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Executive Management Team shares and reflects as they Walk for Hope

The positive response to Common Hope’s first virtual Walk For Hope was incredibly exciting and energizing. Common Hope’s sponsors and supporters, members from the Executive Management Team were enthusiastic to participate in Walk For Hope. Country Director Rebecca Sanborn formed a team with her parents and network in California and united across borders to walk for hope. Director of Education and Management veteran, Renato Westby walked with his family in Guatemala and posted pictures and videos of their stops throughout Antigua, illustrating a much more different town than we are all used to seeing. And, fulfilling his role as human resources and staff cheerleader, Administrative Director Pablo Cermeño rallied all 115 employees in Guatemala to promote health and teambuilding by Walking For Hope. Like his peers, Jeff Barnes, Director of Strategic Planning, approached his walk with a reflective spirit, doing his 5K in New Hope Village, the community he helped build 17 years ago.

Thanks to these efforts, the Executive Management Team raised over $13,500 for families affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in Guatemala. We are so grateful to you Rebecca, Renato, Pablo, and Jeff for your hard work and commitment!

Jeff Barnes shared an essay of his recent walk to New Hope and reflected on the changes he’s seen in the 17 years since he first visited the community. Read that essay below.

Walk For (New) Hope: Stories of Hope and Opportunity in a Difficult Year

An Essay by Jeff Barnes

Over the last week, over 400 supporters and staff of Common Hope walked about 2,000 kilometers to raise money to support our programs so we can be there for families in Guatemala when they need us. This is the story of one of those walks, a six kilometer stroll down memory lane at New Hope.

My “Walk for Hope” began at New Hope, because I did too. I joined Common Hope to oversee construction of New Hope village in February 2001. It looked different back then, but so did I.

That big mound of dirt in the first picture was carefully repurposed to fill a ravine nearby, and in its place now stands New Hope School. Which is where my walk began.

In a normal year it would be filled with kids and teachers, serving as what’s widely-regarded as the best school in area, but this isn’t a normal year. That’s why we’re doing the Walk for Hope, so we can be there for families during this difficult time, and when conditions allow, we can again provide that education that changes lives. Three years ago we did an impact study that followed up on New Hope School students, and found that almost 80% of them graduated high school, which is more than twice the rate of their peers in the area. Our goal is that kids graduate high school, because it changes their life’s possibilities, and that same study proved it. Graduates were better off: they were 54% more likely to be employed, working better jobs where they earned 50% more and saw more opportunity for advancement, rated their health better, and were more optimistic about the future.

Leaving the school, I was joined by Alberto Hernandez, who works with the water and sewage treatment plant. New Hope is one of the few communities in the area that treats its waste and has running water 24/7, so while a tour of a sewage treatment plant may seem like an unusual highlight on a walk like this, it is something that sets New Hope apart, and I’m proud to say that 18 years after coming into service, it’s still doing its job and meeting environmental norms. Plus, Alberto and I got the chance to share stories about it.

My favorite was when we were first laying out the site, converting a raw hillside into a staircase of tanks and ponds forming a biomass treatment system. I was getting the crew started on building the retaining walls that would sustain it, and about 5 minutes into my explanation of what needed to be done I was interrupted by a particular kind of burning itch behind my knee.

Turns out I had chosen to stand on a fire ant hill, and while I was talking several dozen of them had been working their way up my leg. The guys had a lot of fun watching their boss strip off his Carharts and stand grimacing in his underwear trying to get all those ants off his pale white legs. Did wonders for my image.

Here’s a couple of old photos of that wall going up and building the filtration pond pictured behind us.

From there, Alberto and I walked down into the wooded ravine at the base of the site, and then made our way back up the hill, past the school into New Hope village. It’s a steep grade and was I reminded how much better shape I was in when I used walked the site a couple times a day. Maybe it was the N95 mask I wore now, but I was winded. Or maybe it’s because I’m 17 years older now. Who’s to say?

Planning my 5K walk, I hoped that I would run into some old friends along the way, and I wasn’t disappointed. Right away I came upon Juan Bravo. We bumped elbows and had a nice chat about how the families were faring during this crisis. He said no one had gotten sick, and we talked about how those living in New Hope were fortunate to be living through the Covid crisis in a safe place with little traffic but plenty of fresh air and water. It’s not an easy time, but Juan was upbeat. He’d been through worse in his life, and told me the story of his “patatush,” a Guatemalan term for a life-threatening health scare. In his case, it required emergency brain surgery, and left his right arm and foot hindered. But as he said, God is great, because that terrible event that could easily have killed him happened in the best circumstance possible. He was actually working as a driver for a doctor who was with him when it happened. He got the help he needed, “and I’m still here.” he said.

As we talked, a few more neighbors came by. Doña Rosa and Julio Moran stopped for a bit on her way to drop off their daughter’s homework at the Junior High in the city. Pretty soon Doña Sheny and some others came by to say hi, too. I was glad to see people, and also to see that they were wearing masks. They’re living life, but doing what they can to keep safe.

As much as I enjoyed running into people, one nice surprise was finding that someone wasn’t home.

I knocked on the door of the Bravo Morales family. Yennedi was home, but her daughter Dallana wasn’t. With the economy restarting, she had just recently returned full-time to her job, working for a group of doctors at the top hospital in the country. Starting where she did, born in an makeshift home in the ravines of Guatemala City, that was a remarkably unlikely outcome. But New Hope gave the family an opportunity that changed their life’s possibilities.

The Bravo Morales family were among the first to move into New Hope, and a great example of how life can be transformed by opportunity and holistic support. Yennedi gave birth to her first child just months before the family moved to New Hope. Had Dallana grown up in the ravines, her life would have been much different. Yennedi told me of returning there and seeing girls Dallana’s age with three or four children and few prospects. But New Hope offered the family the chance to moved out of the ravines, to build a home in a safe neighborhood, with access to healthcare and a good education so their kids might have a better life.

Their second child, Marvin, was born with a serious medical condition that required ongoing therapy and threatended to keep him from being able to attend school at all. But he got the support he needed and now is set to graduate high school later this year. Yennedi herself has become a leader in the community, part of the neighborhood association that is trying to make the New Hope community a better place to live. Happily, their story continues.

And so did my walk. Leaving New Hope village, I continued on toward Tres Sabanas. There I spent a few minutes visiting Yuri, who I began sponsoring as a 3rd grader 18 years ago. In 2011 I got to see her graduate high school, and now I was here to meet Alesandra, her baby girl, for the first time.

When I first started at New Hope, I used to see Yuri coming up out of the ravine next to the property carrying a stack of firewood on her head. She wore a sad expression, and though I didn’t know her, I could see that her life was hard. In my mind she became the poster child for the work we were doing. Maybe I couldn’t help her specifically, I thought, but New Hope was being built for kids like her.

A few months later, Renato proposed greatly expanding the small temporary school we ran, and opening enrollment to families from the surrounding villages. At first, I had my doubts. It seemed like risky mission creep. But fortunately Renato ignored me, and on the first day of school, I stopped by and saw Yuri, the girl I used to see carrying firewood, excited, and sitting in class. I signed up as her sponsor.

Yuri and I spent a few minutes catching up. Her daughter has large dark eyes and curly hair, and wore a pink mask but it didn’t stay put for long. She told me she had had a difficult pregnancy, confined to bedrest after nearly losing her baby, but Alesandra was born healthy, and is now wide-eyed and curious. Yuri’s husband has been out of work due to the difficulty of the Covid economy, but they have a piece of land nearby and look forward to building a house once he finds work again and they can begin to save.

I was two hours into my walk but barely made a kilometer’s progress, so we said our goodbyes and I continued to walk through Tres Sabanas and San Martin villages. Because New Hope began as a post-Hurricane Mitch housing project that then expanded into primary education, many tend to think of New Hope as the village we built. But the vast majority of affiliated students come from these two villages, so the area I was walking through is really the community we serve.

After six months working from home with only weekly forays out to buy groceries, it was nice to be out and about. But if I was going to complete my 5k walk before the afternoon rains set in, I realized I had better get moving, so I picked up the pace. Fortunately the road is now paved, so it was a pleasant hike to the entrance of the San Martin village and back to New Hope School.

Before I finished, I wanted to check in on someone. As a little girl, like an angel, Kimberly Jimenez had appeared in my life in two bad moments to help me out. Years later, when she wasn’t being such an angel herself anymore, I interceded on her behalf, and helped her find someone who played the same role for her.

I first met Kimberly the day I had to lay off a dozen men who really needed their job. It was during the Dot Com recession and we had to cut back the construction crew. I had never had to fire anyone before, and it broke my heart when men who lived paycheck to paycheck thanked me for the opportunity to have had a job even as I was taking it away from them.

To cheer me up, Renato dragged me to the school, which was having its carnival that day. Neil Bjorkman, a volunteer teacher, introduced me to a shy, 4 year-old Kimberly. He took a photo of us together, later adding a note reminding me to see the value of what we were doing in the potential of girls like her.

A couple years later, I was supervising the construction of New Hope School, and was having a really bad day. I had just finished a tense meeting with the contractor, and walking through the village I was having a pity party in my head about how no one appreciated how hard this job was and how much pressure I was under to get the school done on schedule without going over budget. I was so lost in my own thoughts that I didn’t see Kimberly until I felt her skinny little arms wrapped around my legs. That broke the spell—you can’t feel sorry for yourself when a sweet little girl is hugging you. I looked down at her and thought: This school is for her. Suck it up; you can do this. For a second time, Kimberly picked me back up when I needed it.

Fast forward a few years, and Kimberly was in 3rd or 4th grade at that same New Hope School, but having lots of conduct problems. The staff had tried everything, and she was on the verge of getting kicked out. So I did something that I had no right to do, but don’t regret in the slightest. I went to talk to her teacher, Ana Maria, and told her I needed her to save this girl.

Ana Maria was a great and caring teacher, and fortunately, Kimberly got back on track. It wasn’t easy, and over the next decade or so there were a couple moments when it looked like she wouldn’t make it. But she did.

Two years ago, I was sitting on the steps of the New Hope School gym watching its graduation ceremony when one of the teachers called me over. “Oh no,” I thought. I was just there as a spectator, and was afraid they were going to ask me to speak. I had nothing prepared. What would I say?

But I needn’t have worried; they were giving me a gift. At New Hope, they always invite graduating seniors to come back and be recognized at the primary school graduation. I didn’t realize it, but Kimberly was among them, and was asking me to join her mom escorting her on to the stage. Sometimes, life is kind.

It was a fitting conclusion to my Walk for Hope. I got to spend a few minutes with Kimberly, and hear about her plans. She’s studying to be a lawyer, online due to Covid, saying she knows she has to keep striving to make something of herself. We recalled Ana Maria, her teacher who would tell her “there are people looking out for you, who expect you to do better,” when she acted up. That made a difference, and it still does.

During my Walk for (New) Hope a couple days ago, I was reminded of many things, some great experiences I had over the years, and what a gift it was that John Huebsch talked me into taking a job I thought I didn’t want, to build a village on the outskirts of the city. But what he was really doing was giving me the opportunity to do something difficult but worthwhile. And I will always be grateful for it.

I was also reminded of what a priest in Honduras once told me, the most insightful comment I’ve ever heard about the kind of human development work Common Hope does: “Poverty isn’t about things, it’s about people.”

“Poverty isn’t about things, it’s about people.”

We tend to get caught up in the physical “things” people are lacking: food, shelter, clothing, or money. We do need those things. But what really matters, what makes it work, is people, especially, knowing that someone cares about you and believes in you.

Thank you for supporting my Walk for Hope, and for indulging me as I shared the story of my walk, and what Common Hope has meant to the all people it has served over almost 35 years.

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