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What Do Community Graduation and a Train Board Have in Common?

When Food for the Hungry enters a community, our first step is to help parents and community leaders dream of graduation day.

One sunny day in Guatemala’s highlands, I sat in a church listening to men and women talk about their community’s future.  They hunched over large pieces of newsprint paper, spread on a table. In earlier days, they’d mapped out all the important parts of the community.

One by one they shared what they’d like to change. When I’d been in these meetings in other places, the leader’s lists usually involved construction. “The school needs latrines.” “We need to re-grade the main road to prevent floods.” “We need a clinic.”

But with this group, I could hear they were already talking about needs that would impact generation upon generation.

Progress Measured by More than Bricks

This Guatemalan community did need better schools, hospitals, and roads. But the leaders grasped there were other issues. They knew their children were so malnourished that they grew up six inches shorter than God intended. Their girl children were less likely to finish school. Family violence plagued many homes in their mountain village.

These parents and leaders had discovered an important truth: They needed to change how they viewed the world. And that meant thinking about more than construction projects that finish. They need to think in terms of a future where they surface new problems. And where they are empowered to solve those problems themselves.

Community members who look beyond the bricks realize how important relationships are. And in a relationship, they’re able to generate new ideas, solve new problems, and even generate new resources. FH measures the progress of those relationships, and it’s an important factor in how we decide when a community is ready to graduate and walk forward on their own.

Leaving room to grow

My dad is one of my heroes. He spent four decades in community development work, much of it in struggling Rust Belt urban areas.  In our recent weekly check-in, he updated me about his model railroad club’s rebuilding of their train board, in his retirement community’s basement.

The retirement community granted the club a bigger space. The club wanted to give people who were using wheelchairs or motorized scooters room to work on the board.  “Working on the board” means hours of laying track and building an expansive model scene around the train tracks.  They are also lowering the board from the standard, adult standing height to sitting level. This is not only so the senior craftspeople can sit to work, but so young grandchildren can work alongside their grandparents.

I asked him when they expected to be finished.  Dad laughed loudly and said, “Hmmm, maybe 2023.” Which for a senior citizen in his eighties is a highly optimistic statement.

“In reality, a train board is never finished. You don’t want it to be finished. You have to leave room for new people to come into the group, to give their talents,” he said. “Especially at a retirement center. We have new people come here all the time.”

In other words, you create a relational community that continues to expand, improve, and creatively solve problems together for a long time to come.

Graduation As A Goal

FH’s goal isn’t to build a certain set of buildings and then leave. The goal is helping communities stand on their own. New people will come into the mix, especially as the sponsored children grow into adulthood. We are most concerned that we leave a community filled with vibrant, healthy relationships since buildings rot and decay in short order.

You can help communities walk toward graduation from the very first day you sponsor a child. At the same time, you can think about communities you’re part of now as well. Is there something you hope continues long after you’re gone? What would it take to bring new people into the mix, to strengthen your efforts?