WSU language students help Guatemalan women succeed

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:26 PM

Nancy Van Valkenburg

When Alicia Giralt takes her Weber State language students to a poor Guatemalan village each spring, the students return with noticeably improved Spanish fluency.

What students leave behind, Giralt said, is a strengthened community of Mayan women with new small business and the financial savvy required to produce a steady income for their families.

Giralt started a WSU micro finance program in Guatemala. She and her students each year return to teach village women basic business concepts and to loan some of them $50 to start or improve their enterprises.

“Microcredit is exceptional, because it creates sustainable development,” Giralt said. “It helps whole communities come out of poverty, which could eventually help the whole world.”

Last week, Giralt returned from her annual trip, this year taken with 15 of her Spanish students. Prior to the two-week trip, students spent a week brushing up on business Spanish and learning about Guatemalan culture.

“I learned a ton about how they live,” said sophomore Gavin Garside, 23, South Ogden. “I learned about their homes, the way they live, and the amount of money they live on per month, which for most is about $60. They farm, and they do little shopping in stores. They trade with other families for the necessities they need.”

Giralt described the dilemma of one woman who made a type of tamales, which she sold on the street to eager buyers. When someone offered her a job catering a large gathering, the woman wished she could jump at the opportunity.

“She didn’t have the money for the quantity of ingredients she would need to cook for 50 people,” Giralt explained. “The $50 loan we gave her allowed her to buy ingredients and take the catering job that would build her business.”

One loan recipient made blouses from supplies provided by a middleman, who sold the finished items to companies. With her loan, she bought thread and material, so she could sell directly to the clothing company, keeping more profits for herself and her children.

Other women have bought beads for jewelry making, or ingredients for tortillas or snack items, such as toasted or sugared garbanzo beans.

This year’s students tended a medicinal garden planted by previous Weber State students and open to tourists for a fee. Giralt and her students also mentor the women’s daughters and coach the women on business rules.

“We explain the three things that are going to make their business a success,” Garside said. “They need to have the best quality or a lower quality with the best price, or they need to have a unique product. If you’re the only one who has that, you’re the only one people can go to.”

Some tips cost nothing, Giralt said.

“One woman made cakes, and she had the natural red, yellow and blue dyes, but she didn’t know how to mix her colors. A student taught her how to mix colors for more variety, and just that helped improve her business.”

Noreen Barnes went on the June 2012 trip.

“I remember Magdalena, who was in an abusive situation, and found she was pregnant,” said Barnes, of South Ogden, now a graduate. “She wanted to leave, but wasn’t sure she could support herself and her child. Through the microcredit program, she started a blouse-making business, and is able to support herself and her son.”

Barnes also remembers Francesca, whose husband was abusive when drunk. Francesca started a tortilla business with her micro loan and gained the confidence to give her husband an ultimatum. She would leave unless he joined an evangelical church that banned drinking. He did, and the family is happier and more financially stable today, Barnes said.

When the program began, students were asked to donate $50 each to be used for loans. Now donations fund the nonprofit loan program, run by Weber State University, Giralt said. Women who pay back their loans on schedule are eligible to apply for larger loans, to a maximum of $300. About 95 percent of loans are repaid, she said.

Barnes has nothing but praise for the program.

“It has helped countless wives and families,” she said. “It gives them financial resources, which is something impoverished people lack. It gives them access to credit.

“If they aren’t repaying the money, the community applies pressure, because that’s money that they aren’t able to access in loans if someone hasn’t paid it back. It’s a very personal situation when you realize your friends and neighbors also depend on this money. It builds families as well as the communities around them.”

Garside said students speak Spanish at all times, and his fluency has greatly improved. But the real gift, he said, is understanding a foreign culture, making a positive difference, and gaining perspective.

“It was a great experience, just having the opportunity to help,” he said. “To a lot of people here, $50 is nothing, but it can change lives, families and communities. It changes families. It’s crazy, how something that is so little to us is such a big thing to someone else.”

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