Small Silvia’s Big Dreams

by Michelle Anderson

When you see her face your blood rushes, your smile widens, your heart melts, and you get the chills. Her smile is infectious and attitude so positive despite her severely impoverished situation, health problems, and growing up without her mom and dad.

Silvia Patricia Gutiérrez is a 15-year-old living with her grandmother, sister, cousins, and aunts in Antigua, Guatemala. She looks like she’s eight or nine though, which isn’t that unusual in Guatemala. It’s a land where 56% of the population lives in poverty, 37% survives in dire conditions on less than $2 per day. Widespread malnutrition causes stunted growth and, tragically, sometimes death. Silvia, however, suffers from a hormonal disorder that has slowed her growth and makes her look even smaller and younger than her peers. In 2000, Silvia left Guatemala for the first time in her life and flew to Minnesota with the help of generous Common Hope donors where she received an extensive exam and diagnosis from an endocrinologist who volunteered his time. The physician arranged for a free life-time supply of very expensive medications from a U.S. pharmaceutical company.

Back in Guatemala, Silvia and her grand-mother walk to Common Hope’s clinic in Antigua every day where she waits in line for her injection. Fortunately, it’s paying off. She is growing, physically maturing, and feeling like she fits in with her classmates. More importantly to Silvia she may now be able to have children some day. The size of Silvia’s dreams have grown right along with her body thanks to Common Hope and the generosity of so many people—the donor who offered frequent flyer miles, the physician who provided pro-bono care, the pharmaceutical company that gives medication, the Minnesota families who hosted her during her visit, and all those who prayed for her success.

Once a year, through my work with Common Hope in the St. Paul office, I have the good fortune to travel to Guatemala to reconnect with our Guatemalan employees and visit some of the families I’ve gotten to know during my seven years with the organization. I got to know Silvia well five years ago when she came to Minnesota for her doctor’s visit and stayed with my family. She has a sweet personality. When language is a barrier, her enormous smile and contagious laugh solve everything; they make us forget what we are struggling to talk about.

I’ve tried to see Silvia each year when I travel to Guatemala. It usually happens in a strange sort of way. Every couple of days, I stop by her house knock on her “door” (a wooden gate), and call her name. No one is home. I can’t call her because they don’t have a phone. Then, lo and behold, the very last day of my trip, like an angel appearing in front of me, I see her on the dusty street outside her house carrying a bucket of corn atop her head to the local grinder to make masa for the day’s tortillas or riding her rusty old bicycle. We call each other’s names and embrace. It’s like we replay the same scene each year. I feel there’s a message here; that someone is telling me something I haven’t yet figured out. Perhaps God just wants me to remember and to pray for this beautiful girl who, despite the roadblocks in her life, continues to smile and to dream big about school, family, and her future.

Knowing Silvia and witnessing Guatemala and the plight of its people, has taught me much about myself. When I see Silvia’s smile and hear her sweet giggle and kind words, I feel like the luckiest person on earth. When I’m in Guatemala, surrounded by poverty, sick children, and inadequate housing, I see Silvia and I see hope. I think about how lucky I am to have been born in this land of plenty, with opportunities galore and thousands of resources at my fingertips. I immediately count my blessings, the blessings that I take for granted, the blessings that I sometimes forget are blessings. My experiences in Guatemala and my friendship with Silvia have forever changed my personal view of what it means to be blessed. I am richly blessed beyond imagination because I have a warm, dry house with running water, not a tiny shack made from corn stalks and scraps found at the dump. I am blessed because my family doesn’t suffer from respiratory disease due to living on a wet, dirt floor or from breathing in smoke from an open-pit cook stove. I am blessed because I know my nephews will never die from malnutrition. I am blessed because I was able to go to school and learn to read. I’m blessed because I can practice my faith and beliefs freely and openly without fear of being hurt or abducted by a group that opposes my ways.

It’s hard to believe that Silvia’s family is one of the “luckier” families in Guatemala. Their house is made of concrete rather than cornstalks and plastic. They have a steel roof that doesn’t leak, and the floor is concrete, not dirt, keeping them drier, cleaner, and healthier. Yet, the family’s income is only $52/month; too little to send the children to school after they cover their basic needs. Here’s where Common Hope enters the picture. Fortunately, a donor in the U.S. sponsors Silvia through Common Hope. Sponsorship provides education as well as health care, housing assistance, and job training for her and her family. Common Hope’s work is directed by the philosophy that the power of education helps break the cycle of poverty. The people of Common Hope know families in Guatemala are unable to take advantage of educational opportunities if their basic needs for food, shelter and health care are not met. Providing resources to meet those basic needs, begins to make change possible.

When the day is over, I thank God for my blessings and for Common Hope and ask God to hold close to His heart those who are not as fortunate.

[For more about Common Hope, check its web site: www.commonhope.com —Ed]

Michelle Anderson works for Common Hope and is a volunteer at “Homework and Hoops,” a program for Minneapolis children.

See all articles by Michelle Anderson