Empower women. Eliminate poverty.

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From Orphan to Entrepreneur – Elena empowers change

by Rachel Turner

Elena thought back to sitting outside with her grandmother as they both weaved with backstrap looms. Only a third-grader, Elena’s full-time work was weaving intricate huipiles (Guatemalan traditional blouses) and caring for chickens.  After all, in El Quiche, Guatemala, not many girls attended school after third grade. All they needed was the ability to read and write–according to family tradition. To make matters even more difficult, Elena and her four siblings had lost their parents.  Thankfully, their grandmother took them in, but it took all of them working to make ends meet.

Today at 35-years-old, Elena spends her days sitting at a treadle loom, traditionally only used by men, creating beautiful cortes (Guatemalan traditional skirts). All of those years elaborating designs for the huipiles certainly came in handy. Elena is happy. She and her husband Miguel are business partners, and they have three beautiful girls.  It had not always been this way, but after a long journey of growth, Elena finally felt they were on the right road.

Just a short time ago, Elena lived the life of a single mother while her husband worked in the United States doing construction. He couldn’t find work in Guatemala, so he left. For five long years, Elena worked her husband’s treadle loom bringing in as much income as she could. During that time, she was introduced to Friendship Bridge’s programs and services.  Suddenly, she found a support system. With the financial capital, she slowly began building her weaving business. The monthly education sessions taught her about health, business administration, and self-esteem.  Her Trust Bank (the group of women with whom she took out a loan) gave her moral support.

Five years later, when her husband was deported back to Guatemala, Elena was a different woman. She felt strong, confident in her decision-making skills. She had supported her daughters well and had plans for the future. Miguel noticed the differences and was surprised. He grew to like the new Elena. She became his greatest ally as he tried to figure out what to do next. “I told him that Friendship Bridge would continue to give us loans to improve our business,” said Elena. “We could look for more clients, improve our designs and together build our business to employ more people.” Miguel was inspired. He stopped planning how he would go back to the United States to work, and he started figuring out with Elena how they could grow a larger business. “Because of the empowerment that I gained through the years with Friendship Bridge, I was able to convince my husband not to travel to the United States again,” said Elena.

Together they have grown to employ seven people from their community. Together they have made the decision to give their daughters the education not normally afforded to girls. “I realize now that girls and boys have the same rights. We want our daughters to become professionals one day,” said Miguel. “They will achieve what my wife and I couldn’t due to the poverty we grew up in.”

Just as Elena was empowered to speak her mind, so 88% of clients say that because of Friendship Bridge they have increased the frequency of contributing opinions to important family decisions. Friendship Bridge is helping solve the problem of gender inequality through programs and services meeting the fifth United Nations Sustainable Development Goal.