Reporting by Santiago Baldazo, U.S., Ana Handrez, Honduras, and Lylli Moya, Honduras
Blanca knocks on an open front door and walks right on through, as if she’s strolling into her own home. Seated at a sewing machine in the middle of the room is Maria Irene, loose coils of junco — dried palm leaves — pooled at her feet. She greets her visitor but keeps sewing, unsurprised that Blanca makes a beeline for one of the people she’s really there to see: Maria Irene’s 9-month-old granddaughter, Ari Daniela, whom Blanca scoops from the playpen and into a big hug. Ari’s big sister, Rachel, 3, smiles at the pair.
And then Blanca gets down to work. Really down, in fact — onto the floor with Ari, coaxing her attention with a bright toy airplane, flying it from side to side.
It looks like playing, but Blanca’s actions have a specific purpose, and Maria Irene watches carefully. Later, she will replicate everything Blanca does with Ari, and she will show it all to Ari’s mother, Merlin, when she returns from work. With the airplane, Blanca is checking to see whether Ari tracks it accurately with her eyes. This time, she does. Blanca makes a quick note on Ari’s chart.
Guide Mothers’ Role
Blanca is one of several “guide mothers” in Ilama, a small community high in the mountains of northern Honduras where most of the 3,000 residents live in extreme poverty. Trained by ChildFund in early childhood development, guide mothers are volunteers who perform home visits with several families each, teaching mothers various ways in which they can support and enhance the development of their children from newborn to age 6. More than 2,000 volunteer guide mothers are working in Honduran communities today, and the program has been a staple of ChildFund’s early childhood development work in Honduras since the mid-‘90s. ChildFund also runs similar programs in all South American countries where we work, as well as in Senegal and Kenya.
The centerpiece of what guide mothers do is to teach mothers about how child development proceeds, what they should expect at what times and what kinds of activities can help hone the important skills children need to fully achieve their potential — fine and gross motor skills, socio-emotional and cognitive skills and language. On the home visits, the guide mothers monitor improvements and watch for developmental delays, and show caregivers the age-appropriate activities they should carry out between visits. Guide mothers also teach mothers about basic health, hygiene and safety and the importance of education.
Ari’s visual tracking of the plane is an improvement from Blanca’s last visit, eight days ago. “We do the visits every 15 days,” says Blanca, “but I enjoy doing it more often.”
Last week, Ari wasn’t crawling, as she should have been according to the age-appropriate gross motor skills listed on her chart. If the delay continues much longer, the next step will be a referral to the health center for an evaluation.
Blanca places Ari on the floor on all fours, supporting the child’s stomach so that she’s in position, and carefully explains to Maria Irene what she’s doing. The exercise requires placing something in front of Ari to crawl toward, and her evident interest in the toy plane makes it the perfect choice. This week, success!
And then it’s Rachel’s turn for time with Blanca, but with exercises designed for a 3-year-old: hopping back and forth, counting, stacking blocks. As they interact, Rachel’s mother, Merlin, arrives with 6-year-old Aaron, the oldest, just home from school.
Maria Irene feels that the two older children are learning faster than Merlin did. “They are very smart, these children,” she says. “On their own, they like English and count the numbers up to 10. By age 2, they could speak well. When I had my children, if I would have had this knowledge, maybe it would have been different.” She points at Merlin. “I have learned many things through the program, and I tell it all to Merlin — like how to treat a child. I realize that there are things we never told our children, so I tell her so she can know what to teach her children.”
“It starts with a seed,” says Blanca, “and I see the fruit of the work when I see the diplomas in the hands of the children I worked with.”
A single mother of four young girls, Blanca brings a lot of passion to her work — likely because of her own firsthand, acute knowledge of how important it can be to recognize when a child is not developing at the right pace.
Five years ago, because of her own experience in the guide mothers’ program, Blanca knew there was a problem when her youngest, Michelle, didn’t respond at all to the stimulation activities in or outside of the sessions. A trip to the doctor led to devastating news: The baby was deaf.
Blanca knew that if Michelle couldn’t hear, she wouldn’t learn to speak. Because of her training, Blanca understood the full importance of language and of a language-rich environment for learning, and that without it, Michelle would be locked out of the educational opportunities available to other children in the village.
Blanca did not stand still. And the community of Ilama, where she had knocked on dozens of doors to recruit families for the program, shared her knowledge with parents and helped improve the quality of life for many of their children, stepped up to support Blanca. With financial help from the community, Blanca was able to travel with Michele to Spain for a hearing implant.
Michelle, now 5, is able to hear and is therefore learning to speak. Blanca still breaks down whenever she remembers the first time she heard Michelle say, “Mama.”
And she smiles as she looks ahead toward Michelle’s eventual diploma, one among many that she will have helped make possible.