Meet Andrea and Melisa

MM Executive Director, Carolyn Daly, shares the story of mother and daughter, Andrea and Melisa.

Mil Milagros first began working in the community of Nuevo Progreso in 2012 with our Early Childhood Development Program. In early 2013, when I joined MM, we had a meeting with the community.

I remember walking into the house-turned school and seeing a small group of women and men in a circle. I was impressed because three of the women -one mother, one grandmother, and one teacher - spoke more than the rest of the group. The men chimed in every now and then, but these women led the meeting. They told us that the parents were renting this house because the children were supposed to go to a school across the street. But the street was actually the Pan-American Highway and the parents did not want their children crossing the dangerous highway to go to school. So, they did what they do in Nuevo Progreso and they found a temporary solution while they worked relentlessly toward their more permanent one - land and a school of their own.

That year, we did enter NP with our nutrition, health and hygiene, and education programs. I continued to be impressed by the confidence and drive of the three women who led that first meeting. They got things done and it was amazing.

Now, any one of those three women could and should be highlighted as a leader who inspires me. I hope I get the chance to do so. But, today, I am not sharing their story. Today, I am sharing the story of a woman I wouldn't have even remembered being in the meeting, a woman who sat quietly, who far from speaking, didn't even make eye contact with us during the entire meeting.

Today, I'd like to talk about Andrea and her daughter,  Melisa. Andrea was elected to the MM Board of Directors, the group of women who lead MM´s programs in their community. She always sat in the corner with her feet crossed behind her and her hands in her lap. She never spoke but she was always there. At the end of each workshop or meeting, she'd stare at the floor and say, "Gracias, Seño (a term of respect for a teacher)." 

But then I noticed that Andrea was making the school snack that MM provided a lot. The mothers take turns preparing the snack and I remember asking the school principal why Andrea seemed to be there every time I was at the school.

"She has four children in the school," Magda told me. 

"Wow," I said. In a school of 30 children, four of them were Andrea's children.

"Does she complain about coming so often?" I asked

Magda smiled. ¨Are you kidding? She is so grateful that Mil Milagros is in our community, she said she'd come every day if was asked her to. And she would. She's one of the most reliable mothers that we have.

Magda explained to me that among the many challenges facing the community was the fact that there was no running water at the school. So, the parents - the mothers really - took turns bringing jugs of water on their heads to the school so the children could wash their hands and brush their teeth. Andrea came every day because she knew that maybe there were other mothers who couldn't or wouldn't. 

While I noticed that Andrea didn't say much, I also noticed that the community seemed to respect her. Young mothers would observe the way she prepared a snack and imitate it. 

And after a while, Andrea began to lift her head and look me in the eyes when she thanked me for all MM was doing in her community and with her children. I would hug her and thank her.

One day, she invited me to her home. It was about a 10 minute walk up a steep hill to her house. I thought about Andrea walking every day with a giant jug of water on her head up and down that hill. When we got to her house, she rushed inside and came back out with a piece of paper. It was a diploma, she said.

Andrea, who had never had the opportunity to go to school, had taken literacy classes and graduated from the first level. Now, she beamed, she could sign her name. Andrea's children stood next to her as we cried and I hugged them all. They were so proud of her. She was so proud of herself. 

From then on, every time she had to sign for something, instead of using her fingerprint, she slowly signed her name.

And Andrea, who never spoke and hardly looked anyone in the eye, began giving workshops to the rest of the mothers. We'd still have to motivate her to speak above a whisper, but everyone in the room listened when she spoke.

And no one listened more than Melisa. When I first met Melisa she was 5 years old and had a smile that could melt any heart. She wasn't as outgoing as many of the other children but she had a charm and wit that was hard to deny.

Melisa shared her drawings and schoolwork with us and would hug all the visitors. Over the years, I saw Melisa become more mature and a bit more reserved.

I worried, the extravert that I am, that there was something wrong. I asked Lucy if everything was okay with Melisa. She looked at me inquisitively and asked, "Why?" 

"She doesn't seem as emotive as she used to be."

Lucy, ever the investigator, said, "I'll look into it."

She came back to me with a smile on her face and said, "I think Melisa is fine."

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Yes. I asked Magda (her teacher) about Melisa and she said she was the child who showed the most leadership of any child that she'd had in her class."

In a school with just two classrooms, the two teachers had to teach multiple grades at once, a difficult job for even the best of teachers. Melisa, who was at the top of her class, would volunteer to help teach the younger children while Magda worked with the older ones. She never looked for glory or praise. She was, as Magda put it, "a quiet leader," just like her mom. Melisa will graduate from primary school this year and I have no doubt that whatever she chooses to do, she will do it with the grace and quiet leadership that Andrea has taught her.

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!