KCK-based Unbound celebrates generous hearts

Mothers groups are a key building block in the Unbound model. This group makes laundry soap.
Mothers groups are a key building block in the Unbound model. This group makes laundry soap. Luis Cocon for Unbound

Descending into Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport, I press my nose against the plane window, captivated by vibrant colors splashed across the mountainous landscape.

An hour later, careening out of the city in a van headed west for Chimaltenango, I realize the bright patchwork catching my attention from the air was actually a contiguous system of tarps and shanties precariously perched on hillsides surrounding the city.

“I understand the poorest of the poor live there,” points out Elizabeth Alex, my travel companion and community outreach and media relations director at Unbound, a 34-year-old nonprofit humanitarian organization based in Kansas City, Kan. “They build unsafe shelters, one on top of another, just to escape the elements.”

Like many developing nations, Guatemala’s history is complex — wars, political coups, violence, oppression. Rural poverty in the Central American country is punctuated by lush flora juxtaposed against the region’s veneer of ongoing violence and desolation.

But the Guatemalan people’s pride is fierce. Their optimistic survival instinct, bolstered by a strong foundation of faith, stands in stark contrast with crowded, grimy city streets where shriveled remnants of natural beauty pop up between concrete cracks, and ramshackle businesses sit in the shadows of towering historic cathedrals.

The dribs and drabs of loveliness make the total effect for me, a first-time visitor to Guatemala, that much more melancholy.

Alex and I are in Guatemala for a week, scheduled to visit four Unbound families who have Kansas City sponsors — individuals who make a monthly financial commitment that has a direct impact on the life of the person sponsored. Unbound emphasizes personalized solutions to poverty, and families who receive sponsorship dollars — or benefits — are encouraged to use their own inspiration and initiative to improve their lives and communities.

From buying food or shoes, fixing a leaky roof to sending a child to school, the Unbound program allows families to choose the assistance that will help their children the most. A minimum sponsorship is $30 a month. Although sponsors can stop at any time, most keep their commitment with Unbound for decades. In some instances, Unbound sponsorships are even handed down in families when a sponsor dies. Sponsors have the opportunity to get to know their sponsored child or elderly person through letter-writing and awareness visits.

Alex and I have an ambitious itinerary. Home visits, spending time with mothers groups and getting a firsthand glimpse of how Unbound’s highly personalized sponsorship model not only empowers families but also celebrates their gifts and connects the world to their struggles.

Although I will witness the harsh plight of the poor — and extreme poor — Alex promises I will see happiness and even contentment.

“Poverty is complicated,” Alex says several times during our trip. “But what Unbound provides, in addition to direct monthly benefits for sponsored individuals, is encouragement and a holistic approach to community building.”

By the time I leave Guatemala, the warm smiles, indomitable spirits and genuine hugs of the people I’ve met lift my melancholy — just as Alex predicted.

The words of Benito, a farmer and father of 10, resonate: “I don’t have much, but I am a steward of what God has given me. I have spiritual wealth.”

Tomasa, a weary, 87-year-old Mayan woman who bid me goodbye: “May God give you more life, more work, more joy.”

Evarista, a mother who explains the chickens running through her two-room, dirt-floor cinderblock house with a leaky corrugated roof that accommodates 14 people: “These birds are my savings account. We might eat them if we get hungry enough.”

Tiofilo, married to Maria for 30 years, father of 12, who lives in a remote mountain village: “God bless you for your visit; we will forever have you in our hearts.”

Seven months have passed since I visited Guatemala — weeks during which I remodeled my closet in my safe Overland Park home; purchased art, furniture and clothes; enjoyed meals at restaurants and in friends’ homes; went to the movies; and attended performances at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

I did loads of laundry in a modern washing machine, shopped for groceries in well-stocked stores and bought gasoline for my car. When diagnosed with pneumonia in January, I had access to good health care and medicine. I brushed my teeth several times a day and had the dignity of using a restroom with running water and a toilet.

Accommodations that are part of my everyday life — electricity, clean water, a comfortable bed and a safe environment — are not even distant options for the Guatemalan families I encountered. More than 90 percent of the indigenous population lives in extreme poverty, where economic inequality and violence are widespread, where prostitution is legal and young girls are sold into rings. Education for many is a luxury; the main focus, especially in rural Guatemala, is simply putting food on the table — and often finding a temporary job in the morning to help achieve that goal.

Alex, who left her job in 2013 as a news anchor at KSHB, Kansas City’s NBC affiliate, is no stranger to helping people in such circumstances. She stepped up to the plate when Deb’s House, established to be a temporary refuge for Romanian orphans as they waited for placement in the U.S., was threatened with closure after international adoptions ceased in 2004. While many agencies abandoned Romanian projects, the American friends of Deb’s House, spearheaded by Alex, scrambled to keep it going, providing a safe haven for the kids left in limbo.

“The work we do at Deb’s House makes a difference in the lives of kids that otherwise wouldn’t have a chance,” Alex said. “And at Unbound, I see everyday miracles happen in Guatemala and around the world where we do our work — a world that often doesn’t understand the trials these people go through just to live. Families unable to eat or buy shoes without generous sponsors. Children who couldn’t attend school. People who realize their worth and attain their dreams, despite their poverty.”

Respect, Alex said, is a core value at Unbound.

“Unbound is about respecting people — where they are.”

Luis Cocon, 36, an Unbound staffer, is our translator for the week. Orlando, who doesn’t speak English, is our driver. His van, a late-model Volkswagen, is clean and decorated with homemade curtains and Guatemalan tapestries.

Cocon, married with three children, is Unbound’s Guatemala and Mexico communications liaison. A 10-year employee of the organization, his experience is unusual: He spent part of his childhood in Los Angeles, where his parents worked. Today, Cocon, of Mayan descent, raises his family in Patzún, his birthplace.

He speaks about dangers existing in his home country — like “chicken buses,” city buses that travel at high speeds and are packed with people going to work and on errands.

“Drivers are frequently shot and killed because the bus company didn’t pay extortion money to a particular gang,” he said. “I have been robbed at gunpoint myself.”

Violence is rampant in Guatemala, which is about the size of Ohio and has a population of nearly 16 million. City gang violence is prevalent; gender-based violence is chronic (according to the United Nations, two women are killed every day); and crime is everywhere, attributed largely to the endemic poverty that persists.

Drug violence is extensive. Drugs pass into Guatemala from neighboring Honduras, where family trafficking networks collaborate with Mexican cartels to move the illegal substances into the U.S.

And Unbound itself has experienced violence: In 2014, a social worker was shot after coming upon a robbery in progress. Staff members here try to help families cope with the realities of the violence through programming and support.

Piling into Orlando’s van, we set out for the tiny village of Zaragoza to meet young Vilma and her family.

“One of my biggest rewards working for Unbound is that I get to serve and be with my people,” Cocon said. “As far as literacy rates, we’re up there, toe-to-toe with Haiti and Africa, for the number of people unable to read. But I see change with the work Unbound does here, with the sponsorship benefits that children like Vilma receive.”

Cocon pauses, emotion crossing his youthful face. “We concentrate, one-on-one, with families and children,” he said. “That inspires me, because one family’s example teaches the next one.”

Orlando maneuvers the van down a crowded road lined with primitive concrete homes. People peek from behind doors and wooden fences; five members of Vilma’s family, including her 82-year-old grandmother, usher us into their simple compound. The washing station is in the open; firewood is stacked everywhere. The two-room home includes a kitchen area with a wood-burning stove and a room filled with beds. The dirt floor is swept clean (brooms are plentiful in Guatemala — even if your floor is dirt, it’s a symbol of pride to keep it tidy); the air is thick with an acrid smoke smell.

According to Cocon, many people suffer from respiratory illnesses and disease because of the inadequate ventilation in homes.

Twelve-year-old Vilma is sponsored by Ed and Barb Van Buskirk of south Kansas City. The couple traveled to Guatemala in 2012 and met Vilma and her parents in Antigua’s Parque Central, where they played Jenga and ate ice cream cones from McDonald’s.

Today Vilma’s mother, Evarista, smiles as she recalls that visit. “They came to see Vilma,” she told me through Unbound social worker Maria. “It was special.”

The Unbound benefits Vilma receives as a result of the Van Buskirks’ sponsorship allow the youngster to go to school. Her favorite subjects are math and reading; her dream is to someday teach. Benito, her father, acknowledges that it’s difficult to provide the basics for his family. “We have spiritual wealth,” he said. “And we must not forget everything is in God’s hands.”

The Van Buskirks relaxed in their Kansas City living room on a recent Sunday afternoon to talk about their 15-year involvement with Unbound, which was spurred by meeting one of the founders, Nadine Pearce.

“Knowing our three children grew up with enough to eat and went to school and that there were kids with nothing — that was our motivation,” said Ed Van Buskirk, the owner of a small IT company. “Vilma is the fourth child we’ve sponsored over the years, and we will make our fourth trip to Guatemala in late July.”

“God is so real to those people,” said Barb Van Buskirk, a former hospice nurse. “We get so much more than we ever give through our sponsorship.”

Bob Hentzen co-founded Unbound as Christian Foundation for Children and Aging in 1981 with two brothers, a sister and a friend. Considered the organization’s visionary leader, Hentzen died in 2013, two years after completing an 18-month journey from Guatemala to Chile, walking nearly 8,000 miles through 12 countries where more than 183,000 families in the Unbound program live.

“CFCA was born in the heart of each of us,” Hentzen once said, “and in the hearts of the poor whom we are called to serve.”

The organization underwent a rebranding in 2014, when the name was changed to Unbound to better represent that their work around the world is without limits.

Today, Unbound serves more than 300,000 families in 21 countries worldwide. There are nearly 270,000 sponsors — most from the U.S. — who help people become more self-sufficient and create resilient communities through direct aid. More than 92 percent of the money spent by Unbound supports programs — funding scholarships, disaster assistance, micro-financing, small-business loans and water and sanitation projects. In 2014, more than $100 million in direct assistance went to Unbound’s projects; revenue was just over $120 million.

Dan Pearson, 44, Unbound’s director of international programs, is a Butler, Mo., native, and has worked with Unbound for nine years.

“I felt that magical combination of humility and confidence with Unbound,” Pearson said. “One of the biggest challenges is restraining the tendency to want to go in and fix things, whether it’s our work in Guatemala, El Salvador, India or another country. We take the lead from the families themselves and don’t propose solutions, but listen to where they are headed and channel our resources.”

Pearson refers to the mothers in poor countries as experts in global poverty.

“They know how to stretch two-and-a-half dollars a week or every two weeks to feed a family of six,” Pearson said. “The fact they are surviving is proof of their ability to do much with little. Day-to-day existence is a very short horizon. Unbound sponsorship gives breathing room so they can think longer-term.”

Like many at Unbound, Pearson refers to founder Hentzen with reverence.

“Bob liked to say you save the world by building one-to-one relationships between actual people,” Pearson said. “Everything we do comes with great responsibility. Families in these poor countries have been deceived and abused by organizations claiming to want to help them. We must build trust with them, which is something Bob didn’t take lightly.”

Educating a generation of children, activating communities from the bottom up, enabling girls to go to school — all are components of Unbound and its sponsorship program.

“Guatemalans are among the poorest in the hemisphere and have endured many tragedies,” Pearson said, “and now face a wave of violence. Their intrinsic spirit is one of strength and hope. Our progress continues.”

According to Pearson, Unbound projects in Guatemala support families through emergency funds and benefits with the cost of burials — natural deaths and those that result from violence.

“Certainly,” he said, “violent deaths are often the most heartbreaking.”

The home’s entryway in Patzicía, Guatemala, where Tomasa lives with her daughter, Dilma, and several grandchildren, is filled with deflated balloons hanging from the ceiling, left from a festive wedding reception days before. Her 23-year-old grandson, Sergio, was the groom.

We walk through an open-air garden where herbs and poinsettias grow into the kitchen to meet Tomasa, dressed in traditional woven Mayan garb and headscarf. Seated next to a warm stove, her eyes are closed. She speaks in halting sentences with the help of Paula, an Unbound social worker.

“I am an old lady. My body is worn out,” she said quietly. “The years are heavy on me.”

Tomasa’s husband died eight years ago, forcing her to move in with Dilma. Tomasa has nine children, 60 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren. “I am thankful for my family, who takes care of me,” she said, opening her eyes, “and for Unbound. Without that, I couldn’t survive.”

Janine Hogan of Waldo, a secretary in Latina/Latino studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was Sergio’s sponsor until he aged out at 18.

“My mother, Florence Maines, started with Unbound in 1997, and it was an important part of her life,” Hogan said recently in her office. “When she passed in 2004, I assumed Sergio’s sponsorship, and when that ended requested a family member. I was assigned Tomasa.”

Thanks to her mother’s tireless work at the Seton Center, a social services organization in Kansas City’s urban core, Hogan grew up with a consciousness of the poverty and hunger that exist not only locally but globally.

“Homeless people were at our Thanksgiving table every year,” Hogan said. “My mother grew up hungry, so helping others was her mission. Unbound was significant to her. I felt it my duty to continue.”

Later in the afternoon, Alex and I visit two mothers groups: One produces unscented laundry soap, and the other makes a corn flour product. These groups are an essential building block in Unbound’s model, allowing mothers to share best practices on what it takes for a family to succeed.

“Mothers groups are an innovation Unbound adopted and introduced in India and spread to projects in Central and South America,” Alex said as we watch Isabella prepare soap over an outdoor kitchen fire. “They are critical in building strong, stable communities.”

The self-directed small groups — “If you need a microphone to address the group, it’s too large” — operate on the basic premise that mothers are capable, resourceful individuals who define their families’ greatest needs. The women in Guatemalan villages and around the world organize with Unbound’s guidance. Today, Unbound supports more than 9,500 mothers groups worldwide.

“The result might be seed money for a small business, educational support or community activism,” Alex explained. “The empowerment gained builds future.”

The Iximché archeological ruins, regarded as the Mayans’ last capital, was founded in 1463. Rich in history, the area was also the first Spanish colonial city, founded in 1524. It is in this serene place that Alex and I meet 12-year-old Carmen, sponsored by Overland Park residents Greg and Maureen Reuter, and Carmen’s family. Unbound social worker Maria accompanies us as we settle on the grass near ancient stone steps.

“I will be in seventh grade next year,” Carmen says through Maria, her big brown eyes focused on Alex and me. “I like school. It’s important to get an education.”

Carmen’s mother, Brenda, is grateful to Unbound, which also provided benefits for her son, Nelson. “Food, supplies, clothes — Unbound helps me with that.”

Carmen’s grandfather, Rufino, a small, weathered man whose sole income is from growing corn, speaks earnestly about challenges facing his family.

“We don’t have much, but praise God for what we do have,” he said, “and we hope our children will do better.”

Carmen leaves the adults to go play among the ruins with cousin Wendy. We stroll through the beautiful grounds, stopping to watch strangers perform a Mayan ritual over a campfire. Not a word is spoken among us, but as we part, robust embraces are exchanged.

“If you don’t speak the language, hugs work every time,” Alex said.

Far away from the ruins, the Reuters sipped water and sifted through folders representing their 16 years of Unbound sponsorship. It’s a summer Saturday in Johnson County and through the closed windows, the sound of a lawn service manicuring a yard was audible.

“We sponsored Carmen following a 2013 Guatemala awareness trip,” said radiologist Greg Reuter. “The ironic thing is: Carmen and her family could be sitting here, in Overland Park, giving you this interview and my family could be in Guatemala, in their situation. Why are circumstances like they are? We’ll never know.”

Maureen Reuter, a community volunteer who stayed at home to raise four boys, including identical twins, noted the similarities she saw in Guatemala.

“The things that make families happy there are the things that make mine happy,” she said. “They have some of the same fears, hopes and issues with their kids that we do.”

The Reuters became involved with Unbound in 2000 after listening to a presentation at Church of the Ascension. Today they sponsor 10 children in several countries, including five in Guatemala.

“Unbound is transparent and the only child-sponsorship nonprofit on CharityWatch (a third-party organization that evaluates charities) to receive an A+, which means they spend a large percentage on programs,” Greg Reuter said. “That was important to Maureen and me — we had to trust the organization we were committing funds to.”

Although the Reuters had never met their sponsored kids, the first time they visited Guatemala they knew they would immediately recognize them.

“We waited for them in the Unbound project headquarters that day,” Greg Reuter said, “and Maureen and I got emotional when they came into the room. It was quite a moment.”

Orlando pulls up to the Unbound project office in San Martín Jilotepeque, where we have a brief tour — and see hundreds of notebooks bearing sponsors’ letters to children — and then climb into a pickup truck, which bumps along a curving, rutted road for more than an hour, dangerously close to the mountain’s edge.

Our driver avoids the potholes and occasional donkey and delivers us to a picturesque village where 140 families live. We walk down a dirt path lined with flowering coffee plants to Tiofilo and Maria’s home.

Two cinderblock structures, an outhouse and wash station are situated in the middle of the valley. There is a wire cage with at least 20 chickens and another containing two large rabbits — not pets, but a future meal or two — and everywhere are bursts of color from native plants.

Eight-year-old Mariana is one of Tiofilo and Maria’s children and sponsored by Sandra and Kent Scheuler of Kansas City, North. She lives with her parents and 11 siblings. The family arranges plastic chairs in a circle for Alex, Cocon and me. Mariana, who attends school because of Unbound, sits in my lap, drawing a flower in my reporter’s notebook.

The family raises tomatoes and string beans, driving 40 minutes each way to sell them in a market. It’s a difficult life, Tiofilo notes, but his family’s being together gives him happiness.

“Poverty is not an obstacle,” he said, “but the chance to move forward.”

Sandra Scheuler took a bite of her blueberry muffin at First Watch in North Kansas City on a recent Saturday — and we both reflect on the fact that Tiofilo and his family have probably never had the pleasure of a fresh, warm muffin.

“Kent and I have sponsored someone in Unbound since 1993,” she said. “It’s a way to look outside ourselves and our fortunate life.”

For the Scheulers (he works at Cerner, she at Note to Self Socks), the decision to become involved represented a priceless opportunity to show their own children that regardless of circumstances, life still holds joy.

“In 22 years we have sponsored three children, and each one reminds us that our family is a minority in the world — we have more material things and different opportunities,” Scheuler said. “Life is 10 percent of what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”

Unbound in Guatemala

▪ 1982: Opened first office in the country

▪ 2015: 40 offices

▪ Number sponsored: More than 87,000; mostly children, but also youth and elderly.

▪ San Luca Tolimán: Coordinating office for two Guatemalan projects, Project Atitlán and Project Hermano Pedro, which is Unbound’s largest.

▪ Education: Children in Guatemala tend to have one of the lowest education levels in Latin America.

▪ According to the 2012 UNESCO Institute for Statistics: An average adult Guatemalan completes 5.6 years of schooling.

▪ Marriage over education: Some families in Guatemala place higher priority on girls preparing for marriage than on continuing education.

To learn more

For more information about Unbound, visit www.unbound.org.