Leaders who Inspire: MM In-Country Director, Lucy Aj

Mil Milagros Executive Director, Carolyn Daly, shares the story of a leader who inspires her.

Today, I’d like to talk about Lucy. Lucy is the yin to my yang. The jelly to my peanut butter. Or in Guatemalan terms, the salt to my tortilla. I first met Lucy in 2013. She came to the Mil Milagros office to interview for the Nutrition and Hygiene Coordinator position. Although I tease her now that she was nervous as she did a mock presentation as part of her interview process, she knocked it out of the park. This 24 year old Maya mother from Santa Lucía Utatlán was articulate, engaging, detail-oriented, thoughtful, and confident. I knew that Lucy was the first hire that I wanted to make to work alongside me and our Founder, Margaret Blood, in Guatemala.

Lucy and I learned and grew together as we worked in the communities. We complemented each other well. I was action-oriented and fast on my feet. Lucy was a list-maker and thought of every detail. I like lists now, too, but that was a learned skill, let me tell you. I coached Lucy to adapt to her audience and she taught me that meticulous planning was the best way to ensure positive outcomes.

Fast forward to 2020 and our in-country staff of two has now become 20 full-time staff in Guatemala. Lucy is now the In-Country Director.

When the COVID-19 crisis was just beginning, Lucy and I spoke via Skype. My first question on our calls is always, “How are you feeling?” That day, she wept. “I’m scared,” she said. “I know,” I said. “I’m scared, too.” Another thing Lucy has taught me. It is okay to be vulnerable.

So, when we had our team meeting last Monday, I asked our team to describe how they were feeling. Words like “worried,” “nervous,” and “unsettled” were shared. “Yes,” I said. “Me too. And I’m scared,” I echoed Lucy’s sentiments. “I’m scared for the families in our communities that I know will not have enough food to eat during this crisis.” I cried.  

And Lucy took action. I asked her to look into what it would take to get emergency food aid to every single child in our partner communities. She listed what needed to be done. We’d need a list of what would go into the baskets. We’d need to get price quotes for all of the items. We’d need to coordinate with all of the communities. We’d need hygiene protocols to put in place. We’d need authorization from the mayor so police patrols wouldn’t stop us. We’d need to communicate with our team without ever seeing them. It was a lot. 

“When do you think we could start delivering to the communities?” I asked. “I think we can do it by Monday,” she calculated.

I looked at her with a half smile and raised eyebrows. She knew what I was going to say. “Can we try for Friday?” I asked. I didn’t want the families waiting that long if we could help it. “Yes, we will make it happen,” she responded.

We finished our call and Lucy got to work, dividing tasks, coordinating with staff, and planning the next four days. Then, two hours later, she sent me an email.

“Can we talk?” 

Oh no, I thought.

When she came on my computer screen, I saw the worry on her face. “The educational supervisor says we can’t coordinate with the teachers. We can’t use the schools. Oh, and there are no eggs.”

We spent the next hour re-working our plan, but there was never talk about abandoning our idea. For all that we do differently, Lucy and I have one thing in common. If we see something as aligned with our mission and valuable to our communities, we don’t give up.

So, we decided we would coordinate with other community leaders. We know our communities well, after all. And we would find eggs. If there were no eggs because the borders were closed, that meant our communities didn’t have eggs, either. But our children needed the protein and the nutrients. We would find eggs.

Lucy got back to work.

She sent me a message at 11 PM that night to say that the Ministry of Education had changed their mind. We could work with the teachers and use the schools as a delivery point. By 8 AM the next morning, all of the coordinations had been made. And we had eggs.

On Friday, when Lucy and other team members started sending me photos of the first food deliveries, I couldn’t have been more proud or impressed. The photos showed Guatemalan women, normally reserved and quite shy, smiling broadly with their food staples. The photos also showed handmade posters outlining the hygiene protocols, tape marking the 6 foot distance parents had to stand between each other, the local cable station filming the deliveries, and our staff unloading trucks at 6 AM. You know what the photos didn’t show? Lucy’s lists. Her unyielding faith. Her leadership. So, that’s why I wanted to share her story with you today.

There was another interesting thing that I noticed with the food deliveries. Our team was just as happy as the mothers and fathers receiving the food for their children. In this time of uncertainty and helplessness, our team knew that what they were doing was important. The funny thing about reaching out a hand is that you get a hand back. And that’s what we were feeling. We were feeling connected. We could all use some more connectedness right now. 

Some may say that we need to focus our help on our neighbors. And I agree. There are many in the US that are suffering from job loss, illness, and even hunger. I’d also like to challenge us to see these Guatemalan families as our neighbors as well. We are all in this together. In whatever way you can, I encourage you to reach out a hand. You will get a hand back and it will make all the difference.

Every Tuesday at 10:30am (EDT) I will be going live on our Facebook page to share our weekly series  ‘Leaders who inspire’. Make sure to tune in - or you can catch up through our blog posts!