Empower women. Eliminate poverty.

Our response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Since 1998, Friendship Bridge has stared down multiple crises while standing steadfast alongside the women we serve in Guatemala. We persevered through those challenges and emerged more resilient on the other side. The year 2020 is no exception, even as the virus responsible for COVID-19 continues to spread and presents unknown risks to all. With the health and safety of our community, staff, and clients at the core of our decision making, Friendship Bridge is responding proactively and with compassion. Our Her for Her campaign illustrates how we have continued fulfilling our mission to create opportunities to empower Guatemalan women to build a better life.

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How has COVID-19 affected Friendship Bridge operations?

All the work we do in the field for vulnerable women in Guatemala was put to an abrupt halt in March 2020. With the potential for COVID-19 to spread, the government closed all schools, offices, non-essential businesses, and public transportation services throughout the country. Our 73 staff facilitators, who each worked with an average of 330 clients, could no longer travel to rural areas where they regularly facilitated group Trust Bank meetings, including nonformal education programs, and loan repayments. These containment orders had a direct and negative impact on our clients’ ability to earn income and pay their loans back to Friendship Bridge. In time, this situation could have a significant and detrimental effect on our operations, our revenue, and ultimately our ability to continually meet the needs of the women we serve.

What are our clients in Guatemala experiencing?

During the week of March 16, 2020, our staff rallied together to make phone calls to our clients in multiple indigenous languages to ask what they were experiencing, what we could do to support them, and how much they, and people in their community, knew about COVID-19. During these calls, staff also informed women about the virus itself and briefed them on ways to stay safe with frequent hand washing and social distancing practices. Overwhelmingly, clients expressed gratitude to Friendship Bridge for caring about them and their families during this time. Some clients were hearing accurate information from us first and said that others were not taking it seriously. Most clients were concerned about not being able to work and wanted to prioritize responsible, timely payments on their loans to Friendship Bridge.

“The local market has been closed since April 4. We do our shopping in small stores in our neighborhoods. The daily consumption products such as rice, noodles, sugar, eggs, oil, coffee, among others, went up in price. Some basic grains have risen in price. We are weavers and embroiderers. Now we have nowhere to sell our products. I have finished 3 huipiles already, but I cannot leave my neighborhood to go deliver to my clients because there are police who are watching. I am positive and I know that this situation will pass but we don’t know when.”

– Jessica, a Friendship Bridge Client

With time, the tone changed. The number one thing we began hearing was a need for work. “My immediate need is to return to my business in order to generate income and buy food for my family,” one client said. “We need income to survive.” But what happens when you can’t go to work? What happens if you already live in or near poverty? With no government safety net, little or no savings, and now no income, what happens when you can’t feed your children? With uncertainty and poverty already a daily reality for our clients, we began to understand that the effects of COVID-19 had only exacerbated their burdens and made them more vulnerable than ever.

How we responded to support our clients:

TECHNOLOGY

When COVID-19 initially began spreading, Friendship Bridge immediately started offering clients the option to restructure their loans to include grace periods, prepayments with no penalties, and reduced interest rates. We also started using technology in new and inventive ways to continue providing invaluable services to them despite their hardships.

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  • Telehealth Services: We began calling our clients in Guatemala to provide quality health services by phone to discuss symptoms, provide healthcare education, and direct women on treatments as needed. When reliable and trustworthy information is scarce in Guatemala, our clients continue to have access to accurate healthcare information.
  • Intranet: We launched our new intranet communications tool to allow staff to collaborate more effectively while staying safe by working remotely from home. We are also using this time strategically to take advantage of remote learning opportunities during restrictive shelter-in-place orders. With the use of an online learning platform, staff are being trained on customer service, emotional intelligence, and responsible loan collections practices from the safety of their homes.
  • Phone Calls: Although Guatemala is a poor country, many clients own a cellphone. Our calls in mid-March gave us real, on-the-ground information regarding the level of knowledge, clients have about the situation and their concerns. Facilitators and Loan Officers continue to call clients on the phone to address their concerns, show care, and provide comfort during a time of uncertainty. Our calls are helping prepare clients to confront the situation, demonstrate our commitment to them, and get feedback on what might be the best solutions or interventions in response to the crisis.

EMERGENCY FOOD RELIEF PROGRAM

In June 2020, some of our clients were starting to face hunger due to the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns in their communities. Through regular communications by phone, we estimated that 55% of them were in need of immediate food assistance. To address this urgent need, Friendship Bridge launched an Emergency Food Relief Program to immediately provide essentials to our most vulnerable clients in rural Guatemala during the COVID-19 crisis.

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  • Within 30 days, we formed a task force to develop strategic partnerships with food suppliers, NGOs, foundations, and even our own in-country staff to feed as many women and families as possible.
  • With the help of our generous supporters, we raised nearly $62,000 to purchase and deliver 3,000 packages of food to Friendship Bridge clients and their families. Each delivery provided enough food to feed a family of 5 for one month. Altogether, we estimate that we supplied nearly 15,000 vulnerable people with essential nutrients during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • We also delivered an additional $45,000 worth of in-kind donations of personal hygiene products with our partners in Guatemala.

How you can support:

Our work does not end today and as we continue to be HERE FOR HER throughout this crisis, we are grateful to have a strong group of supporters by our side. Our fundraising efforts are ongoing and we have a number of exciting events that all contribute to benefiting our work and our clients.

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