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.
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