Finding Routine After Trauma

The women at Pa’nibal have lived far from what anyone I know would ever call a “normal life”. They are part of a painfully outdated machismo culture that has consistently made it clear that the lives and wellbeing of women are not valued. Roughly one third of Guatemalan women are married before the age of eighteen. Loopholes allowing the marriage of minors existed until 2017, when child marriage was officially banned in Guatemala, yet the practice persists out of tradition and poverty. In many impoverished regions girls are married off as a way to either avoid the extra cost of raising them, or for the benefit of dowries. The government funds education through the sixth grade. Yet many children leave school early to help with family businesses or to work elsewhere. According to the United States Department of Labor, Guatemalan children between the ages of seven and fourteen are engaged in some of the “worst forms of child labor”. The department cites, among other things, children involved in sexual exploitation, domestic work, dangerous agricultural tasks, and mining.

These are the realities many women at Pa’nibal share. Some began working young, and/or left home at an early age. Some were married and had children before they reached adulthood. Few have ever been in a stable household setting. For many it took years of suffering and sacrifice to escape their situation. Yet now, at Pa’nibal, they work and learn and spend time with friends. It has become routine; a grounding, supportive reality.

Pa’nibal functions much like a typical family household would. Everybody living here is expected to take on responsibilities in an effort to keep the house running. This includes but is not limited to things like cleaning, cooking, and making grocery runs. It’s like living with roommates. The purpose of this is to begin to prepare the women living at Pa’nibal for independent life. Currently, they are in a structured safe-house that helps them stay on their feet. Pa’nibal is their support system.

This “family” dynamic comes with the same obstacles roommates in developed countries might face. Everybody is expected to do their part, and sometimes people just don’t want to participate. Mealtimes are some of the most chaotic times of the day at Pa’nibal. Everybody has to cook meals. The responsibility changes day to day, and nobody is exempt from cooking. If someone doesn’t know how to cook, they are taught.

In any home there are picky eaters, or people who will eat anything, people who love salty food, people who love spicy food, and everything else in between. Needless to say, it’s near impossible to please everyone. Pa’nibal is no exception.

To set the scene: women trickle into the dining room for dinner. They are returning from work or school, sometimes from vocational training or their rooms. Fourteen people sit around a long table. Some bring in chairs from another room, others stack plates and silverware or bring in pots of steaming food. Children yell and laugh and hover around their mothers. They tug at sleeves and beg for more or less of one thing or another.

“More beans mom!”

“Please mom? I want more atole! I ate all my rice!”

Occasionally a telenovela or the radio plays in the background and people argue about turning it up or down, or just off entirely. Somebody will mutter about the saltiness of the food, or the type of fruit used to make the juice that day. It’s an exhausting but extremely human dynamic. One that anyone who has experienced a family dinner would be familiar with.

Getting to know the women and kids here has been a process. I’ve lived here for a month, and what I’ve learned is, in many ways, this is a home full of normal drama. What sets Pa’nibal apart is that without it many of these women would never have experienced that “normal drama”. Their pasts are full of trauma that many of them never imagined they would escape. Now, it is apparent that these women’s pasts are gradually turning into just that; the past. Pa’nibal is providing them with a new life, and an opportunity to make the most of it.

A Resident’s Story

I have been working with Pa’nibal in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala for the last two months, specifically helping with communications. You can read more about me and my role in my first post, here.

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the western hemisphere to be a woman. The women living at Pa’nibal have been betrayed by lovers, husbands, mothers, fathers and institutions claiming to be there to help but in the end exploiting them for their own gain. I am in the middle of a house designed to help women recover from some of the most abhorrent backgrounds. So, coming into this, I knew that these women’s stories would be difficult to hear. But in reality, it was much more difficult than I could have imagined. I have nothing in my life that is remotely comparable to the hardships these women have gone through. Reacting and relating to the stories they tell is something I am still doing my best to navigate. Living in a house with several women, none of whom speak my first language, is certainly a challenge. In an effort to force myself out of my tendency to “hermit”, I try and ask everyone how they are when I see them in the house. It’s silly, and an incredibly small thing. But it forces me to talk more than I normally would. This is my Spanish class.

Anita (name changed for privacy), is a short term resident at Pa’nibal. She’s been here for about a week, and in that time she has been a quiet and kind presence. She’s often seen sitting in the garden or in the living room, and she spends lots of time with the residents’ many kids. Pa’nibal is providing a safe space for her to recuperate leading up to yet another transition for Anita — moving back to be with her parents. In the course of a year, Pa’nibal is a temporary home for as many as thirty women like Anita who just need a safe place to stay for a short period of time, often after surviving a major conflict.

Maria (far right) posing with other residents. Soon, she will be living with her parents in Guatemala City.

Anita (far right) posing with other residents. Soon she will leave Pa’nibal to live with her parents.

When I ask her how she’s doing, Anita always tells me that she is mas o menos, or just so so. She has been pointing to her jaw or her arms, complaining of pain and then moving on. A few days ago, I once again asked her how her day was going, and in response she shook her head and again gestured to her arms. Only this time she elaborated:

Because my husband did like this [she twisted her arms out in front of her] He also did like this [she grabbed her own ponytail] and dragged me [she made a sweeping motion with her hand, gesturing up and down the stair and hallway]

I had no idea what to say. I had known that Anita was staying at Pa’nibal as a result of domestic violence. But hearing it from her was hard. Watching her demonstrate what happened to her was even harder. If I was in the United States and a woman I knew had been attacked and beaten, I’d tell them to get help, call someone, do something. But Anita has done that. She’s here. Pa’nibal exists to help women in complex situations like Anita’s. I am certainly not in a place to say anything comparable to advice. I could not tell her I know what it’s like, I could not nod as if to say “ah yes, I know what you mean.” No one is looking for an anecdote. In my position I felt all I could do was apologize, and empathize as best as I could. Sometimes empathy is all we have to offer.

Pa’nibal’s Newest Volunteer

My name is Ella, and I have been working with Pa’nibal in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala for the last month and a half. My decision to take a year off from school was a shockingly easy one. I have always been invested in social justice, and writing professionally is a long time goal of mine. I wanted to get involved, and soon. School just didn’t seem like the best option.

I contacted my uncle, Eric, asking about what sort of role I could take on at Pa’nibal. After sorting out living situations, cost, and other technical details, we ended on a minimum three month stay to help with communications. Along with social media, blog writing, and research, this includes translations and transcriptions of interviews with the residents. For the last 5-6 weeks, those translations have been a large part of my work. The stories these women are telling and living are incredibly impactful. I am here to help those stories get heard. Stories like Alexandra’s, which you can read here.

Pa'nibal volunteer apartment

Originally a storage space, this is now a fully furnished apartment. Photo by Christine Hewitt

Before coming here I had never traveled alone. From Denver, Colorado, there’s about eight/nine hours of flight time depending on what airline you take. The most expensive part of the trip is certainly getting here and back. Guatemalan cost of living, by USA standards, is incredibly low. I’ve been living at Pa’nibal for a few weeks now in their volunteer apartment. It’s a neat little space on top of the shelter, and because I’m volunteering I don’t pay rent. Apartments in and around Antigua are pretty affordable as well, and hostels are a great cheap option to spend some weekends exploring the town.

Interested in hearing more? I will be posting regularly about my personal experiences, Pa’nibal itself, and Guatemala in general. Check it all out on Medium and here on the Pa’nibal website.

Ana leaves Pa’nibal

Valeria’s journey to Pa’nibal

Valeria was born in the late nineties to a small home in an agro-industrial town a few hours’ bus ride from the Guatemalan pacific coast. She had four siblings — one younger and three older — all from different fathers. Her mother had several boyfriends during Valeria’s earliest years, most of whom were verbally and physically abusive to Valeria, her mother and her siblings.

Valeria’s mother was unable to afford enrollment fees or the various costs associated with a Guatemalan public education like transportation, uniforms, books, writing supplies, etc. Valeria was noticed by a local NGO, Proyecto Esperanza, that offers public education scholarships and light-touch mentorships for impoverished families. They managed her early education for several years.

When she was eight years old, staff members at Proyecto Esperanza noticed a marked change in Valeria’s behavior. She had become extremely timid and was avoiding communication with her teachers and classmates. Further investigation revealed that Valeria had been sexually abused at home by her mother’s boyfriend. Proyecto Esperanza pursued legal action against the man living with Valeria’s family, but a lack of cooperation from the mother complicated the process. A compromise was reached whereby Valeria was sent away from her family to live at a home for orphaned girls until a more permanent solution could be found.

Valeria sites in the foyer at Pa'nibal

Valeria sites in the foyer at Pa’nibal

Valeria lived at the home for girls, just eight years old, for six months. One of her older sisters was able to visit her on occasion, but otherwise she had no contact with her family. At the end of six months the home put Valeria in the care of one of her aunts.

For five years Valeria lived with her aunt and attended school, still sponsored by Proyecto Ezperanza. When she was thirteen years old her Aunt informed her that she would not continue providing a roof over her head if she didn’t work to support herself. She became a daytime niñera (nanny) for a nearby family, and her school attendance suffered.

Two years later Valeria’s aunt withdrew her support, saying she could no longer afford to care for Valeria and that she was old enough to take care of herself. Fifteen years old and unable to afford a place to live, Valeria returned to her family home. There she found her mother’s relationship had taken a turn for the worse — she was suffering physical and verbal attacks, and had taken to vehemently defending her abusive partner. It wasn’t long until the mother’s boyfriend took an interest in Valeria. He began harassing her regularly, and pressured her on several occasions to go alone with him to a nearby hotel. Valeria had her sixteenth birthday in her family home.

For nearly two years Valeria lived with her mother. She spent much of her time and energy avoiding confrontations and the advances of her mother’s lover. She continued her schooling, took work at a local hotel, and spent much of her time away from home.

Valeria’s mother married her boyfriend. She advised Valeria not to refuse his advances, saying that he now had the same rights with Valeria as he had with her. Nonetheless, Valeria continued to evade her stepfather’s advances which became more and more physically aggressive. When she was eighteen, Valeria’s stepfather attacked her after she refused him. She was woken by volunteer firemen who found her injured outside of her home. She had been unconscious for several hours, and had suffered blunt force trauma to her head. The volunteer firemen took her to the hospital, where the organization that sponsors her education, Proyecto Esperanza, were contacted.

Proyecto Esperanza knew that Valeria needed to leave home, and contacted Pa’nibal to ask if we had space for her. Within a few days Valeria was living in our home. She has continued her studies at a nearby school, participates in a variety of home activities, and spends her weekends with school friends and other Pa’nibal residents at the nearby park or in the Antigua area.

“She’s only contacted her mother twice since she arrived,” comments Concepción, one of the monitors at Pa’nibal, “which is for the better. She likes it here and is pursuing her studies.”

Valeria invites a schoolfriend over to Pa’nibal some Fridays to watch movies. She begins an internship at a travel agency at the end of the month, and is hoping to pick up some weekend kitchen work to start saving money. She visits a therapist regularly, and has begun regular medical and dental checkups.

There’s certainly no rush on our part — Pa’nibal is honored to provide a longterm, stable home life and a robust suite of education and work opportunities for Valeria and other young women like her. We’re excited to see where she’ll take her life given a fair chance.

* Names in this post have been changed to protect privacy.

Your donation gives girls like Valeria a home life with friends, security and practical support. Consider becoming a monthly donor partner to help us transform lives and give young women a new hope.

Pa’nibal in 2018: Investing in Education

Pa’nibal is all about practical education. This year we have been revitalizing and reimagining that focus with cost sharing programs, new in-home classes, more rigorous vocational training requirements, and a commitment to work programs with their focus outside of the home.

Money stacked up, Guatemalan QuetzalsCost sharing and domestic economics

A few months ago we introduced a new initiative that requires each of our long term residents — those with terms greater than three months — to pay a nominal monthly rent. The fee of about $15 doubles at the six-month mark, and is intended to help accustom members of our community home to managing their finances and planning for regular expenses.

As of this month 80% of Pa’nibal residents chosen to participate in the program are up to date with their contributions. For many women at Pa’nibal, this marks the first time in their life that they have been personally responsible for an ongoing domestic expense.

Women studying at a table.New in-home classes

Pa’nibal has in large part shifted away from volunteer-driven classes and instead begun focusing on paid workshops administered by experienced professionals. This shift has allowed us to maintain higher levels of quality as well as the schedule consistency that makes offering these resources to the public simpler and more successful. By bringing in members of our community on a regular basis we’re able to better communicate our mission and more publicly support our values of education, equality, non-violence, and self-determination.

More than twenty community members regularly attend workshops at Pa’nibal already, and with recent additions to our regular offerings like sport boxing and sewing we hope to see those numbers rise.

Tools in the foreground with women students in the background.Commitment to vocational training

All long-term Pa’nibal residents (except children and one adult who is enrolled as a full-time student in Guatemala City) have begun three month vocational workshops with INTECAP, a Guatemalan technical and professional training and certification organization that has been operating for nearly half a century. These courses include more than 60 hours of hands-on instructor led training and result — for students who pass the coursework — in professional certifications well respected by employers throughout Guatemala.

Our residents have enrolled in a variety of programs from clothing production through baked goods preparation and personal beauty services — skills that translate directly into employability in our local Sacatepéquez economy.

Closeup of a manicure in progressWork programs

Sixty-five percent of current adult residents at Pa’nibal are engaged in paid part-time work as a direct result of vocational workshops. The women of Pa’nibal use their earnings to cover the nominal rent we charge long-term residents, to purchase foodstuffs outside of what the home offers at daily meals, to purchase goods for their children, and to begin saving for the future.

The women at Pa’nibal who are currently working are paid some Q25 – Q50 per hour ($3.5 – $7), compared with a national minimum wage of Q16 ($2.25) per hour which less than half the country is able to actually earn. The move from domestic labor (working as a maid) to skilled labor gives Guatemalan women a significant advantage and opens a variety of new opportunities. Many domestic laborers — even in the affluent Antigua area — make only $5 – $7 for a full day’s work.

What’s next? Bank accounts. Only one in three Guatemalan women have access to a bank account. At least in this respect, the women of Pa’nibal are on their way to not being just another statistic.

Do you believe in the power of education? Do you want to help someone truly transform their life? A one-time donation of $140 covers one of many three month vocational courses we offer to residents. Any amount helps.

Juanita’s new beginning

Juanita came to Casa Pa’nibal earlier this year. Her husband attacked her in their home outside of a nearby industrialized city well known for its slums and high crime. After beating her he told her he was going to kill her.

In his mid-thirties, Juanita’s husband had been accused of a variety of crimes from sexual abuse through assault and murder. Soon after Juanita escaped their home earlier this year he was implicated in several more murders — including those of police officers — during an apprehension attempt staged by local law enforcement.

Juanita came to Casa Pa’nibal through OSAR (Sexual and Reproductive Health Observatory). She contacted local law enforcement after her husband threatened to kill her and was moved to a temporary government holding facility by the authorities. The facility reported the incident to OSAR who recommended that she be delivered to a community home in a nearby region — Casa Pa’nibal.

Juanita arrived at our doors five months pregnant with her two preschool aged children in tow. She had no money, no belongings, and nowhere to go. Like so many Guatemalan women she had been thrust into overwhelmingly difficult circumstances, and all before reaching her mid-twenties. Juanita and her children were provided a hot meal, clothes and toiletries, then shown to their own private room complete with bathroom and a separate bed for her kids.

Within days Juanita and her children were participating in in-home exercise, activities, and classes, as well as group excursions with the other families at Casa Pa’nibal. Juanita particularly enjoys cooking and has taken to preparing meals and snacks for the rest of Casa Pa’nibal residents.

After just three months at Casa Pa’nibal both of Juanita’s children are regularly attending local preschool programs. Juanita herself completed a set of eight in-home Cultora de Belleza workshops (manicure / pedicure / beauty school), and has begun providing affordable manicures to the local community. The workshop’s instructor and longtime salon owner says Juanita has a lot of potential in salon & beauty work. It’s the first time she’s been paid for skilled labor in her life.

Manuel, another resident's son, waters the garden where Juanita sells manicures.

Manuel, another resident’s son, waters the garden where Juanita provides affordable manicures.

After having her baby, Juanita hopes to continue her professional development and eventually find a home for herself and her children. In the meantime she’s taking her new life one day at a time.

Thank you for making new beginnings possible. Without our donor partners women like Juanita would have nowhere to go after a brief stay at a government holding facility. Because of your participation Juanita and her children have a life to look forward to.

Want to do more? Consider helping Juanita stock up on nail-polish, a drying lamp and other work materials. With just $100 Juanita can have everything she needs to continue selling manicures out of Casa Pa’nibal for months to come.

In home beauty school underway

Earlier this month three Pa’nibal residents began a beauty and stylist workshop made up of several modules including hair styling, skin care, manicure, pedicure and massage. The workshop is lead by Miriam Leticia Chávez Orozco, the founder of a salon in the department of San Marcos and a professionally trained stylist with more than 15 years of experience.

The class is conducted at Pa’nibal once a week for several hours during the afternoon. Each module takes about four to five weeks to complete and costs the home roughly $300 plus materials — a price Miriam offers as a service to the community.

A Pa'nibal resident and beauty school student gives pedicures to community members to accumulate experience hours.

A Pa’nibal resident and beauty school student gives pedicures to community members to accumulate experience hours.

The beauty and stylist workshop (Cultora de Belleza y Estilista) is one of many initiatives Pa’nibal is undertaking this year to redouble our focus on vocational training and economic empowerment. Others include CONALFA classes (public school equivalency for adults) and a Bisutería y Joyería Taller (bead and textile handcrafted jewelry workshop) that began just last week.

In addition to teaching a marketable skill, the workshops have helped to connect Pa’nibal with the surrounding community. Just a week ago Pa’nibal invited local community members into the home to receive free pedicures from workshop students. Everyone who visited left unsolicited tips with Pa’nibal student technicians — a happy surprise and a real confidence booster.

Thanks to our donor partners for making programs like these possible.

Your support makes what we do possible. 100% of your contribution goes to programs and supplies for Casa Pa’nibal.

Pa’nibal needs child care volunteers

Pa’nibal needs child care volunteers! If you like working with kids and want to contribute to the local Antigua & San Pedro las Huertas community, this could be a great opportunity to lend a hand and get involved in a way that really matters. The women and girls living at Pa’nibal will greatly benefit from your providing this invaluable service.

Get in touch using our contact form, or email me at or Meredith at if you’re interested. Right now, we’re looking for someone to volunteer Monday and Thursday evenings. More details below.

Why child care?

Pa’nibal works to engage at-risk women and girls with real, ongoing opportunities for personal and professional development. We work to break the cycle of violence, poverty and resignation that keeps so many women and girls in Guatemala from living a fulfilling life free of domestic violence, sexism and marginalization.

Women living at Pa’nibal need time to attend workshops, vocational classes, pursue professional opportunities and engage in self-development. Providing reliable, safe and nurturing child care creates the space for our residents to pursue these vital experiences.

What are the immediate needs?

Pa’nibal is looking to improve our existing taekwondo based exercise and self-defense classes. We would like each of our residents to be able to attend without worrying about their children, and we would like to offer these classes, free of charge, to the local community. These sorts of community outreach programs build confidence in our services and extend our impact.

Community attendance to our classes means increased familiarity with our services. Women who know about Pa’nibal and what we do will grow to understand that they have concrete, practical options when confronted with domestic violence, sexual abuse and marginalization.

At present, we are looking for a child care volunteer that can provide two hours of care on Monday and Thursday evenings. Please get in touch to inquire about this opportunity.

What else can I do?

Do you have toys, children’s books, coloring books, markers, pencils or similar materials that you’d be willing to donate? Please let us know. Even if you don’t have time to volunteer, you can still help us set up this vital service.

Finally, Pa’nibal is always interested in working with volunteers. We’re working to create concrete opportunities and support systems that transform the lives and futures of Guatemalan women. And we need your help.

Your support makes what we do possible. A contribution of $100 monthly covers all the basic costs of one resident — meals, a bed, a safe place. Any amount makes a difference.

My move to Guatemala

After two years of managing Pa’nibal administrative processes and organization efforts from Denver, Colorado, I’ve made the move to living full-time in Guatemala. It wasn’t a particularly easy decision.

Exactly 100% of our regular month-to-month budget is provided by donor partners — individuals or families who have committed to significant, monthly recurring gifts. It’s humbling and inspiring to me that just twenty-one donors can keep an important project like Pa’nibal moving forward, and of course it’s a little disconcerting to be physically moving away from our donor base. Almost all of our donors live and work in the USA, and perhaps more to the point, most of them are concentrated in Denver, Colorado.

Pa’nibal operates on very thin margins. Most months we collect within just $100 of our planned monthly budget, generally just under or above $6000 USD. Each and every donor is so important to us and our mission. So why move to Guatemala away from our donor base? There are a few reasons:

Juan working on Google Sheets

Juan reconciles Pa’nibal petty cash accounts for the month using Google Sheets — a simple digital tool that saves us countless hours.

Renewed focus on team management, process & protocol. Pa’nibal is the only shelter & transitional home for adult women in Sacatepéquez. To grow our impact, we need to be a thoroughly organized, results driven, and reproducible model for other NGOs to work from. I’m excited to bring more than a decade of organizational experience to bear on this ambition, from digital record keeping and administration to efficiency oriented, flexible management styles like Agile.

Sul & Eric having lunch

Myself and Sul of Verse Stories talk through some potential approaches to producing a short Pa’nibal video.

Better communication. Telling the story can be so hard. Challenges faced here in Guatemala are so qualitatively different from those in the West it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. I plan to reinvigorate our communication strategy from pushing better photography, to more written stories, to video production — that last (video) inspired by Sul of Verse Stories, who visited us in San Pedro las Huertas from Scotland just last week to produce a short video. More on that later.

Eric on the bus

The twenty minute bus ride from Antigua, where I’ll be living, to San Pedro las Huertas costs about $0.27

Cost of living. Living in Guatemala is far cheaper than living in the USA. I’ll be retaining my full-time position with Aten Design Group, a digital solutions agency I’ve been working with off and on for much of my adult life. Cost of living savings will make it far easier for me to contribute to special funds aside from regular financial support: gardens and fruit trees in the home, a new security system, and saving towards a dedicated Pa’nibal vehicle to name a few.

I believe that living here in Guatemala puts my resources — and yours as donors — to better use. And I can’t wait for all the exciting things coming in 2018.

Thanks so much for your ongoing support. It’s the cornerstone of what we do at Pa’nibal.

Your support makes what we do possible. A contribution of $100 monthly covers all the basic costs of one resident — meals, a bed, a safe place. Any amount makes a difference.