Konojel Nutrition Center: In which I am proud of my kid

January 22, 2015 in Education, Guatemala, Inspiration, North America, Travelogue


There are moments when I’m immensely proud of my children.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with who they are becoming. I like them. I think they’re interesting humans to share life with. Their accomplishments make me smile. I am not, however, one of those gushy moms who oozes compliments all over her children or makes them believe that they are snowflakes of specialness, or acts like their very natural growth and development qualifies them for some sort of award for fantastic-ness.

They’re just kids. They need to be loved, and encouraged and supported and pushed a little towards their dreams. I don’t claim to be getting this motherhood thing “right” (whatever that means) but I am doing my best every day. The problem, of course, is that my best varies wildly. So does my kids’ best. That’s okay.

Some days I look at one or another of my children and I think, “My gosh, this person’s frontal lobe is never going to grow in! When he’s twenty I’m still going to be asking him why his shorts are laying on the kitchen bench between the bowl of french toast slop he’s cooking and that half a pineapple.”

Most of the time life is messy. I am low level frustrated with one or another persons progress (or lack of it) most days.

  • This one is procrastinating on a particular project that I was assured would be completed yesterday.
  • That one has STILL not picked up the socks that are wet and laying in a heap by the shoes.
  • Another one is behind in a particular school subject and not seeming to mind as much as I do.
  • Whose day was it to clean the bathroom, because it SERIOUSLY needs it.

Big family life is messy. Maybe small family life is too. I don’t know about that, I can’t remember what it’s like to not have a herd.

And then, in the middle of writing a paragraph about how parenthood gets the best of me every day, Ezra starts shouting, “HELP!!! HELP!!” from the bathroom.

It’s a toss up as to whether to laugh or yell when you find a buck naked twelve year old with his hand jammed hard over the cold water faucet in the shower because the entire thing has come out of the wall and he’s trying to keep the jet of water from shooting across the bathroom, cartoon style. I can’t make this stuff up. Wanting to cover all of our bases as parents, one of us laughed, one of us yelled. For the record, the naked, dripping, plumbing exploding shower moment is not the moment that I feel most proud of my child. That’s more of a, “What in the heck are you thinking??? HOW CAN A TWELVE YEAR OLD DISMANTLE THE SHOWER WHILE HE’S IN IT????” kind of moment, but I digress.

To be absolutely honest, most of the time I’m pretty convinced that I’m seriously messing up this motherhood thing.

I’ve made every single mistake I can think of making, and to watch me, you’d think that I sit around considering what stone I’ve left unturned on that front so that I don’t let anyone out the door before I’ve really done a thorough job of botching it.

But then, every once in a while, there’s this glimmer of hope.

Every now and then I sit back and look at a kid, really look at him, in a way that I should take time to do more often, and what I see takes my breath away.

Elisha rolled in late yesterday afternoon, just as I was about to wonder where he was and what trouble he was getting up to this time. He flopped into a kitchen chair and started to unlace his leather boots and sighed, “Mom, there are SO many things wrong with these kids.”

And then he proceeded to unpack his day.

I remembered, vaguely, that he said he’d be up at Konojel extra long. They were putting on a free health clinic in the afternoon with two doctors visiting from America who were seeing the kids (and other members of the community) diagnosing, advising and dispensing much needed medicine, at no cost to the locals.

“I spent all day up there with the kids.” 

“Doing what?” I asked, as I chopped garlic for dinner.

“Well, sometimes playing with them, they were really bored waiting. And then I went in and started helping the doctor. He examined the kids. Some of them had never been to a doctor of any kind before. There were a lot of things wrong with them, Mom. Besides not growing, but we already know about that. That’s why we do Konojel. Daisy’s little brother has parasites. And everyone was really thirsty but there was no pure water so I went down the hill and bought, like, a million bags of water and took them back up to the kids. Then I spent the afternoon measuring out this nasty liquid vitamin that looked and smelled like pee. So gross. And then I’d listen to the doctors and they’d tell me what the kid needed and I’d count out the pills and give out the medicine for them to take home.” 

“You were dispensing medication?? When did you get a degree in Pharmacy?” I teased him.

He gave his signature Elisha shrug, “Well, someone had to do it, and I can’t be the doctor, but I can count the pills.” 

When I emerged this morning at 7:30 for my first cup of tea, Elisha was on the couch with his computer open, halfway through his Algebra lesson, knocking out his school nice and early so that he could be back up at the Centro de Salud by 8:30.

“Can I walk up there with you and see what you’re doing?” I asked.

“Sure,” he shrugged.


As we walked up the path he stopped to tie his shoe and talked a blue streak:

“The Konojel building looks a lot better, Mom. The work days last week made a big difference. It just feels tidier. The ladies will unlock the kitchen soon and start cooking, they begin early. We feed the kids outside on the patio with long tables and benches. That’s where we do our activities, outside too. From the kitchen out back you can look up at Imelda’s house. I wave at her sometimes. Some of these kids this is their only good meal. Most of them don’t grow well because their nutrition is so bad. They think I’m a giant. That’s the house where the kid who tries to beat me up lives.” He offers that last part as an aside and I interrupt:

“Wait, there’s a kid that tries to beat you up every day??”

He laughs, “Yeah, but he’s, like, this tall,” holding one hand by his waist, “And he’s only teasing, he’s just a little scrapper and he likes to have a try because I’m so big. We laugh every day.” 

“Oh, okay. Just checking.” He chuckles and gives me his give-me-a-break-mom eye roll.

A mayan woman wanders past us, rolling her waist long black hair into a bun and smiles, “Hola Elias!” 

My boy waves back, “That’s Maria. She’s kind of the boss lady of the locals.”

We pass Konojel and keep hiking uphill to the pristine white health center, which is largely empty. One woman, waiting in the entrance asks me if I’m one of the doctors. “No, solo la madre de el,” I reply. She smiles and gives me a big hug. She knows Elisha.

He waltzes, like he owns the place, into the center of the building, chooses a door and knocks. The smiling face of an American doctor peeks through the crack and my kid disappears inside. He joins another doctor, Daisy, a Konojel worker who is apparently there as a liason, and a woman who is laying on the table being examined. I wait outside.

Daisy emerges to tell me how fantastic Elisha was yesterday and how much help he is with the kids, and how he, indeed, was the pharmacist assistant to the American doctors.

The only thing I can do is smile.


Elisha has been volunteering at Konojel since the first week we arrived. He goes every single day. As a result, he’s become a local celebrity among the indigenous kids.

I am regularly accosted by a small person in the street shouting up at me, “Donde esta Elias??” I am useful only in identifying their favourite giant, apparently.

Many afternoons my garden is littered with little kids and soccer balls. They run in and out draining the water jug and laughing. Not only does he show up to help serve meals (an estimated 70% of the children in San Marcos are chronically malnourished) he has never missed an opportunity to help with work days or special projects. He organizes his school work and his social life around his obligations there and he’s very annoyed if some family activity interferes.

I went up to the center at noon today to see the project in action.

It is beautiful chaos. 

60 of the most severely malnourished kids in the community are fed a nutritious lunch, lovingly made by three local women who are employed by the project. Today it was a tamale, black beans, rice and vegetables and a slaw like salad.

These kids are identified by the health center based on their height and weight as being the children most in need of the service. After lunch they have a range of educational and creative activities designed to augment their educations. I read books in Spanish and helped a little guy learn to write his name, for the very first time. He mastered it amazingly quickly and insisted on copying it out ten times before delivering the paper to the coordinator as a gift. Elisha drowned in a table of kids trying to make towers out of a hodge podge of materials. The bigger kids practiced their times tables. There was nothing about it that was quiet, but everything about it was brimming with life, love and the bright possibility of a future for these little people.


Years ago, when we took off traveling people asked me what we hoped our kids would get out of the experience.

My answer to that question, from day one, has always been the same: We’re traveling for their educations and so that they see that everyone, everywhere, is basically the same. We also wanted them to get a firm grip on the privilege they enjoy as citizens of the first world and a sense of their responsibility within the larger world as a result.

 This was Elisha when we started cycling through Europe in 2008.

He was just seven years old. He cried every day for the first month we traveled. He missed his friend Jillian. When we cycled past the airport in Nottingham, UK, he said to me in his tiny voice, “You could just drop me off and I could fly home…” I replied, “Yes, but if you went home now you’d miss out on…” and I began listing the adventures we had planned for our very precious one year off to travel together. He wiped his tears and that was the last time he mentioned it. Neither of us expected that seven years later we’d still be rolling, or that he’d be spending his days feeding, playing with, educating and contributing to the health care of a village full of Guatemalan kids. Travel did that. Mission accomplished. 


This is Elisha today.

Can I just say, I’m proud of this kid?

I’m proud of this kid. Today his kindness, his compassion, his dedication to a cause that touches his heart, his willingness to serve outside of his comfort zone, his willingness to make his own life uncomfortable and inconvenient in order to make someone else’s a little bit better, his willingness to do the small things that no one sees, his effort to get beyond language barriers and over the immense cultural divide, and his day after day follow through brought me to my knees.


To Learn More:

I recently discovered this fantastic movie: Living On One Dollar made by four college students who were trying to get a grip on what they were learning in their university degree programs. So they chose to live in extreme poverty for a summer. Talk about taking your education on the road!

This is especially relevant because they did their experiment and filmed this documentary in Pena Blanca, quite literally up the hill from where we are living now. THIS is what Konojel is working to solve:

Watch the trailer here:

Watch the entire film here


Elisha is fundraising for Konojel

Please donate here:

Donate Now