Konojel Success Story: Elena

At the Konojel Community Center in Guatemala, a young woman sits on a straw mat reading Curious George with her 7 year old son Derek. Elena has been a part of Konojel for four years. At 25, she found herself struggling to provide enough nutrition to keep Derek’s hair from falling out. Elena’s struggles, and her success in providing for herself and her son over the past 5 years, is among the clearest success stories Konojel can share.

As a girl  born and raised in a small Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Elena was never afforded the chances that many people take for granted. The San Marcos indigenous community suffers from high rates of extreme poverty and chronic malnutrition; more than 50% of children are malnourished according to the Secretariat for Food Security (SESAN), and many families live on less than $2 US per day per household according to the ministry of Agriculture (MAGA). At the age of 11 Elena had to leave school to help her household. For years she collected firewood in the mountainside, loading wood on to her shoulders to light the fires that made the tortillas; the main staple of her diet. Hers is a typical story of a Mayan woman: born into poverty, with little formal education, and almost no disposable income for food. It wasn’t a life, it was survival.

This is the reality that so many of the women in San Marcos La Laguna face. Many suffer from malnutrition because they can’t afford a nutritious and nourishing diet, subsisting mostly on tortillas. They bear children who are also malnourished because the poor health during pregnancy directly impacts the development of the baby. And the cycle continues.

Konojel opened its doors in 2011 to address this exact problem in the community. Their goal is to provide the most at-risk people with food, immediately addressing chronic malnutrition. Once they are healthy and energized, they provide jobs and opportunities to empower the women of the community; the ultimate goal is to help them raise their own standards of living through education and job training.

Derek was exhibiting the telltale signs of malnutrition: at just 3 years old, his hair was falling out and he was well under the weight and height of someone his age. Everyday, Elena and Derek walked up to the Konojel Community Center for Derek’s healthy lunch. One day, a job opened up in the Konojel kitchen and Maria Mejia, the Director of Operations, thought Elena would benefit from the chance to learn a new skill. While she didn’t have any experience in preparing bulk lunches, she proved herself to be a trustworthy and loving person, and quickly learned the tools to be a professional cook in a small restaurant. When Elena finished her residency as a Konojel cook, Maria recommended her for a position at Hostal Del Lago, a local business nearby. As of November 2017 Elena celebrated her three year work anniversary there.

To this day, Elena and her sisters complete their school assignments at the Konojel Computer Center; her sister Griselda recently completed a year long English course run by Konojel. Derek’s hair has grown back and his speech is getting better. He still comes to the community center several days a week to read with his cousins, who themselves are recovering their health as beneficiaries of the Nutrition Program.

Elena’s son, Derek, and his cousins having fun at the Konojel Community Center’s Children Enrichment Program. Photo by Joshua Lawrence.

Elena was finally given the resources to pull herself out of the cycle of poverty. Through her fearlessness and desire to learn, she is now armed with skills, working and thriving in the community. Most importantly, her son Derek will have a chance. Maybe he will be the town’s first doctor or engineer.

Konojel helps so many women in the community like Elena, all of whom are friends and neighbors of the staff. In order to continue providing these opportunities and meals to the hardworking, kind, and courageous women of the community, they need your support. They tell the story of Elena to show you that this is working; Konojel, along with all of you, can legitimately change the course of the lives of the people of San Marcos La Laguna. It’s not complicated: help them spread the word, connect them with donors in your network, or even make a donation yourself. We know there’s so many people in the world today that need help, and although we can’t help them all, we can make a genuine difference in the lives of women and children like Elena and Derek. Click below to donate and join the #konojel1128 movement!