ALDEA Celebrates 50 Years
For 50 years, ALDEA has partnered with indigenous Guatemalans to strengthen communities and enhance the health and well-being of families. This year we are celebrating the profound and lasting legacy in Guatemala of Dr. Carroll Behrhorst, a U.S. doctor from Kansas, affectionately called “Doc” by those who knew him. —Sue Patterson
Celebrating 50 Years of Dr. Carroll Behrhorst’s Legacy in Guatemala
ALDEA carries on Doc’s work by partnering with Mayan villages in Chimaltenango.
Very few nonprofit organizations have been working in Guatemala for 50 years without a break, in part because the 36-year civil war made such work dangerous. However, this year we celebrate exactly this milestone for ALDEA, which was founded in the U.S. in 1967 as the Behrhorst Clinic Foundation.
Although in the intervening years it has modified both its name (ALDEA stands for Advancing Local Development through Empowerment and Action) and the way it works, the mission has remained the same: stimulating grassroots health and development by providing community members in the Department of Chimaltenango the tools they need to organize and address problems themselves.
Some old-timers in La Antigua Guatemala and Guatemala City will remember “Doc” Behrhorst from his arrival in Guatemala in 1959 and the huge impression he left on those who knew him personally, including expats, Peace Corps volunteers, volunteer medical personnel and—primarily—the hundreds of impoverished rural Mayans whose lives he improved by addressing their medical needs.
He found his mantra in the words of Lao Tzu: “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have… when the work is done, the task is accomplished, the people will say, ‘We did it ourselves’.”
Over time and with support from friends here and in the U.S., Dr. Behrhorst built the first hospital in Chimaltenango, where he faithfully cared for the sick and their families. As he began to focus more on preventative as opposed to curative healthcare, he trained over 90 village health promoters, including Rigoberta Menchu’s father.
Doc was the first in Latin America to do so, for which he was called by the World Health Organization “the Albert Schweitzer of Latin America.” The people in a now vastly larger city of Chimaltenango still call his hospital “el Hospitalito del Gringo,” out of loyalty (and perhaps also because his name is unpronounceable in Spanish or Kaqchikel).
Community development is notoriously difficult, requiring a long-term commitment. If it were easy, it would have been accomplished in the last 70 years of concerted efforts by thousands of nonprofit organizations around the world, supplemented by billions of dollars in financial support from international organizations and generous government development programs. Dr. Behrhorst had the patience and love to stay for the long haul, until his death in 1990. He is buried in the Chimaltenango village of Chimazat.
ALDEA carries on Doc’s deep and long-term commitment, currently under the leadership of one of his “mentees,” Pat O’Connor, who first came to Guatemala in 1980 and is now president of the ALDEA board.
The cornerstone of our programs is empowerment of the rural communities with which we work. We develop the leadership and problem-solving skills of women, men and youth to address both the dietary and environmental root causes of chronic childhood malnutrition, which afflicts 50 percent of Guatemala’s children under 5. (Guatemala has the fourth highest malnutrition rate in the world, according to the World Food Programme.)
Through our infrastructure projects (potable water systems, gray-water filters, latrines and efficient and vented stoves) we focus on preventing malnutrition from occurring in the first place. We emphasize good nutrition during the first 1,000 days—the short but critical window during the nine months of pregnancy plus the first two years of a child’s life.
We emphasize exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months, proper complementary feeding practices, and family planning. Nutrition during first 1,000 days provides the essential building blocks for brain development, healthy growth and a strong immune system. Good nutrition has a profound impact on a child’s ability to grow, thrive and learn—and a lasting effect on Guatemala’s health and prosperity.
What I most love about ALDEA’s work is seeing the change among the Mayan women. When we first begin a partnership with a new village, the local development committee (COCODES) almost always is comprised solely of men. But over time, with considerable encouragement from the ALDEA staff, some women who are natural leaders come into their own and become outspoken powerhouses, a beautiful transition to watch.
Women are the principal beneficiaries of the water projects, which to them mean the difference between having a clean water spout at home and having to haul water (sometimes several kilometers) and sanitize it (often over a wood fire) for cooking, washing and drinking. They can then use the four to six hours they save every day to care for their home vegetable garden, tend their goats, weave and spend more time with their children.
Lidia Victoria Pérez Salvador, a community health promoter from Xepanil, Santa Apolonia, identifies additional impacts of ALDEA’s work: “A big benefit of the empowerment program has been greater self-esteem. We understand our rights as women and realize that family problems are not all our fault—our husbands share responsibility for them. You can see this change in the community—people sweep their houses more often and take better care of themselves.”
In the last 10 years ALDEA has partnered with 102 local communities, together with their municipal governments of Santa Apolonia, Patzún and San Martin Jilotepeque, to accomplish the following:
60 village water systems serving 34,600 people
6,818 gray-water filters
6,458 sanitary latrines
6,332 efficient, vented stoves
10,867 people educated in family planning
2,412 women trained in nutrition.
Perhaps even better than the sheer numbers of projects and families affected is the fact that even after 10 years, all these water projects are still working, thanks to local empowerment and oversight. ALDEA’s staff makes regular visits to ensure that the other projects as well are being sustained—and they are. Working in close partnership over an extended time with the villagers in our integrated approach is clearly a fantastic methodology that makes ALDEA deservedly proud.
1959: Doc travels to Guatemala as a Lutheran medical missionary, stationed in La Antigua Guatemala.
1962: Doc founds a vitally needed medical program in Chimaltenango for the Kaqchikel Maya, which grows into a creative center for health and development activities, pioneering an array of village-based interventions.
1967: The Behrhorst Clinic Foundation, Inc. incorporates in the U.S. to provide financial support for Dr. Behrhorst’s work here.
1975: Behrhorst’s program cited by the World Health Organization as one of 10 models worldwide for effective work among the rural poor.
1976: Chimaltenango is the epicenter of a devastating earthquake; Behrhorst’s quake-proof “hospitalito” provides emergency care for hundreds.
1978-85: Civil war escalates; Behrhorst maintains neutrality but two-thirds of his health promoters disappear or are killed and several hospital medical staff are murdered or declared missing. Dr. Behrhorst receives death threats, is forced to flee in 1985, and begins teaching at Tulane University.
1986: First “Behrhorst Study Tour” travels to Guatemala to visit rural villages and meet Behrhorst leaders.
1990: Dr. Behrhorst dies of natural causes, is buried in Chimaltenango.
1995: U.S.-based Behrhorst Clinic Foundation, Inc. becomes Behrhorst Partners for Development (BPD), expanding its mission.
2001: BPD launches a rural health program to decrease child and maternal mortality.
2012: BPD adopts a new overarching goal: reduction of chronic childhood malnutrition in its partner villages.
2015: BPD changes its name to ALDEA: Advancing Local Development through Empowerment and Action.
ALDEA will celebrate its 50 years of history from June 16-18 and welcomes anyone who was involved with Dr. Behrhorst in the past, or who wishes to learn more about our current work, to attend.
Please visit ALDEAGuatemala.org to learn more and make reservations for any of these events:
Chimaltenango partner village tour June 16
Gala Celebration & Fundraising Dinner at the Porta Hotel Antigua June 18
Additional activities, including mini-Tour, for visitors throughout and following the weekend.
We are also kicking off our 50th year with a 50K for $50K Hike to Support Mayan Communities! On April 24, a group of our dedicated staff and supporters will complete a physically challenging 50K hike from one of our partner communities in Patzún to Santiago Atitlán, on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. We will be raising funds to help our vital programs endure into the future.
REVUE article by Sue Patterson