by Kyra Coates
I’m a strong woman. I was blessed with an inherent sense of self-confidence from an early age, which has been a great gift as I’ve grown, traveled, and searched for opportunities for myself. It’s made it easier for me to face the challenges of life knowing I can count on myself to do whatever I set my mind to. I’ve recognized that for many women this isn’t something that comes as easy for them. Especially in rural Guatemala, where machismo culture reigns, and traditional family roles limit women from exploring opportunities beyond what society has assigned to them.
I was fortunate to travel to Guatemala recently and spend a week meeting with Friendship Bridge clients, visiting Trust Banks, Health Clinics, and getting an intimate view of what their lives are like. There was one client in particular who’s story touched me deeply. Her name is Claudia. Claudia is 28 years old, has a fourth grade education, and is a mother to three kids. She lives in a beautiful home with her parents, and grows flowers to earn a living for her family. Claudia welcomed us into her home on a sunny day. She had tables set-up around the room where she was putting together gifts for children in her church. I didn’t know much about Claudia before we began talking, only that her husband had left for the United States several years ago.
Claudia sat across from me, smiling softly as I asked her some basic questions about her children, her parents, and life in general. Throughout my week in Guatemala, I noticed most rural women were very timid to speak and answer questions. This was a symptom of generally having no voice of their own in their lives. However, when I asked Claudia about her husband, she began to speak with a determination I wasn’t expecting, recounting a story that hit me like a kick in the stomach.
Claudia and her husband married when she was 18 years old. They both came from very poor families, and his parents in particular had a difficult time, as his father is an alcoholic. Claudia and her husband lived with them for seven painful years, and then left after the situation became too abusive. They moved in with Claudia’s parents who lived in a beautiful home, built from money her father earned in the United States when he lived there for several years when Claudia was a child. After many years of struggling to make ends meet, her husband decided to go to the United States as well, hoping the salary he could make working on the farms there would give him a savings to finally give his young family a home of their own. Her brothers also took the journey with him, and they ended up in California.
Two months after their arrival, they had already secured work on a farm so things were looking promising. Then Claudia’s husband began to experience tremendous pain in his legs and feet. He went to the hospital for an exam and they found nothing that could explain his pain. Nevertheless, very quickly he lost the ability to walk, which was a complete mystery to the doctors. He spent the next six months in a hospital bed, completely immobile. The doctors tested him for everything they could. They even did a complete blood transfusion, thinking maybe there was virus or something they couldn’t detect. Treatment after treatment, they had no luck in discovering what was ailing him.
Claudia’s eyes glistened with tears as she told me her story. Her gaze locked with mine, unblinking, as my eyes welled up also at her words and her emotion. She didn’t turn away. Her voice didn’t falter. I put my pen down, just listening, unable to look away. She had a story to tell, and she made sure I was hearing what she had to say.
When her husband was in the hospital, Claudia learned about Friendship Bridge from her mother-in-law. She was struggling to keep her family afloat, she had no money coming in from her husband, he had outrageous medical expenses, and they were near starving. The generosity of her family and her community helped them scrape by. But Claudia knew she needed to do something. She formed a Trust Bank with her mother-in-law and used the loan money to expand her parent’s property and grow flowers. Claudia came from a family of farmers. With her loan from Friendship Bridge, not only could she support herself and her children, she could contribute to her family’s business and help everyone who helped her.
After six months in bed, Claudia’s husband woke up one day and had regained the use of his legs. He was able to take a few weak steps. They called it a miracle of God as no medical treatment had worked, and yet mysteriously he improved on his own. It would be another year before he could leave the hospital, and to this day the doctors have no idea what exactly happened to him. Now he is able to walk, but not with much strength. He works when he can, and thankfully has the company of Claudia’s brothers to take care of him. His meager earnings cover his basic expenses, but nothing is left to save or send home to Claudia. He has decided to stay another year in the United States, hoping his time here can amount to some form of financial boost for his family. .
Meanwhile, Claudia has successfully grown her business. Through her earnings, she has been able to pay for an expansion on her parents’ house, upgraded their kitchen, and has purchased more land to grow on. She is able to send all her kids to school. Her brother also purchased a property next door, and she has plans to expand her farming further on his property with her next loan cycle.
Claudia’s voice was strong and clear. “Friendship Bridge is what has sustained us. They’ve helped me with so much. And it’s by the grace of god we have been given this gift. I thought differently when I was single. Then I got married, and my husband has had so many problems. I didn’t have strength then to handle it all. But now I fight for my children and I know I’m strong. The family is the fundamental basis for society. A united family with deeply rooted values will achieve bright and successful future. Thanks for being part of my life, Friendship Bridge!”
As I sat and listened to Claudia, I felt her emotion. I felt the pain and fear she had for her husband. I sensed the relief she experienced with his recovery. But above all, I felt her gratitude. Her life has been extremely challenging, yet what came across so strongly was that she felt blessed. She felt that in spite of it all, God is on her side, and everything she has is a gift. And with that gift, she found her voice, and a story to share.
Now Claudia teaches several classes at her church, because she wants her story to be heard. She wants people to have faith in God, and have faith that life can get better. She is forming a new Trust Bank in January to bring the blessing of Friendship Bridge to more women in her community. And as I left her home with my co-workers, with my belly full of the black bean sandwich she prepared for us in the kitchen she paid for, I reflected on my own life. I have a home of my own. I have my partner by my side. I have a great education for my children that doesn’t cost me much, and an amazing job with Friendship Bridge that gives me the chance to meet women like Claudia. Yet sometimes I forget to be grateful. Sometimes I whine, and feel inconvenienced by life. In those moments, I will think of Claudia and the gratitude she chooses every day for the gift of life despite the pain she has endured. The smallest step, whether it be one from a hospital bed, or one towards financial security, is one to celebrate. And I will remember that, in hearing Claudia’s strong voice, that gratitude is one of the most powerful, contagious forms of empowerment we can have.
Kyra Coates is the US Marketing Coordinator at Friendship Bridge. She is a passionate advocate for Women’s Empowerment and has worked for years to promote equality. Outside her Friendship Bridge working hours she is an artist and gallery owner, a mother of two fierce and fabulous daughters, and a typical Colorado outdoorsy athletic girl.