They decided to adopt. Then they decided to adopt from Guatemala. Then someone else decided they should actually go to Guatemala before they adopted a child from there: “You have to find ways to give back to a country that is going to be giving you the gift of a child.” It’s funny, isn’t it, how a simple nudge from someone else can completely change your life. Bill and Cherie did just that, and in 2004 they traveled to Guatemala, where they met Tita two nights before their flight back to the U.S. They had already spent eight days meeting people, places, and things. But they hadn’t met Tita yet, or La Limonada, or their future.

Tita turned out to be their inspiration: a woman who for five years had been singlehandedly working in one of the most dangerous and largest urban slums in Guatemala: providing care, comfort and food to the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. La Limonada is basically a settlement in a ravine, considered a Red Zone area because of how dangerous it is, and home to about 60,000-100,000 people. These people live in one of 10 different districts, each of which are ruled by rival gangs and invisible but life-threatening boundary lines.

What did Tita show Bill and Cherie on their last day in Guatemala? She showed them the shanties where families lived huddled together, she showed them families that dulled their hunger pain by sniffing glue, she told them about the sexual abuse that runs rampant in La Limonada, she told them about the gang violence and warfare that had her attending at least one funeral a week. But she also showed them the school she had started, she showed them the children she looked after, she told them about her plans for the future: how she wanted to be able to teach more kids, she wanted to reach out to gang members and show them a different way of life, she told them about wanting to start a vocational center for those gang members, she told them about wanting to send kids to school.

Seeing and hearing these stories changed their lives. As much heart and as many plans as Tita had at the time, she was overwhelmed by the amount of work and money that it took to do everything she was doing or wanted to do. Bill and Cherie saw the need and opportunity to step in and help, and they did. And you know what? They’ve pretty much made all of Tita’s plans a reality.

Bill and Cherie founded Lemonade International and started raising money for Tita and La Limonada, and Bill allowed me to ask him some questions about how all of this came about. Here’s what happened since they founded Lemonade International, as a volunteer side project:

  • Bill quit his day job working in HR
  • Escuelita Mandarin joined the already functioning Escuelita Limon; together they serve over 300 children, and employ more than 40 local Guatemalans (you can learn about sponsoring one of these children here)
  • A Safe Home was created for children who had been abandoned, abused, and/or neglected. Safe Home currently cares for 16 children (you can find out more about Safe Home here)
  • Scholarships were created to keep students in school that are beyond the teaching capacity of Escuelita Limon and Escuelita Mandarin (much like public education in Haiti, public education in Guatemala is not an option-kids need scholarships for private schools in order to obtain a decent education; you can find out more about providing scholarships here)
  • A micro-finance project was started that is helping women from La Limonada learn how to start and run their own business (more info here)
  • A vocational training program was started that teaches gang members skills they can apply in obtaining jobs around La Limonada, whether in construction, carpentry, or other areas (interesting tid bit about people from La Limonada who try to get jobs: if you put an address from La Limonada on a job application, you’re pretty much guaranteed to NOT get the job).

This is all just the beginning stages! Bill talked about their plans to buy a building that will house the vocational training program. The program is still in the initial stages, and often they don’t have the room or a safe location to consistently have their classes in. They are currently looking at a building that is located in between the two schools, they just have the difficult task of raising the funds to purchase it. Ideally, this building will house training classes for sewing, carpentry, masonry, electrician training, etc.

Of course, these accomplishments and goals for the future are no easy feat to come by: Lemonade International is working in a country with difficult and straining conditions, among a dangerous population, and with the mentality of wanting to establish something that is not dependent on U.S. donors, but self-sustaining.

Sustainability. I love that word. One of the goals for the vocational center is that it will create businesses, like bakeries and carpentry shops, that will help maintain some of the other programs. The are trying to get this sustainability started by looking for a local Community Development Director: someone who will oversee all the programs in Guatemala, and to focus on the sustainability and long term plans of current projects.

This brought us to something else Bill thinks is important for the future of Lemonade International: engaging local people in Guatemala to support the work of La Limonada, to inspire them to care about their own country. We had an interesting conversation about classism in Guatemala: there is still a great divide between people of different socio-economic levels, not to mention indigenous mayans vs. ladino’s. It would be great if instead of having people from the U.S. going to Guatemala to lead these programs, you have Guatemalan’s caring about each other across these socio-economic divides, and leading these programs.

Bill recognizes that something like this will take time, and is steering clear of setting himself up for an “unrealistic disappointment.” He knows sustainability is something that will take time, and until then, raising support in the U.S. to help kids go to school, which may not be sustainable, is better than doing nothing.

Through it all, what keeps Bill and those around him going is seeing the smiles on children’s faces, smiles that weren’t there years before, children that walk with their heads held a little higher than they used to. What else keeps Bill going? His vision for the future of La Limonada:

I want to stand on the bridge overlooking La Limonada, and see people walking around confident in themselves and knowing their self worth, see people who know they can achieve things, that they are part of a community where good things are happening, a community with art, and music. I want to see houses painted with bright Guatemalan colors, and flower boxes hanging under windows. I want to see the hustle and bustle of business: tortillas being delivered, schools in session, festivals and parades. All of this, with no concern for violence.