 8-12 women who have agreed to guarantee each others’ loans) meets with a Friendship Bridge loan officer.  Instead of simply making their payment and then leaving, as would be the case with a for-profit micro-loan company, the women meet for an hour for a bonding and educational session.  These educational sessions are the real reason the Friendship Bridge clients rise out of poverty: the clients learn about the importance of keeping their children in school, mental and physical health, family planning, and managing their business.  One impact of these sessions is that, in a country with only a fifty percent literacy rate, we know that Friendship Bridge clients are now able to prioritize education for their children.

Guatemala is a beautiful country that is growing and prospering, but it still has many people, mainly indigenous Mayans, living in poverty and without education.   Thanks to the work of Friendship Bridge, 19,000 families are now led by empowered women who are getting the financial and educational support to lift themselves out of poverty.  Much has been accomplished in Guatemala in the past 15 years, but there is still much more to do.

View a photo album of Meryle’s trip, here.  Photos by: Doug Smith

Technical Training Creates New Love for Floral Arranging

Guatemalan women in technical trainingFriendship Bridge is continuing to make huge strides with our advanced education and technical training initiative.  To date, over 700 women have participated in a technical training to help take their business to the next level.   Through a variety of strategic partnerships with key organizations in Guatemala, we have sponsored courses on topics ranging from pastry making and canning to improved agriculture techniques and flower arranging.

Recently, a handful of our clients completed a training dedicated specifically to the art of flower arranging.  This skill is versatile as it can give clients a variety of opportunities including:

1) Store owners can create a new stream of income

2) Allows women to start a second small business

3) Presents an opportunity for women who really enjoy the art, to move from their current career into a new one

In addition to enhancing their businesses, the women in these technical trainings report that they love to get out of the house, form new relationships and the new skill boosts their confidence levels.

Meet the Aj Batz Trust Bank

Aj Batz Trust Bank

Four new members of the Aj Batz Trust Bank

The Aj Batz Trust Bank consists of 14 amazing women from the rural area of Chichicastenango, Guatemala.  These women have been clients of Friendship Bridge for many years, they continue to apply for microloans and education from Friendship Bridge because they feel it is a great tool for them.  Over the past several years, they have grown their businesses, which benefits their whole family and even other members of their community.

Recently, the Aj Batz Trust Bank welcomed four new members: Anastasia Quino, Maria Quino, Marta Cuterez, and Maria Calel.  All are very excited to be part of the group. “I learned about Friendship Bridge from a friend.  My husband and I discussed the opportunity and agreed it would be good for our family because to make more money at my small convenience store, I needed to increase the inventory,” explains Mary Quino.

“I live near the other members of the Aj Batz Trust Bank, so I asked them for more information.  I liked what I heard, so I made my decision to join.  I’m happy with this first loan cycle and I invested the loan in the production of textiles,” says Marta Cuterez.

Each month, the women meet to repay their loans and gather for an information education lesson.  These lessons are provided by a trained loan officer and are included with their microloan from Friendship Bridge, thus the name Microcredit Plus.  The loan officer travels to a home of a Trust Bank member for these meetings.  Topics range from budgeting and customer service to self-esteem and women’s health.

Even though it was cloudy and cold morning when we visited the Aj Batz Trust Bank, the ladies had a lot of fun during their meeting. Lots of laughs were shared, especially when all of the ladies got actively involved during this month’s education session focused on marketing (specifically product, price, place and promotion).  The clients freely compare their small businesses, and discuss openly whether they can implement any marketing strategies to promote their businesses. These women have businesses that are based around the Guatemalan art of textiles.  Their products include: tablecloths, napkins, huipils (Guatemalan shirts), scarves and much more.

The Friendship Bridge loan officer and facilitator, Tomasa Sen, starts the session with the first theme: product.  She talks about how the product size and presentation can make a difference in the mind of the client at the time of purchase.   The group also covers the importance of pricing your product so that it covers hard costs but is also market appropriate depending on their audience (wholesalers, retailers, or final consumers). Slowly the conversation turns to where they sell, which varies from woman to woman.  They sell in the Plaza, out of their home, on the street, or door-to-door.  Based on that, the women discuss promotions.  The ladies all agree that they can advertise their product in many ways including posters and word of mouth.

Meet the Trust Bank President:

Each Trust Bank elects its own board, including president and treasurer.  After the meeting, we had a chance to catch up with Aj Batz Trust Bank president, Tol Cuterez Josefa (she prefers to be called Josefa). Josefa is 46 years-old and has 12 children.  Her business is creating and selling textiles – mostly shawls, but she also makes tablecloths and huipils.  She uses her income to provide more nutritious meals for her large family.  Josefa enjoys being president because it allows her to improve her leadership skills and learn more about how to organize a group. Josefa’s dream is to see all her children reach sixth grade, and possibly advance to high school.  She knows this may be difficult because her children have many needs, and she and her husband have to give the same opportunities to all of them, but she is working hard to make this happen.

“I appreciate the support and tools Friendship Bridge provides. I also like the education piece of the organization because it teaches us how to be more profitable.  Many of us are a little shy to share our stories to the group but when we do, we enjoy it and we feel part of the change in our communities,” explains Josefa.

Thank you Whole Foods Belmar for supporting Aj Batz!

Flor del Desierto Circle Celebrates Day of the Dead

Beautiful Alter Table DecorBy: Constancia Leshin

The Antelope Valley Country Club banquet room was transformed by members of our local Circle beginning at noon on October 24th. A four tiered altar or “ofrenda” was built on a 22 foot base and ornately decorated with bright orange paper marigolds called “cempatuchil”, tiny orange lights and flickering candles, ceramic and wood santos, fruits and sweets of all kinds, a bottle of beer, wine, coffee and tea with glasses and cups. Guests were invited to bring pictures of loved ones who had departed to place on the “ofrenda”. Thirteen large round tables for eight with black tablecloths and brightly colored napkins along with centerpieces of traditional woven bags from Aguacatan, Guatemala were the centerpieces. Each bag had brightly colored tissue paper peaking out. Ornate “papel picado” adorned the silent auction table as well as the ofrenda. With lively Guatemalan marimba and guitar music, over 90 guests entered the room at 5:30 and were offered hors d’oeuvres of papaya, watermelon, pineapple and melonsprinkled with chile and lime juice. A no host bar was set up near the tipica table. Caroline Bernal and Maru Trimmerhad designed the evening’s multipage program which included informational pages of our Friendship Bridge support Circle, Day of the Dead as well as a detailed description of silent auction items. They smoothly and efficiently checked guests in at the beginning and end of the evening.

Chice Davison and Jean Monte were very helpful at the tipica table and by the end of the evening, very little of it remained. Roxie Patterson conducted a very successful 50/50 split in which an additional funds were raised. Also contributing to the success of the evening were Vivian Kamori, Jane Zeok, Ricky Perkins, and Mary O’Malley.. Long distance members attending were Penelope Curtis, Laurie Piccolotti, Lindy Smelthurst and Sat Akal.

Guests were welcomed at 6:15 by Emcee Constancia Leshin and because the evening had been meticulously planned by event chair, Caron Trataris, there was a wonderful flow to it. A short modern dance presentation followed with four dancers from Hidden Entropy Movement Project directed by Rochelle Guardado, who wore huipiles and black tights, their faces painted in Day of the Dead theme, who presented an improvisational modern dance near the “ofrenda”. Dinner was served shortly afterwards and consisted of a South of the Border Coleslaw, Vegetarian Ceviche, Black Mole Chicken, Spanish Rice, Black Beans, Roasted Vegetables, Fresh Fruit Salad, as well as Tortillas and Salsa. The dessert was a very rich and delicious chocolate bread pudding.

After dinner, the compelling 2012 Friendship Bridge video was shown followed by a short presentation by Constancia about the latest news from Friendship Bridge. Everyone was quite enthusiastic about the anticipated emergence of Friendship Bridge branded merchandise, health insurance, savings program as well as agricultural assistance. Noted local Guatemalan artist and writer, Edwin Vasquez passionately shared his thoughts about current political and economic issues in his country of birth. Everyone was visibly moved.

Our small but mighty Circle raised over $10,000 and we are quite pleased. Many in attendance left very inspired and requested that we repeat the event in 2014. It would be our 4th Day of the Dead Fundraiser. Some inquired about future Insight Trips as they wanted to experience the organization in a more intimate manner. Still others decided to join our Circle. As for the members of our Circle, we packed everything and left the venue, very pleased with our efforts!

View the full Day of the Dead photo album.

Dining for Women Visits FB Clients

Dining for Women is a global giving circle dedicated to helping women and girls in the developing world achieve their potential, gain equality in their countries and cultures, and overcome economic limitations and social bias.  They have over 9,000 members, have given nearly $2.8 million to programs that benefit women in poverty, and believe that all women deserve to be self-sufficient.  Friendship Bridge is one of the organizations they support and recently they visited us in Guatemala to meet FB clients and see the impact they are making firsthand.

Read about their adventures in a blog post by Rosemary McGee from Pennsylvania.  Here is an excerpt to get you started:

“We joined the 18 women of the Flor de Maria Trust Bank cooperative as they were busily tallying up payments. Brenda, from the area and their loan officer, was preparing for a lesson and discussion on good nutrition with help from photo charts. We became part of the group, as the women made room for us and pulled us into their circle with smiles and giggling. They obviously enjoyed each other and were happy to be together! It was an honor to be there!

Then it was back to Salvador our awesome driver and the van. We were followed by a swarm of very curious, giggling schoolchildren who were out on the hillside for “recess” (photo op!), next we were to visit a second cooperative closer to Sololá where the Grupo de Mujeres Izaput Cooperative meets. Their dynamic leader started the co-op of artisans 25 years ago and partnered with Friendship Bridge 6 years ago This now allows them to have inventory on hand continuously and increases their sales and income.

We saw a foot loom weaving demo in their workroom where the women work together on 4 looms while laughing, talking and listening to music. It was another joyful group of women. Of course, we did some more shopping from their beautiful array of handiwork which also included beaded jewelry and wooden masks!”

Read full post here.

Meet the Tzolojya Trust Bank

Members of the Tzolojya Trust Bank GuatemalaLocation:  Sololá, Guatemala
Members: 9
Average age of Members: 44
Average number of Children: 4.5
Average loan size: $655
Average years of education: 1.6 years

Friendship Bridge began working in the Sololá area in 1998. The area is located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, at a distance of 140 kilometers from Guatemala City.  Sololá is one of the larger, more prominent communities near Lake Atitlan.

The Tzolojya Trust Bank, which means Sololá in the Mayan Kakchiquel language, was established about 10 years ago.  The group is comprised of nine members with an average age of 44 years old and an average formal education of 1.6 years (only two members have attended school).  Additionally, its members have an average of four children per member.

The women of the Tzolojya Trust Bank have varied businesses including: bakeries, flowers, vegetables, tortillas, snacks and concessions, owners of stores of daily consumption (convenience stores), avocados, and handicrafts. The average loan of $655 goes directly into these businesses.

In addition to financial support, the women of the Tzolojya Trust Bank also benefit from training (provided in their own language) once per month by Friendship Bridge staff.  They learn about topics such as: business and money management, over-indebtedness, how to market their products, and family and women’s health.

The women say they enjoy the group dynamics and the monthly meetings.  They participate actively in the discussions, and always offer support to each other. Last month’s lesson was about the proper uses of the loan, emphasizing strategies to avoid over-indebtedness.  The lessons are interactive and encourage discussion, giving the members an opportunity to express their thoughts on the topics.  Friendship Bridge incorporates the principles of Adult Learning Theory into its methodology, recognizing the importance of participation and drawing upon the women’s own life experiences in the learning process.

Stay tuned! We will highlight Maria Santos Samines Buch and Marta Julia Yaxon Morales, members of the Tzolojya Trust Bank, next week!

This Trust Bank is supported by a Friendship Bridge donor who prefers to remain anonymous.  Thank you for your generous support!

Tiny Loans, Big Impact

Chico Women's Microfinance Collaborative Women’s collaborative brings speaker to teach about microfinance for poor Guatemalan women.  When women in poor, rural areas receive a small loan, big things can happen.  (Excerpt taken from Chico News & Review, click here for full story)

“There was one [Guatemalan] lady … [who] had become a success, and she said, ‘Now I know that my husband doesn’t need to beat me,’” offered Katy Warren, co-founder of the Women’s Microfinance Collaborative, a loosely knit group of Chico-area donors focused on microfinance.

The woman was a recipient of a microfinance loan that she received from Friendship Bridge—a Colorado-based microfinance institution (MFI) that focuses on empowering poor entrepreneurial women in Guatemala by giving loans of usually around $300-$350. Loans are used to grow small businesses—for instance, to buy a new loom for a weaving business, or buy seeds for a small farm.

“That’s a big deal to me,” said Warren of the Guatemalan woman’s newly found strength. “She had enough power to say, ‘No, you’re not going to hit me again’ to him.”

Michelle Rasmussen, the collaborative’s facilitator and chairwoman, agreed. “Allowing women to get into a business and be self-sustaining changes not only their economic situation, but their social situation [as well].”

Microfinance—as the name implies—is the supply of small loans and other financial services to the poor, who often are excluded from traditional banks’ services because of their rural locations (making banks inaccessible), or because of their low incomes, which disqualify them for traditional loans.

Click here for full story at Chico News & Review.

Health Initiatives Provide a Breath of Fresh Air

Guatemalan women learn more about new, safe stoves with Friendship BridgeHealth initiatives are part of Friendship Bridge’s commitment to the women we serve.  This has led to an exciting new partnership with HELPS International, the manufacturer of ONIL stoves and the pilot of our newest health initiative project. For centuries the Mayan’s, Guatemala’s indigenous population, have cooked using open flame fires on the floors of their homes. This traditional method of cooking is the cause of rampant medical and environmental problems including severe burns, respiratory problems and smoke-related eye complications.  In addition, these open fires use significant amounts of wood that takes valuable time to gather, are expensive, cause physical stress and have detrimental environmental effects.  HELPS International has developed the ONIL stove, which minimizes smoke and burns, and reduce wood use by 70%.  Learn how these stoves work in this short video.

Friendship Bridge is working hard to facilitate our clients’ transition to the ONIL stove.  Last week, we conducted our first ONIL stove learning session with clients.  The women are excited about the opportunity and many began to fill out applications for special micro-health loans to purchase a stove for their household.  This project helps create a healthy, lasting change for our clients, their families and communities.

Highlights from Executive Director, Karen Larson

Ag_KarenWebsiteDear Friends,

As key stakeholders who have made a considerable impact on our organization, I want to ensure you are well-informed of our activities and progress.   Friendship Bridge has hit an important milestone this month and I am excited to share the details with you, along with other important initiatives. If you are looking for more in-depth information on any of these highlights, please contact the Friendship Bridge office via e-mail or 303.674.0717.

Highlights:

  • Portfolio reaches historic high while maintaining excellent quality
    Friendship Bridge grew our portfolio to 30 million quetzales ($3.85 million)!  This is an exciting milestone for Friendship Bridge and I am happy to report that this accomplishment was met while continuing to maintain our excellent portfolio quality and serving nearly 18,000 clients.
  • Reducing the burden of poverty
    Our impact and evaluation work shows a clear, positive association between the length of time a client is with Friendship Bridge and their level of poverty.  Our work in reducing the burden of poverty is two-fold: (1) Clients create a more consistent cash flow and protection against shocks such as unexpected illnesses or natural disasters; and, (2) clients are using valuable information they learn during our health education programs in their daily lives.
  • Social Performance Management principles garner industry attention
    Shon Morris, Friendship Bridge staff member, was invited to present at the Latin American Conference on Village Banking for our exemplarily work with Social Performance Management, affirming our position as a leader in the field.
  • Health initiatives
    Data shows that clients appreciate our health programs and are using what they learn.  In an effort to enhance our social impact commitment to our clients, we have partnered with HELPS International, the manufacturer of ONIL Stoves, to facilitate our clients’ transition to safer and healthier stoves that minimize smoke inhalation and burns.  In addition, these stoves reduce wood use by 70%, saving valuable time, money and natural resources.

Lastly, if anyone is interested in traveling to Guatemala to see first-hand the impact these programs have on our clients, consider our next Insight Trip scheduled for November 10-16, 2013.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at 303.674.0717.

All the best,

Karen Larson
Executive Director

Dining for Women Awards Grant to Friendship Bridge

Dining For Women Presents Check to Friendship Bridge

We at Friendship Bridge always enjoy welcoming guests into our offices.  Today we received an extra special surprise at the Lakewood office when Betty, a volunteer from Dining for Women, stopped by with a $15,000 grant check to show DFW’s support for Friendship Bridge programs (Betty is pictured with Karen Larsen, Executive Director and Michael Allen, Development Director).  Thank you Dining for Women!  This grant will support many clients in our Microcredit Plus program where women receive both loans and education.

DFW is an educational giving circle whose members meet monthly, learn about featured and sustained programs, and donate to DFW.  All of this allows DFW to support grassroots international programs empowering women and girls living in extreme poverty. They fund programs that foster good health, education, and economic self-sufficiency in developing countries.  They are devoted to educating and inspiring individuals to make a difference and fight global poverty through the power of collective giving, so you can see why Friendship Bridge and DFW make a perfect pair!

Sweet Success with Microcredit Plus

Client teaches daughter chocolate skillsMarta Cristina Pérez Carrera lives in Quetzaltenango, the second largest city in Gutemala. Several years ago, Marta Cristina took her three young children and left an abusive marriage. She struggled in the beginning just to meet her and her children’s basic needs.

It wasn’t until Marta Cristina found Friendship Bridge, and took out her first loan of $192, that life started to change for the better. Marta Cristina invested her first loan in a chocolate-making business. She had learned the craft from her mother-in-law but was struggling to earn enough to buy the raw materials to make more product. Though Marta Cristina still has to travel to use her mother-in-law’s chocolate making machine once a week, the loan has allowed her to produce more chocolates. She now sells the chocolates in three different markets.

One of Marta Cristina’s goals is to buy her own chocolate machine so she doesn’t have to rely on her mother-in-law. While she is earning enough income now to keep her children in school, she hopes to return herself to school on the weekends and eventually earn a college degree.

Guatemala: Post-Conflict Microfinance – “From Swords to Plowshares”

Jeffrey Nelson, a Kiva Fellow who has been working with Friendship Bridge in Guatemala recently posted this wonderful article on the Kiva Fellows Blog.

Post-Conflict MicrofinanceThe following blog post will discuss why micro-finance is distinctly qualified as an holistic-development tool to affect lasting improvement in post-conflict zones. After establishing an understanding of the Guatemalan post-conflict context, I will discuss anecdotal and academic evidence of the economic and social benefits that micro-finance provides in post-conflict zones. This blog’s content will be drawing heavily from the report, “Microfinance and Social Impact in Post-Conflict Environments,” by Laura K. Messiner. Please consult her report HERE for a more in-depth analysis.

Get the whole story here.