In the last days of June earlier this year, Clara’s husband told her and their seven children to get out. They had just had a particularly violent altercation, something that had become a regular feature of their lives.
Their family had been living in a shoddily constructed wood and plastic shelter just outside of Guatemala City. Clara, her husband, and all but their youngest child spent their days salvaging recyclable materials for resale from the city dump. All of them were in poor health. Marco, their youngest infant boy, was dangerously malnourished.
Standing outside of their makeshift shack, Clara resolved to leave for the last time. She had no money, no job, and no personal belongings.
With her seven children in tow, Clara turned to a local mission for food and refuge. The staff concluded that the children desperately needed shelter, but as their program is not suited for long term adult care they contacted a civil court for assistance with Clara. The acting municipal official decided that Clara was unable to care for her children financially or otherwise until further notice. He suggested that the mission take on her six eldest and that Clara be referred to a long term facility, Pa’nibal, accompanied by her youngest son.
Clara arrived at Pa’nibal with Marco, her six month old son, at about 2:30 pm on June 29th. She was given a meal, clean clothes for herself and her son and a small collection of personal hygiene items. She was shown to a furnished second story room with its own private bathroom and a south facing view of uncultivated corn fields rising up towards the base of Volcán Agua, a dormant volcano that looms just four miles south of Pa’nibal and rises up 11,500 feet. This is Clara’s home until she’s ready to make one for herself.
Cristina, the monitoria (resident supervisor, or literally, monitor) who was on shift at Pa’nibal, noted that both Clara and her son were very pale, emaciated, underweight, and with ‘no apparent care for [their] physical appearance’ upon arrival. She went on to write in her report that Clara was incredibly tired, often lapsed into silence mid-sentence, was deeply depressed in her demeanor, and only partially responsive. During their brief interview Clara told Cristina that she had given birth nine times and had seven surviving children. She is thirty-two years old.
In the days and weeks that followed, Clara was given a handful of simple household responsibilities. She began seeing a psychiatrist, participating in group therapy, and attending one-on-one classes with a counselor who focuses on stress management and relaxation techniques. Within a month she was enrolled in a parenting class where she learned about hygiene, nutrition, and basic healthcare. Pa’nibal arranged for her to have regular sessions with an area pediatrician — check-ups for Marco and continuing childcare advice for Clara. In August she began attending the several literacy and language competence classes that are given several times weekly at Pa’nibal. Soon after she took part in a several week sewing workshop provided by the home.
In early September, Alejandra Hernández, Director of Operations at Pa’nibal, wrote in her monthly report that Clara and Marco were both much improved in their appearance and general health. The improvement in their health is remarkable, she wrote, Clara is visiting her doctor once a month and has received much advice about her health and hygiene; she has shown great physical change and exhibits much confidence in herself. She is responsible and participative with other residents. Clara is a strong woman, a good mother, a person with great resilience. She has shown quick adaptation and great improvement in her mood and health. She is active and supportive in the home.
About six weeks ago, just after finishing the Pa’nibal workshop on making and modifying clothes, Clara began selling her work in a nearby market. She also began preparing perfumes, again the result of a Pa’nibal workshop, and selling them to other women at a local evangelical church. These homemade goods have become a modest but growing source of income, and one that she takes great pride in. She is also regularly attending a school for single mothers through a sister organization, Educarte, organized to provide cheap and free education to at-risk women.
Clara is working hard to be with her [other] children again, writes Alejandra in her latest report. Demonstrating physical and mental well-being, the capacity to manage a homelife that’s safe for her children, and financial stability are the next steps for Clara. With the help of Pa’nibal staff she will soon begin a dialogue with the officials that can grant her custody of her children and legal protection from her husband.
Last weekend, Clara visited her oldest daughter at the mission where her children are staying. There she celebrated her eldest’s quinceañera, a fifteenth birthday celebration much like a traditional US sweet sixteen party. Clara brought gifts paid for with her own money. Late in the summer, Clara was awarded one monthly visit to her kids by the judge overseeing her case. In January she has a second hearing where, with the help of Pa’nibal staff, she’ll present a case for increasing her visits to three times monthly.
It’s a long road ahead, but both Clara and Pa’nibal staff are hopeful. Clara is the sort of woman, Alejandra recently wrote me in an email, who I believe, with continuing support and resources, can eventually build an independent, healthy and responsible life for her and her children.