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An advocate for children exports to Guatemala

Founds program to feed the poor

Margaret Blood was on vacation in Guatemala in 2003 when she was inspired to work with the local children. Margaret Blood was on vacation in Guatemala in 2003 when she was inspired to work with the local children. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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Margaret Blood went to Guatemala for a much-needed vacation, but she couldn’t help herself.

Blood, 52, is a longtime early-education crusader whose Boston-based nonprofit, Strategies for Children, keeps her in compulsive work mode throughout the year. After an especially tiring stretch in 2003, she joined a friend from her Boston church for a weeklong break in the Mayan highlands.

Yet as she tried to relax and paint each day along the shores of the picturesque lake, all she saw were hungry children. Her fluent Spanish made it easy to talk with local people, and learn about their struggle to survive.

“You can’t help but notice the tremendous need,’’ she said.

So she returned to the same town, Panajachel, the following year for a longer leave of absence and volunteered at a local school for child workers near Lake Atitlan. And she wanted to do more.

This year, the new nonprofit that Blood, of Jamaica Plain, created is feeding more than 500 elementary school children in Guatemala every day, with meals cooked by volunteer mothers. The program has expanded to four schools, and nine more are clamoring to join as soon as funds permit. Blood has gone back every year since her first visit — and has leaned on friends and colleagues to donate money and time.

Her nonprofit is called Mil Milagros, or A Thousand Miracles, and she is trying to make a difference in a hungry country of 13 million people that is ignored by many Americans.

Jose Aguilar, the program coordinator in Guatemala, said that adding the meals program has brought the school absence rate down from above 25 percent to just 5 percent in three years.

“Also, they are more attentive,’’ he said. “The kids who arrive with empty stomachs pay more attention to their hunger than to their studies.’’

In her second and third stays in Panajachel, Blood volunteered at the child worker school called Project Seed, where alternating morning and afternoon programs allow the children to work in the fields or shine shoes to earn money for the other half of the day. Blood quickly saw that “the greatest threat was childhood hunger.’’ So she began the school-meal program in 2006, and formalized it over the next two years.

One key to the program’s success is that from the outset, parents and children themselves got involved in every aspect. The mothers volunteered to cook, and each child brought two logs a week to stoke the cooking fires. The students must bring their own plates and wash them; the fathers repair the classrooms and grounds.

The project was soon extended to a public school in a nearby mountain village called Chutinamit — Mayan for Little Village Above — feeding the 40 children there in addition to the 160 being fed at the Project Seed school in Panajachel.

One goal was to learn about nutrient values, she said, in a country where malnutrition is rife. Together, the families and teachers also resolved to tackle health and hygiene issues, emphasizing tooth-brushing, hand-washing, and the use of toilet paper and of anti-lice shampoo.

The project has trained 100 mothers, and “the kids are responsible for washing their own dishes. It has been a partnership from the beginning,’’ Blood said last week, just after returning from her annual two-month stay. “Having the ownership from the community is fantastic.’’

The nonprofit is setting up youth advisory councils in each school, which are made up of elementary school-age children, to help run the project and suggest improvements. One early request: sports uniforms.

Nutritional and hygiene improvements from the nonprofit group have also helped the children fight dental problems, which are especially severe in the community.

The free food program costs Mil Milagros 85 cents per child per day.

To pay for the food and a few part-time staffers in Guatemala, the budget for Mil Milagros is $100,000 this year, including $30,000 from the Gloria Dei Foundation and $15,000 from the Stride Rite Foundation. The rest of the money comes from private donors. The first year, a $36,000 seed grant from the Kellogg Foundation got the project going.

School children in Roxbury, Walpole, and elsewhere have raised money, a couple of hundred dollars at a time, and collected books and supplies for the children. Mothers in Walpole with adopted children from Guatemala have set up a coffee-selling group to raise money for Mil Milagros.

Money is the best gift to any nonprofit like hers. Blood has learned the hard way that donations of clothing and books are awkward and expensive to transport, and in any case it is better for the local economy to spend money with merchants and suppliers there.

Blood, a New Jersey native, has a track record of getting things done. She began her career as a community organizer in Boston, and founded the Mission Possible summer program. She worked on children’s issues with the Legislature and for the pediatrics department at the former Boston City Hospital.

She led the United Way’s “Success by 6’’ initiative and campaigned for better health insurance for children; she also was part of the push that won approval of Massachusetts’ “Invest in Children’’ license plates, which fund improvements in early education. In 2001, she founded Strategies for Children Inc., which has grown and now has a staff of nine.

The walls of her downtown office, sublet from the Goulston & Storrs law offices overlooking Boston Harbor, are covered with traditional Mayan multicolored fabrics and artwork, and a chair is filled with scarves and other handicrafts made by villagers for fund-raising sales for the feeding program.

The spirit of the children keeps her coming back. They may not have money for a soccer ball, but “there is a spontaneity of joy in being able to walk down the street and find something to kick. The joy is infectious, in the face of nothing.’’

Aguilar, the program coordinator, said children have gained weight and height — and confidence.

“They are starting to see that they can be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a mayor, or whatever they want. This is giving people another vision of what life can be.’’

UDPATE: At the end of May, two of the Guatemalan communities served by Blood's non-profit group were ravaged by a fierce tropical storm. Two of the four schools where feeding programs were taking place had to close temporarily, and Mil Milagros quickly went to work feeding hundreds of displaced families that took shelter in the schools and elsewhere. Plans are in place for further expansion of the meals and nutrition programs. The Globe article about the school meals program led to a number of contributions to Mil Milagros, Blood said, including one gift of $5,000. - July 15, 2010

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