Mothers teaching mothers
“YOU are the experts here in this community. These women are your neighbors, your friends, your family. They’re going to pay a lot more attention to you than to some gringa!”
That was my response when the mothers of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA)I work with in a rural Mayan community first expressed their hesitation and fears about facilitating nutrition trainings for the rest of the mothers at the primary school. After a year working with this school, in which over 70% of the students suffer from chronic malnutrition, I decided to try to get the parents more involved in the Healthy Schools program. This was no easy task given we were all communicating in our second language and mothers in this community have very little free time to spare. Nonetheless, the four mothers of the parent teacher association showed up to our first Healthy Schools meeting and, though a bit shy at first, little by little began to voice their opinions about the needs of the school. They acknowledged the high rate of malnutrition and agreed that parents in the community needed more information about how to better feed their children. As a nutritionist, I was enthusiastic and eager to offer my help with this project. However, I had to convince them that the trainings would only be successful if we all worked together to develop and facilitate them.
In Peace Corps training, we learn that the role of the volunteer is of mentor and co-facilitator. Our job is not simply to enter a community and tell people what they need to change. That approach is both ineffective and unsustainable. Instead, our role is to build capacity and empower local leaders to identify and address community problems. With this philosophy in mind, I proposed a training of trainers approach in which I offered to train the teachers and PTA mothers in how to facilitate nutrition trainings for parents. While the teachers, who are used to standing in front of a group and leading a lesson, got on board quickly, the mothers needed some convincing. “We don’t speak very good Spanish….we don’t know much about nutrition…we’ve never done this before…” The mothers had never been asked to do anything like this and instead were accustomed to outside “experts” coming in to give them long lectures about hand-washing and eating vegetables. While it took some effort, I was able to persuade the mothers by proposing that they facilitate in their native language and assuring them that I would be by their side for support.
The first training of the series was a very basic lesson on “My Plate” and the components of a healthy, balanced diet. The principal and I co-facilitated the training of trainers, modeling the lesson the teachers and PTA mothers would give to the rest of the 60 school parents. The mothers remained nervous but agreed to pair up with the teachers to co-faciliate the lesson. One week later, I arrived at the school unsure of what to expect. Will the mothers show up? Will everyone be prepared? But what followed turned out to be my proudest moment as a Peace Corps volunteer. As I sat back and watched, the parents and PTA mothers split into three groups and replicated the nutrition lesson entirely in the Mayan kaqchikel language. Babies strapped to their backs, the mothers stood in front of the classroom and talked to their peers about the importance of feeding children a healthy diet. It was a truly awe-inspiring moment when I thought to myself, “This is it! This is the goal! Mothers teaching mothers!” I had no idea what they were saying and had to let go and trust them to lead the activity, but from the looks of it, they did an incredible job. Every mother in the room was participating and paying attention, and I was happily relegated to the role of photographer.
We repeated this activity two more times since then, teaching parents about food hygiene and how to prevent malnutrition, and each time the PTA mothers facilitated more of the lessons. And they didn’t just lecture but used games and other interactive techniques that we promote in the Healthy Schools program. At the end of the series, the parents and teachers had worked to together to implement their knowledge to create a healthy school snack menu and a kitchen hygiene inspection plan. But by far the most rewarding aspect of the project was seeing the PTA mothers gain confidence and empowerment. Being a Healthy Schools Peace Corps Volunteer has been one of the most challenging jobs of my life, but moments like those have made it all worth it.