When pandemic restrictions began in Guatemala, after the first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 13, 2020, schools shut, borders closed, and strict lockdowns began. With these challenges and changing restrictions, we modified our programs to best address the unique needs of our scholars, families, and community since the pandemic’s start.
Chajul, the community where Limitless Horizons Ixil works, was especially vulnerable at this time. It lacks quality medical services and suffers from high rates of lung disease due to the open fires used for cooking in homes. People already living in poverty were struggling even more financially. Lockdowns limited work options and reduced remittances sent back to Guatemala from loved ones abroad, which community members often rely on for basic necessities like soap and food. Government aid had limited impact in Chajul, in many cases not reaching the hands of those most in need. One challenge was that receipt of the government’s checks required electricity bills to prove residence – but electricity is lacking in many homes in Chajul.
During 2020 and 2021 our small team demonstrated incredible adaptability, teamwork, and dedication in supporting Chajul’s youth and families impacted by this crisis. The challenges that Chajul’s families always face were only exacerbated, but we adapted to address our scholars’, library members’, and the broader community’s needs. We developed the following urgent and innovative programming:
Food Baskets & Masks
Our families expressed concerns over not having enough soap, food, and other essential items due to government shutdowns and loss of remittances from loved ones abroad. To support our families’ increased needs, we provided food and hygiene baskets each month to all of our Youth Development Program and university scholars’ families. We additionally provided six good quality and locally made masks for each of our scholars’ families.
Safety Information Videos in Ixil
The majority of Chajul’s population are monolingual Ixil speakers with limited access to information about COVID-19 and crucial prevention methods. In rural, indigenous communities, illiteracy rates are high, and national or international news is often unavailable in one’s own language. Limitless Horizons Ixil partnered with MAIA’s Impact School and the Maya Health Alliance to produce videos on safety and hygiene practices in Ixil.
Our video series, Recommendations in the Maya Ixil Language to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus, includes advice on handwashing, social distancing, disinfecting food products, and shopping at local markets. These videos have been shared on local television stations, as well as social media, in order to reach the entire Ixil Region as well as Ixil migrant workers in other parts of Guatemala and abroad. Additionally, we have a video on how to correctly use a face mask.
Weekly Phone Check-ins
Our local team called all 39 of our scholars’ families each week. These calls were an opportunity to check in with them about their mental and physical health and ask about any specific needs or difficulties the family may have. From there, we assessed what actions to take in order to best support our families. Additionally, our staff was on hand to clarify or translate any aspects of the situation that our Ixil-speaking families did not understand.
Mental Health Services
Our psychologist conducted one-on-one counseling sessions over the phone with scholars who were struggling at home and with the situation. He also called each scholar to check in with them, identifying challenges and scheduling phone therapy sessions for those in need of extra support. During his calls with scholars, he also shared recommendations on how to cope with the situation and reduce stress.
In a community where nearly half of parents are illiterate and only 5% of youth graduate from high school, a school disruption such as that caused by the COVID-19 quarantine, can have huge consequences on scholar retention and graduation rates. Studying from home is challenging when there is limited access to the internet or technology. We developed the following strategies to support the educational and emotional needs of youth and scholars while they were under lockdown:
– Youth Development Workshops: We continued conducting remote workshops for our Youth Development Program via WhatsApp, a mobile platform all of our scholars can access. Youth Development Coordinator Marina led a virtual workshop on financial planning. It included information on budgeting, managing personal finances, and analyzed the economic impact of COVID-19 at local, national, and international levels. In addition, our Gender Equality Committee led a workshop on women’s rights, with a focus on how women in situations of violence in Chajul can access support services safely during shelter in place orders.
– Tech Assistance: Our Artisan and Technology Coordinator, Cecilia, started a designated WhatsApp group for our scholars to support them in downloading and familiarizing themselves with the online platforms they had to use for school assignments. Through group and one-on-one calls, she oriented all scholars on Microsoft Office, Zoom, and Google Meet.
– Academic Enrichment Classes: To address the gaps in learning due to school closures and lack of distance learning options provided by schools, we provided scholars with enrichment classes in key subjects. Middle and high schoolers engaged in 3 hours of virtual classes every week through Google Meet.
– Story Hour on Community Radio: Limitless Horizons Ixil’s librarians, David and Olga, with the help of some active young library members, broadcast bilingual story hours in Spanish and Ixil on local radio, thereby continuing services for our library visitors and the whole community. Librarians read two books in both Spanish and Ixil twice a week. They have read Rabbit and Turtle Go to School by Lucy Floyd, Pancho’s Journey by Antonio Santos, and Con Mis Manos (With My Hands) by Mariana Pellegrino, among many others! Radio Story Hours also include mini lessons and hands-on activities that can be done at home, in addition to the reading of popular books, and are a hit among all ages and members of Chajul’s families. They also did special broadcasts for Earth Day and Mother’s Day to honor environmental action and women’s rights. Listen to story hour here.
– Book Clubs: Our community library has established a culture of reading in Chajul which our librarians continued to foster, despite the library’s mandatory closure. Over three-quarters of adults never completed elementary school and most have never read a chapter book. To keep youth engaged in reading, our librarians started a virtual book club through WhatsApp with our high schoolers. Our local staff team also had a virtual book club, which met every week on Zoom.
– Book Lending: While maintaining social-distancing measures, David and Olga opened the library once a week for book lending services only before they were allowed to reopen for regular use. They announced their one-book-out, one-book-in policy over community radio, to ensure that Chajul’s children and youth continued to engage in reading and learning.
– University Scholar Support: With stay at home orders in place, universities in Guatemala went online in similar formats to schools around the world. However, our university scholars faced increased challenges to keep up in their classes due to the challenge of accessing the internet in Chajul and the high costs associated with it. Many of our university scholars typically work while they study to help cover their school costs and provide some financial support to their family. During this time of few job opportunities and increased expenses, we supported university scholars by covering their internet costs, ensuring they could continue to access their classes.
Informational Resources for Ixil Immigrants in the US
While Limitless Horizons Ixil is committed to supporting Ixil families in Chajul, we also recognize that the Ixil Region has one of the highest rates of immigration to the US from across Guatemala. For this reason, we are providing information to support Ixil community members currently living in the US.
We produced a video in Ixil which explains the contents of a resource document we have developed. The document, Information about COVID-19 and Medical Resources for the Ixil community in the United States, is available through Google Docs and includes information about food banks, medical access for undocumented immigrants, and financial aid in the 10 states where we know our families in Chajul have relatives and friends.
To learn more about our critical response efforts during the height of the pandemic, read our updates here.