Caring for homeless children in Guatemala

Hogares Santa Maria de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Homes)
Santa Apolonia, Guatemala

The country of Guatemala has long been known as the hemisphere's worst violator of human rights. The Guatemalan Bishops Conference of 1984 stated that more than 100,000 people had been killed since 1954 and that 38,000 had disappeared. An alarming number of orphaned children were left as a result of these deaths and disappearances. In a country plagued by instability, right wing violence, and corruption, and lacking the infrastructure to respond, the problems facing these orphaned children were phenomenal.

In 1985, at the invitation of the local bishop, the School Sisters of St. Francis (SSSF) began their mission to help care for the many children left homeless after the long civil war. The Hogares Santa Maria de Guadalupe (HSMG) was built in response to this need. It is located in the rural Indian community of Santa Apolonia, approximately 92 kilometers from Guatemala City.

The Children

According to the 2002 census, 81% of the 13,595 people in Santa Apolonia are of Mayan origin. Approximately 77% of the inhabitants are classified as poor and 20% as extremely poor--the highest level in the Chimaltenango department.

The vast majority (81.4%) of the Santa Apolonia population is rural. Most of the people make a living through subsistence farming. Family size tends to be large to assure that there is enough help to support the needs of the family. Most of the children cared for at Guadalupe Homes are of Indian descent and represent a variety of language/ethnic groups.

Culture, tradition, and values play an essential role in the life of each child. The orphanage helps to sustain their way of life and educate them for the future. From the moment they arrive, each child is given a general medical check-up and follows a treatment plan supervised by a nurse until they fully recover from any observed health problems. With the help of a nutritionist, they maintain a balanced diet of rice, beans, vegetables, fruits, and milk.

Development of the Project

Upon their return to Guatemala after being refugees during the country's civil war, the sisters began the project by gathering information, visiting other orphanages, and searching for a place that would
be safe from violence. The village of Santa Apolonia provided the safety they were looking for and the local church invited them to live in the rectory and work in the parish while they proceeded with their plans. After they researched and for-mulated a legal plan of action, they visited the Family and Children's Court in Guatemala City where they were given the official information and approval they needed to build and operate the facility. To get them started the local bishop offered them a 100-year lease on a plot of land near the church. The culture and style of a Guatemalan village became the foundation upon which Guadalupe Homes was designed. Through the help of foundations and gifts from individual donors, the sisters were able to build four simple cabins constructed in a style similar to local housing. Widows were hired to care for the children as "tias" or aunts. Each cabin housed about 15 children and 3 widows who cared for the children as family members. Homeless children were brought to the orphanage from the courts, churches, and other Guatemalan missions. The HSMG staff made every effort to discover and enrich those aspects of family life that were lacking in the children's background. Together with the widows, they tried to affirm and support many aspects of the children's family roots; for example, the children wore their traditional Indian garb and spoke their own Indian languages; they walked the same streets to the same schools as other children.

Expansion of the Project

Word about the new Guadalupe Homes spread rapidly. After about three years it became apparent that more housing was needed. In 1990 a major improvement for the program was initiated. Because some of the boys and girls were growing into their teen years, it was decided that they should have an opportunity to learn a trade before leaving the orphanage. Hence, four additional cabins were built across the street from the main entrance. While six of the eight cabins were used to house the orphans and widows, the two others were used to establish workshops for tailoring, shoemaking, and carpentry. An agricultural program where vegetables, meat, and eggs were produced, also offered an opportunity for the children to learn gardening and animal husbandry. These programs would not only afford a chance for the children to learn basic skills of a trade but would also help them develop a sense of pride in their ability to be productive and self-supporting. All the school uniforms, clothing, shoes, and furniture needed for the children were now provided by these workshops.

At the same time, a co-op where local women could sell crafts (purses, table runners, handbags, etc) was located at the orphanage. Later on, a medical clinic, a pre-school, a meeting hall, and administration offices were added. Imitating the style of buildings in the area, the workshop building was designed very simply and economically. Upon driving into town, the orphanage blended in so well that it was hardly distinguishable from the rest of the village.

As the need for more food increased, the project purchased more acreage to grow vegetables:

  • A potato field across the road was purchased

  • A land purchase of 7.7 acres allowed for an increased production of corn for making tortillas Furthermore, its close proximity to the orphanage provides the opportunity for the students to learn basic Mayan agricultural skills while working with the farm employees

  • Vegetable acreage at the entrance of the town was purchased. A greenhouse was later added so that vegetables could be grown all year round

Long-and short-term volunteers helped to advance the progress of the project. Specialists in dentistry, medicine, development, construction, and education visited the orphanage for weeks, months, and years at a time.

In 1991, a major improvement was initiated by a group of friends from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They raised $40,000 to construct a large, two story building that would provide space and equipment for the workshops. Because of this addition, the two homes formerly used for workshops became available for housing additional orphans and widows. The program for basic skills could now be expanded to include secretarial skills, child care skills, domestic arts, and others.


The greatest challenge has been to care for the children after they completed the 9th grade, which is the extent of education in Santa Apolonia. As the children learned about new job possibilities from the volunteers who helped at the orphanage, they looked beyond manual labor jobs that have been the mainstay of their training. The number of years one must study varies depending on the type of career (most require 2-3 years). This has posed a new set of challenges for the HSMG staff. Consequently, a high priority is now given to preparing the children to succeed in education beyond the 9th grade. The first youth to pursue advanced study occurred in 1995. Since then ever increasing numbers of orphans have chosen to advance their education.

For this reason, new efforts in fund raising have been focused on securing scholarships for the children who wish to prepare for more advanced careers in such areas as secretarial work, teaching, nursing, tourism, mechanics, or accounting in Guatemala City. Working or going to school outside the community at age 15, presents a new set of challenges for the young people as well as for the staff who are responsible for their welfare. The orphanage has rented a house in Guatemala City where 15 of the children are living a lifestyle similar to that at the orphanage. As a community, they are responsible for their life together: housekeeping, finances, and study areas. The HSMG staff visits them on a weekly basis and they, in turn, come back to the orphanage on most weekends.

Resources That Made a Difference

Support from the local bishop through a 100 year-lease for a plot of land in Santa Apolonia proved to be an extraordinary help in getting the project started. The land has also helped in starting the agricultural program which was later expanded.

As local organizations and individuals became aware of the needs of the orphanage they have contributed financially as well as in kind. The local Rotary members provided fabric for school uniforms. A local farmer sold his acreage to the orphanage for its agricultural program and another farmer offered his broccoli produce to the orphanage for the picking.

Friendship Without Borders was instrumental in establishing a medical program with visiting pediatricians from the United States. The doctors supply pharmaceuticals and keep complete medical records on all the children.

The Voluntary Missionary Movement (VMM) sends volunteers who make a two-year commitment of service. Single adults as well as younger and older couples from this movement have been key influences in the lives of the children as teachers, counselors, tutors, and role models.

The University of San Carlos in Guatemala City includes the orphaned children in their dental internship program. Moreover, the orphanage reaches out to the wider community for involvement in this program.

School and medical supplies, clothing and hygiene products donated by friends from the United States are brought to the Salvatorian Warehouse in New Holstein, Wisconsin where they are shipped to Catholic Charities in Guatemala, destined for the orphanage.

Parishes and high schools from the United States have sent groups of 8 to 10 individuals who stay at the orphanage for three weeks at a time to help with painting and maintenance repairs

Efforts at Sustainability

Accountants oversee the financial records and compile complete budgets of income and expenditures for the project. From the very beginning the orphanage has worked toward becoming more self-sufficient. The following income generating projects are now in progress:

  • Animal husbandry at the orphanage provides food from rabbits, pigs, and laying hens

  • Several changes have been made to provide a more cost-effective way to live:

    • Converting from wood burning stoves to gas heat

    • Converting one house in four to become a common kitchen and dining area helped to conserve energy

  • Workshops in tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, and agriculture provide most of the food, clothing and furniture needed at the orphanage

  • Marketing some of the products from the workshops has brought in some extra income:

    • Tailoring shop: students make long sleeve shirts to be sold to visitors and vendors who have already found a market for them

    • Shoe shop: the students make key chains and belts in addition to a variety of shoes that are targeted for sale

    • Agriculture program: a pig project begun in January, 1996, involved the breeding and raising of pigs as well as selling the services of a boar to farmers in the community. The majority of the piglets are sold at two months of age while a few are kept for growth and consumption at the orphanage

The School Sisters of St. Francis (SSSF) International Development Office is currently taking steps to build an endowment fund for Guadalupe Homes. Since education is the key in the search for more justice in the world, funding from various groups and foundations such as the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters has helped to launch the project into a new level of service; namely the continued education and formation of the children beyond the 9th grade.

Two annual reports are prepared for the SSSF Latin American Province and the US International Development Office as a way to evaluate the progress of the project in two ways:

  • Of the growth and educational progress of the children

  • Of the year's program and activities

In addition to monitoring the goals and objectives formulated by the staff, the success of the program can best be evaluated by the progress of the children academically, spiritually, emotionally, socially, and physically, as well as by the quality of the young people who "graduate" from the program. A follow-up study of the "alumni" by a Ph.D. student (a former VMM volunteer) is being conducted to determine how well the outcomes of the project are being achieved; that is, how well the "graduates" are adapting to independent living and using their skills to provide for their families.

A Look to the Future

This project for housing is an on-going program. While the children play in the band that performs for parades, while they play on the local soccer team and celebrate at festivals with other local children, while they learn basic vocational skills and prepare themselves for higher learning toward a specific career, the operational costs have been reduced through the production of food, clothing, shoes, and furniture. Yet the orphanage will necessarily depend on outside sources of funding to meet operational expenses. Currently the budget indicates the need for $350,000 a year to meet expenses. The support of many generous donors continues to make a difference. The impact of such contributions will last for years in the lives of the children who leave the orphanage as adults to take their responsible place in society.


Taken from Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World © 2009, sponsored by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters and used with its permission. All rights reserved.

For more information about the program or about Seeds of Hope Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World, contact: the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd. Suite 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90067-4011 USA. Telephone: 310-785-0746 / Fax: 310-785-0166 / E-mail: Web site:

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