Each month, an arrow gets added to an office wall in Guatemala with a record of Carlitos’s new height and weight. The numbers might seem insignificant to some, but for those who know his story, they’re as intimate as childhood milestones etched into a door frame.
Less than a year ago, when staff from Project Concern International (PCI) first met Carlitos, he was severely malnourished and visibly wasting away. His family, like many others in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, was living in extreme poverty.
Several years of severe drought had resulted in low harvests, and sometimes no harvest at all. Additionally, steady work was hard to find, especially for agricultural day laborers. Under these circumstances, Carlitos’s parents, Diego and Angelina, were forced to make unthinkable sacrifices.
“Sometimes we only eat once a day, and sometimes we don’t eat at all so that our children can,” Angelina said.
With help from PCI staff, Carlitos’s family enrolled in ACCION, an emergency food security program run by PCI with support from the United States Agency for International Development. The project aims to reduce short-term hunger and malnutrition among vulnerable families in the dry corridor of Western Guatemala by enabling them to purchase nutritious food at local stores using food vouchers. ACCION also provides training on hygiene, health and nutrition practices at the household and community levels. This includes helping malnourished children like Carlitos access treatment before it’s too late.
Even though Carlitos lived just minutes away from the local health center, his parents worried about taking him there or to the hospital. They didn’t have any resources and expressed concern about the kind of care he’d receive at these unfamiliar facilities. ACCION staff and trained community volunteers helped Diego and Angelina overcome this fear and form a plan for Carlitos right away.
Upon his arrival to the National Huehuetenango Hospital, Carlitos was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit and eventually transferred to the nursery to continue his recovery. At 34 months old, he weighed just over 12 pounds. Based on World Health Organization growth standards for a boy his age, Carlitos should have been almost twice that size.
While the ACCION team monitored his status at the hospital, the community rallied to support Carlitos as well. A central focus of ACCION is mobilizing neighbors to promote and protect each other’s well-being and health. Every local participant in the program, all identified as vulnerable families themselves, made contributions toward building a new house for Carlitos, his parents and two siblings. ACCION staff also raised funds and coordinated with a local university, the mayor and other families to support construction efforts currently underway. Local students even provided a wash basin, pots and pans for the family. The project truly brought the entire community together, as did Carlitos’s homecoming.
After a two-month stint at the hospital, where Carlitos received nutritional and medical care, doctors determined he was fully recovered and sent him back to his village. Neighbors, community leaders and others invested in his recovery were there to welcome Carlitos and see for themselves the miraculous change that had taken place. PCI staff said his safe and healthy return resulted in increased credibility in health services from the community and a renewed commitment to ACCION activities by other families.
Now, a health nurse and ACCION technician conduct monthly home visits with Carlitos’s family. During these meetings, Diego and Angelina are counseled on safe food preparation, home hygiene, handwashing and other health and nutrition practices. They are also given vouchers to buy nutritional foods and hygiene items from local stores that continue to help them get through difficult times. The purchases they, and other ACCION families, make at nearby shops also support local markets.
As of April 2017, Carlitos weighed nearly 22 pounds and maintained a normal nutritional status. A timeline of the 3 ½ year old’s progress, on display at the ACCION office in Guatemala, helps staff members understand the stakes and impact of their work on a more personal level. Angelina’s words serve as a powerful testament as well.
“If you weren’t here, my son might not have made it,” she said. “Thank you for helping.”
Carlitos is one of thousands of children in Guatemala that ACCION is reaching through the generous support of the American people. This investment strengthens families to care for their own children, building a stronger Guatemala and a safer global community for us all.