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. Read our 2020 Timeline to see how we have continued fulfilling our mission to create opportunities to empower Guatemalan women to build a better life.
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 first case of COVID-19 is reported in Guatemala. All our direct work with clients in rural areas of the country is put to an abrupt halt. 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. Curfews, work-at-home rules, and masks in public are strictly enforced. Friendship Bridge staff members immediately make thousands of phone calls to our clients in multiple indigenous languages to provide emotional support and accurate health information.
Friendship Bridge offers a two-month grace period to all clients for loan payments to ensure no woman has to choose between feeding her family or paying her loan. Our mobile Health for Life program pivots to a telehealth model so that clients can connect with a nurse via phone to discuss symptoms and receive COVID information and treatments as needed. Artisan clients start making hundreds of face masks for staff in Guatemala and to sell in our online store at Handmade by Friendship Bridge. Meanwhile, virtual technical assistance is provided to our Agriculture Credit and Training clients.
New intranet communications tool, Mi Puente, is launched to allow staff to collaborate more effectively while working from home. Employees complete hundreds of customer service training programs via our online learning platform in order to better serve our clients.
Friendship Bridge field staff are back in the field, deemed essential workers, and helping clients with information and support as needed. In addition to telehealth services, our Health for Life mobile clinics begin again, giving clients the ability to receive health services in their homes administered by our trained nurses.
Emergency Food Relief Program launches to support clients facing acute hunger due to the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. $65k is raised in less than 60 days from generous donors and in total, 3,000 packages of food are delivered, supplying nearly 15,000 vulnerable people with essential nutrients for a month. Automated calls are initiated to provide education to clients remotely.
First Virtual Insight Trip is held to connect supporters with clients in Guatemala. As we have always known, our clients remain strong and resilient and Friendship Bridge reports a loan repayment rate of greater than 90%.
Friendship Bridge is awarded a $1M grant to design, pilot, and scale up the Entrepreneur Program — a major component of our 5-year Strategic Plan.
While the COVID-19 crisis will not be ending any time soon, we have a clear vision of what our work will look like in 2021. Responsible growth, digital transformation, and the new Entrepreneur Program, will be our main goals for 2021.
As economic restrictions in Guatemala are slowly lifted and a new reality sets in, many clients have reshaped or restarted their business activities to ensure their livelihoods are sustainable. But now the world looks quite different and our clients continue to need our support – some more than ever. As we start the careful process of reinstating our services at full capacity in a “new normal”, Friendship Bridge is dependent on our friends to continue supporting our mission.
Our work does not end today and as we continue to support our clients throughout this crisis, we are grateful to have a strong group of supporters by our side. Our fundraising efforts are ongoing. Can you make a donation today to support women in Guatemala during one of the most difficult years in recent history?
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.
- 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.
- 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.