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Forty Years of Progresa in Guatemala

Elspeth Benton, Ann Boone, Donna Higgins Smith
On Superiority (July 2013)
Healing the World

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Progresa program in Guatemala, program participants and supporters gathered in Guatemala in April 2013 to review the program’s history and accomplishments. Looking back across forty years, we found much to celebrate.

The program began in the summer of 1973, when the small Friends Worship Group in Guatemala decided to start a scholarship/loan program for very poor students, and ten families each pledged $10 a month. Their intent was to offer higher education to poor, rural, indigenous students, who otherwise would be unable to attend university. Students were chosen whose intended studies would benefit their communities, e.g. health, education, social work, agronomy. Community development and graduates’ contributions for future students were central concepts in the formation of the program.  Due to significant gender inequality in the Guatemalan education system, women were actively recruited. 

The organization took the name “Progresa” in 2007, when it became a legal association in Guatemala. Today, Progresa evaluates the needs of each student and provides assistance as needed. Giving an amount in excess of the need would disrupt a family’s finances, but exceptions are considered.  For example, when the laundress single mother of one of our students broke her arm, which would have forced the student to quit her studies, the family was given funds for food until the mother healed, allowing the student to remain in school.

Initially, the scholarships were no-interest loans repaid when the graduate was able to do so. Today, loans can be partially forgiven if the student performs a community service project.  Progresa staff members make personal contact with students each month, offering support and mentoring, which is greatly appreciated by many students who are challenged by being away from their villages for the first time.    

A 7.5 earthquake struck Guatemala in 1976, just as the program was starting to take hold.  While devastating effects were felt throughout the country, positive results came about in the form of international attention, and help came to the program.

Progresa initiated annual student conferences in 1979 to give students from isolated areas the opportunity to network and learn leadership skills.  During this time of armed conflict, operating any program that assisted the poor was a dangerous activity. Many programs were targeted and participants assassinated; thus, Progresa’s activities were severely limited.  We cannot begin to describe the suffering, fear and uncertainty of that period.  But in spite of it all, Progresa survived. From the beginning, Tom and Trudie Hunt of Guatemala Meeting were instrumental in Progresa, and during this difficult time, the Hunts alone ran the program. 

Student conferences resumed in 1985, and in 1988, El Boletin, the student newsletter, and Update, which is sent to donors and supporters, were initiated. The program came under the care of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA in 1995, while Guatemala Monthly Meeting administered the program locally.

Tom Hunt died In May 1996, and Trudie moved to Friends House in Santa Rosa, joining the Guatemala Scholarship/Loan Committee there. Loren Lacelle, a California Quaker and retired teacher, began helping at Progresa in 1992; he became volunteer director in 1996.

A Peace Accord was signed in Guatemala that same year, officially putting an end to the armed conflict.  However, serious obstacles to education and economic advancement remained for women and for all poor and indigenous Guatemalans. Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City laid down its Central America Refugee Program in 1999, donating the remaining funds to Progresa to use for scholarships to former Guatemalan refugees.

When Loren stepped down as director in 2002, Martha Dugan of Guatemala Meeting took over as volunteer director; she continues a major role, working with the program and staff.

While Progresa did employ Guatemalan workers for some years, the program ultimately determined that a Guatemalan director was essential. To that end, one of the program’s graduates, Miguel Angel Costop, was appointed director in 2005.  The program’s bookkeeper is also a Progresa graduate, and the third employee a Progresa student. 

Although Loren’s health declined for some time, his death in October 2012 was a loss deeply felt. For years, the Progresa office was located in his Parramos home outside Antigua, which, in his final act of generosity, he bequeathed to Progresa. Loren lived simply and honestly in accordance with Quaker principles, deeply impacting those around him.  Miguel Angel Costop has said that his spiritual practice includes three religions because of Loren:  Catholic, Mayan and Quaker. And in administering the scholarship program, Miguel has stayed true to Quaker principles, which sometimes differ from cultural practices in Guatemala.

A Community Service program was initiated in 2010 to further Progresa’s core mission of educating students to promote community development.  Community projects are usually related to a student’s course of study, and all students plan and execute such an activity each year.  Some of the recent projects have concerned: voting rights, domestic violence prevention, child nutrition, recycling, making trash containers out of abundant bamboo, sustainable agriculture, a community garden of medicinal herbs, and a four-day training for rural health care promoters.  Besides benefitting communities, our students have developed self-confidence and some, to our joy, are offered jobs as a result of their projects.

The annual Student Conference in April 2013 included our 40th Anniversary Celebration. We were happy to have members of Pacific and North Pacific Yearly Meetings present as well as Progresa board members, a good representation of our graduates, along with over eighty of our current students. We did a first-ever count of program graduates, and were amazed and pleased when the number reached 1,116! Weekend activities included games, entertainment and workshops themed on “Reading and Writing.”

We’re proud of all of our graduates. They include a Presidential Commissioner Against Discrimination and Racism, a Congressman serving a rural area elected so far to four terms, a professional nurse who received a Presidential Excellence Scholarship and continued her studies for an advanced degree, the coordinator of the Division of Human Rights for the Archbishopric of Guatemala, a psychologist who started an NGO in Xela that serves two hundred street and working children, and an agronomist who trains rural farmers in sustainable methods.

The Progresa Board and others met after the conference to begin planning for the future.  We’re fortunate in our dedicated, creative director, Miguel Angel.  We hope to involve more graduates in Progresa, participating in new student interviews and the board.  We’ve discussed with Friends World Conference for Consultation an effort to outreach to evangelical Quakers in Chiquimula, an area not currently served by Progresa.  An intern/sojourner program is being considered.

Support comes from individuals, Meetings in the US and abroad, churches, and schools. Thirty-two of our current ninety-seven students have designated sponsors. Guatemala craft sales are held at Friends General Conference, Pacific Yearly Meeting and other venues to raise money and awareness. As with most non-profits, our current donations haven’t equaled our expenses.  We are reluctantly considering the necessity of accepting fewer students into the program next year if donations do not return to their former level.

Our Guatemala Study Tours, begun in 2002, provide some support for Progresa.  These are led by Progresa staff and provide introductions to areas and people not usually encountered by foreigners.  Families of Progresa students invite tour members into their homes.  Visitors learn first hand the circumstances of our students. For example, Mario lived with his parents, grandmother, wife and children in a dirt-floor adobe home.  His grandmother is in her nineties and bed-ridden, his father is a campesino, and his mother a laundress; there is little land for them to cultivate.  With his first scholarship, Mario was able to become an elementary teacher.

Since 2009, volunteers from North America have traveled to Antigua during the winter school break to spend one week teaching English to our students.  Teachers and students live together in the historic Belen convent in Antigua. Our volunteers have written many powerful descriptions of their work in this program. Here are a few examples:

“We were paired with three different students during our stay, working with them one on one, for two-hour periods in the Belen Convent garden, using interactive, easy-to-follow instruction sheets. We and the students got to know each other; they were eager to learn, and together we experienced the pleasure of mastering a new skill—in the sunshine, with flowers blooming everywhere, and birdsong!”

“Another moving experience was the memorial Meeting for Worship held in the Belen gardens, remembering and appreciating Loren Lacelle, with heartfelt messages.”

 “A teacher noticed her student pulling down his sleeves to cover his hands, which had numerous lesions.  She brought this to the attention of another teacher who was a nurse, and all the teachers pooled their money for a doctor appointment—the first in his life.  (Previously, he had been treating himself with a fungicide recommended by a pharmacist.)  His skin condition was diagnosed as genetic and treatable, though not curable.  He told us he had always suffered, thinking he had a contagious disease, and now his life was dramatically changed. Today this change is visible in the confidence he exudes as he continues his university studies to become a high school teacher.”

 “Several light-hearted evenings of games, music, jokes and songs strengthened student-teacher friendships, with the students’ Mayan dance perhaps the summit. We also visited in the home of a former student, where we were graciously welcomed and even sung to, in Kaqchiquel (one of twenty-two Mayan languages)!”

Those of us from North America who are able to participate in Progresa through donations of money or time are deeply blessed. A little goes a long way with Progresa, continuing to provide positive change and empowerment to poor Guatemalans.

For more information about history, students, and tours, visit www.guatemalafriends.org.  To receive an email color copy of our Update newsletter with information for current students and more, write [email protected].  Donation checks can be made to “RFFM-Guatemala” and sent to: Redwood Forest Friends Meeting, P.O. Box 1831, Santa Rosa, CA 95402. For Teaching English Work Tours, see the ad in this issue of Western Friend. ~~~

Elspeth Benton is a retired Early Education Specialist, and a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA.

Ann Boone is a retired high school teacher who lives in Healdsburg, California.  She is a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA.

Donna Higgins Smith is a lifelong Quaker and currently a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting, where she is co-clerk of the scholarship program. She was active for many years in Central American refugee advocacy and is currently on the Latin American Concerns Committee of Pacific Yearly Meeting.

Economic inequality Adult education Social Justice Maya Catholic Guatemala Progresa

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