Sister Virginia Searing came to Guatemala in 1993 in the final years of a bloody 36-year civil war. A former math teacher, she and another Sister of Charity of New York had been invited down by Sister Barbara Ford to begin a health care program.
“I was immediately overwhelmed with the spectacular beauty of the country and the simple and profound beauty of the Mayan Indigenous people,” Sister Virginia said. “Upon my arrival, we immediately formed the Mental Health Program in the Caritas Pastoral to begin accompanying the thousands of survivors of the civil conflict that left every man, woman and child suffering serious traumas.”
More than 200,000 people had been tortured and killed because of their Mayan heritage. The majority of the remaining survivors were left with no land, no house, and missing or assassinated family members.
“Listening to the stories of the women and men, all of whom suffered first-hand physical and psychological abuse, changed my life forever,” she said. “As we sat and shared their stories and created rituals and healing processes with the communities, I too was healed and transformed and came to appreciate each sacred moment that we are privileged to live.”
After the tragic death of Sister Barbara Ford in 2001, Sister Virginia continued to work in the Caritas mental health program, planning and dreaming up a place that would bear the late sister’s name. In 2009, Sister Virginia and fellow Sister of Charity Mary Meyler co-founded the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center (BFPC).
“We were able to create this incredible retreat center – 61 acres of a wooded area near Santa Cruz,” Sister Virginia said. “We started very small and started growing. We have five buildings, with most donations coming from the States. People come here for reflection and getting to their inner spaces.”
In a country rocked by civil war, Sister Virginia continues to this day to bring hope and healing to the local population through the Center’s four strong programs: integrated health, human rights, opportunities for youth, and agriculture.
The Center continues to minister to the healthcare needs of the Mayan people through the Salud Integral, an integrated healthcare program that teaches promoters how to use alternative techniques and medicinal remedies rooted in traditional Mayan culture.
“We have over 40 promoters of mental health that come and get training at all levels. They actually learn the Mayan practices, alternative healing, acupressure, and other techniques. The promoters then go back to their communities to practice.”
Violence against women is especially prevalent in Guatemala. The program prepares health promoters to identify and accompany women for comprehensive services and teach alternative therapeutic trauma management techniques.
The Center has embraced the human rights struggle through its Derechos Humanos program, working together with the government, local authorities and the church to begin creating changes in health and well-being for all people. Six local human rights offices have been established.
The Center conducts regional youth conferences to create spaces for youth to discuss human rights and strategies to demand those rights through political advocacy tools. Currently in Guatemala, human rights abuses include widespread institutional corruption, police and military involvement in crimes, and societal violence, especially against women.
“We have at the core of our work the Vincentian concepts of Systemic Change and Collaboration as the methodology needed to work at the community level. This well developed and proven method helps our teams to walk with our people as they find their own solutions to their problems and together, with other organizations both religious and State, create their agendas to bring healing and development to their families and communities.”
The Oportunidades program provides entrepreneurial opportunities for youth to learn specialty technical skills like honey production, shampoos and soap production, baking and food preparation, cosmetology, screen printing and more. As a culminating experience, the youth launch their small businesses in a fair organized by the Center where they showcase their goods and services.
“All the youth come and bring their baked goods, shampoos, honey, etc. whatever their entrepreneurship is, and they bring them to Central Park in Santa Cruz,” Sister Virginia said. “They set up all these tables and decorations, and the idea is to sell their items. The kids get up and talk on a microphone about our programs and encourage other youth to get involved. It gives the kids an experience of buying and selling, and encourages them to set up their own business.”
Widespread corruption and lack of formal employment opportunities force many youth to seek out job opportunities elsewhere through migration to neighboring countries. Developing a specialty trade allows these same youth to earn money by beginning a business of their own in their home communities.
Sister Virginia is especially proud of the creation of a Youth Cooperative for the production of honey and silk-screening, the only one of its kind in Guatemala. The Canadian Embassy recently granted first place to the Cooperative program for demonstrating gender equality, good practices, work with the government and non-government organizations and a well-defined plan for the development of youth entrepreneurship. The program will now be presented to the level of Central America.
“Through the continuation of their education and the creation of business opportunities, the youth are now able to live dignified lives, and are able to continue to live in their incredible beautiful land.”
A new Agriculture program, Agricultura, is in the works at the Center that will strengthen food security in the region. Through a significant grant from University of California Davis, the Center will be providing drip irrigation systems – a type of irrigation that doesn’t erode the land – for 9,000 farmers and families. Part of the program will work directly with families to improve their economy and nutrition. Additionally, the Center has been collaborating with Save the Children’s USAID Food Security Program, allowing the construction of a model farm on the Center’s property to demonstrate common and innovative methods of farming and the maintenance of farm animals. The farm has all types of vegetables, trees, goats, rabbits, chickens and eggs, and the Center will inherit the whole project in 2017.
It is a promising program for the coming years, to work in conjunction with three other successful programs at the Center that bring hope and healing to the Indigenous Mayan people.
Sister Virginia’s 23 years of work in Quiché, Guatemala has transformed the lives of thousands of women, men and children through the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center’s programs and outreach. And she continues to be transformed herself.
“The inspiration of Elizabeth Seton and St. Vincent de Paul continues to be lived in my life here in the western highlands,” Sister Virginia said. “As Elizabeth was rejected by her family and friends, so too the Mayan Indigenous suffer for being Mayan. Elizabeth experienced much suffering in Baltimore as the small group of women began their life as teachers and members of a Community. The families here live in extreme poverty and mal nutrition, and they suffer and die from common diseases that no human being should suffer. Poverty for me is not just lack of income but violence, lack of freedom, lack of health and education, and discrimination against women. My hope continues to grow and I continue to dream for a Guatemala with all living with dignity, rights, and healthy and productive lives.”