Empowering Community Leaders in Rural Guatemala

Posted on: August 15, 2016 Topics: maternal and child health, nutrition, practicum, santander

Paola Peynetti Velazquez with community health committee

Paola Peynetti Velazquez, kneeling right, with members of the community health committee of Ánimas Lomas, Jutiapa, Guatemala.

“They work full-time jobs, most of them have only completed primary education, and all of them live in extreme poverty in communities where there are no latrines and very little access to drinking water,” says MPH student Paola Peynetti Velázquez.

She is describing the people who are improving public health across Guatemala.

For her practicum, Peynetti Velázquez spent the summer in Guatemala City, assisting a study of nutrition and maternal and child health improvement efforts by World Vision International, a Christian humanitarian, development, and advocacy organization.

The Child Health and Nutrition Impact Study (CHNIS) was launched by World Vision International and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2012, with endline data set to be gathered in fall 2016. The study evaluates the effectiveness of World Vision’s nutrition and maternal and child health programming service delivery models in Guatemala, Cambodia, Kenya, and Zambia.

This documentation is vital because, although the study spans four countries, local volunteers shape the interventions to fit different contexts, adapting the same mechanisms and training to work best for their individual communities.

Peynetti Velázquez says those World Vision-trained volunteers are the backbone of the programs. “We empower volunteers so they can then empower their families, neighbors, and communities to make better health decisions and improve their quality of life,” she says.

In Guatemala (where the Institute of Nutrition in Central America and Panama is another partner in the study), the volunteers work mainly as “mother guides” and in community health committees.

The mother guides, part of a cascade training model, visit pregnant women and children under 2 years old to provide counseling on maternal and child health issues, nutrition, disease prevention, and other areas. “They help the family identify barriers to better health behavior and then encourage them to find their own solutions,” Peynetti Velázquez says. “They also give advice if the family doesn’t have solutions.”

The community health committees organize workshops, talks, and projects ranging from maternal health to Zika prevention, and form partnerships with churches, schools, local government, clinics, and other resources in their areas.

Peynetti Velázquez’ role also included visiting those volunteers and evaluating local trainers and data collectors, as well as organizing workshops and training sessions.

The highlight of her practicum, she says, was organizing events where volunteers from the different communities could come together. “This was the first time that a lot of these volunteers actually had a chance to meet and talk about how to start partnerships, how to raise funds,” she says. “It was really great for them to meet and give each other tips instead of World Vision telling them how to do things, because they’re the ones who know best and they’re the ones who understand their own needs.”

Supported by both the World Vision fellowship and the Santander Universities Latin America Scholarship, Peynetti Velázquez says the grassroots nature of the program was particularly appealing. “I wanted to really see how things are contextualized and how communities are the ones who lead their development.”

She says understanding and respecting these communities is a vital part of global health work. Originally from Mexico,Peynetti Velázquez says it was important for her to come into a country already speaking the language and understanding the history, politics, and culture. She also studied international relations with a focus on Latin America as an undergraduate at Boston University, and says the wider university has “resources for getting that context that we need as public health professionals, and I encourage everyone at SPH to take advantage of them.

“Our job should be to study the theories, the models, the history, the context, then to listen and learn from locals,” she says, “and finally to try, with humility and respect, to empower others to drive their own change.”

Michelle Samuels

Paola Peynetti Velázquez is taking over the SPH Instagram account to share photos from Guatemala from August 15 through 19. Follow along at Instagram.com/BUSPH/

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