How Community Coordinators Change Lives

“I love seeing the light turn on for the mothers and for them to make changes at home. They start to pay more attention to how they are raising their children or what the hygiene is like in the home.”

By Carolyn Daly

One of the things that makes Mil Milagros different as an organization is our collaboration with communities. We don’t see our work as transactional or that we are trying to reach a certain number of people. We work in terms of impact. And impact can only be achieved when what you provide is what is needed. Sustainable impact can only be achieved if you work together with beneficiaries to make lasting change.

This collaboration can be seen in many ways. Communities provide a formal request for MM to work in their community. Several meetings occur where expectations are defined by all parties, agreed upon, and a mutual understanding with goals and roles is created. At our program inaugurations every year, every student, parent, and teacher signs a commitment to our shared goals. Then, we train children and mother leaders and they lead the programs in their communities. We ask for feedback to improve our programs through focus groups and quarterly evaluation meetings.

It was all working well. But we knew if we wanted to have an even deeper impact, we needed to do something more. These leaders that we were training in their communities had incredible skills and abilities. What they were able to do with almost no resources left me with my jaw on the ground time and again.

We decided that in order to develop their leadership even further, in order to impact more lives, and in order to show the world what indigenous women can do when they are given the opportunity, we needed to hire them.

It was the best decision Mil Milagros has ever made. In 2018, we created the role of the “Community Coordinator.” A CC is a former program participant, then a mother leader volunteer who is “chispuda,” as they’d say in Guatemala. “Chispuda” means they have that spark, that fire within them, and they have the passion to share what they have learned with others. We piloted this new position with two women, working part-time, in communities other than their own to implement MM’s programs.

Now, half of our staff in Guatemala are Community Coordinators - 10 women who are working full-time, receiving a salary and benefits for the first time in their lives, providing for their families, and leading incredible change in rural communities. Every single one of them deserves to be highlighted here. They all inspire me and make the tough days worth it.

Mil Milagros Community Coordinators with other members of the team.

Today, I’m going to talk about Monica. Monica is the type of leader you notice. Not because she is loud or intentionally draws attention to herself, but because people listen to everything she has to say. She has a calming presence and a quick but genuine smile. When I see Monica, I feel relaxed and loved at the same time. I know I’m not the only one.

With leaders like Monica, sometimes it is hard to put into words exactly what they do to command respect, but if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that it is a lot of little things and a deep respect for others.

Earlier this year, when I was visiting Guatemala, I went to a partner school where Monica leads our Early Childhood Development, Nutrition, and Health and Hygiene programs. That day was the first ECD workshop. I watched as Monica and Shirley, her CC partner, arrived 30 minutes early, arranged the room exactly as they wanted it, divided their responsibilities and tested their scales. While Shirley weighed and measured the babies and young children, Monica sat with their mothers to talk with them. It was Monica’s first time in this community and she wanted to get to know the mothers. I was mesmerized.

Monica (right) talking with a mother at the Early Childhood Development program

Indigenous Guatemalans are reserved and a recent history of a brutal internal conflict has left many not trusting of strangers. It usually takes some time for us to build trust with them. Monica asked mothers what their children’s favorite foods were, how far away they lived, what the most difficult aspect of raising a two-year-old was, and these mothers answered. Not with one word or looking at the floor. They got into long conversations. They smiled. They felt heard.

“What was your goal with these first conversations?” I asked Monica during our after-workshop evaluation.

“I want the mothers to know that I care about them. I ask them simple questions to help them open up. I wanted to show them that I listen and build that relationship with them. Then, when we have a problem that a child isn’t growing as well as he should be, they may feel more comfortable telling me that they are struggling to get him to eat or he gets sick a lot. That was my goal.”

Check that goal off the list, Monica.

Two hours later, after all the babies had been measured and all of the mothers had been heard, we had achieved our purpose in the community. But Monica didn’t just leave. She walked into classrooms. She began to talk with the children. I followed her into a classroom. She was crouched next to a girl, talking with her. I saw the girl smile and grab her water bottle. It was almost empty. Monica asked her if she had already drunk all the water in her water bottle. She blushed and nodded her head.

“Wow,” Monica said. “That’s great!”

As we walked out, I saw the girl filling up her water bottle.

Monica knows that the little things matter. Talking to the children while you are at the school matter. Not just finishing your activity and leaving matters. Paying attention to the details matters.

A few months ago, I interviewed Monica. I asked her if she felt like a leader before she joined the MM team. “No,” she said, shaking her head. "It’s hard to see yourself as a leader when the world doesn’t recognize you as one."

“And now?” I asked.

“Yes, now I’m a leader,” she told me.

“What is your proudest accomplishment as a Community Coordinator?” I asked.

Monica has had a lot of notable accomplishments as a Community Coordinator. One of the communities where she works completely eliminated head lice last year. She worked hard to reduce chronic malnutrition in another community.

But Monica was quick to tell me that she was proudest of her work with the mothers. “I love seeing the light turn on for the mothers and for them to make changes at home. They start to pay more attention to how they are raising their children or what the hygiene is like in the home.” She started naming individual mothers and the changes she had seen.

“You know what else I’m proud of?” She added. “I’m proud of Raul.”

Raul is her 12-year-old son who graduated from sixth grade in one of our partner schools last year.

“Raul has learned from me how to be a leader. And now he’s president of his class in middle school. He’s lobbying the teacher to get a water filter for their classroom and making sure all his classmates bring their water bottle to school.”

mother and son graduation
Monica and Raul at his sixth grade graduation in 2019.

This is what I think Mil Milagros does best. We discover leaders and help them discover their own abilities. We train them so they can develop their skills and they deliver results for themselves, their families, their communities and others. Now Monica, who never saw herself as a leader, knows she is one because other people’s lives have changed because of her. That is impact. I feel so fortunate to work with people like Monica and grateful for people like you who understand the value of training leaders to make change.