The Mother on the Hill

We went further into the mountains the next day, climbing high into Coffee Land. We loaded into the van and drove through a city and then a few towns until we headed out and up into the forested hills. We were high up, on the very tops. I looked out the window to see the very top of a mountain across the valley and realized we were exactly as high.

At one point I noticed an entire neighborhood built into the side of a mountain. There, carved out on the side of the steep backdrop, were those same metal and concrete structures, wedged in tightly next to each other and into the land. Perched as high as you can go. Nowhere else to turn.

“Look at that!” I told Karla, seated next to me in the van. “People live there!”


I was surprised and impressed.

There were green coffee plants everywhere you looked. And unlike the mountains I’m used to, where things grow native but are left alone, there were people, a few here and there, coming out of the trees. These coffee plants are picked over and sold. If the land is owned by someone else, a person will get $1 for 35 pounds. But if you work for yourself, if you are somehow blessed and lucky and live on land owned by family, you will get almost $40 for that same bag.

We arrived in the small colonial town of Ataco and got into our groups and headed out once again. This time within the town and the outlying areas. I ended up assigned to visit a woman who lived ten minutes by car — plus an additional fifteen minute hike up small streets and paths too tight for the van.

So we headed up. Past metal structures and wooden walls. Poverty, and also, strangely, commerce. A tortilla stand in one entryway. Cold drinks — beer! — in another. Life in abundance, at a very basic level.


That was my take, as we headed up, up, up the mountain. Walking, going, having no clue what I was headed for. Have courage, I told myself, there is nothing to fear.

As an aside, there are a ton of dogs in El Salvador. Someone should write a book called The Dogs of El Salvador. They are everywhere, not in packs, but one or two here and there. Just hanging out. In all the places we went, with the various pet or stray I was so grateful that none of them ever snarled or lurched. They were just there, chilling with the people. (There are also cows and horses just hanging out on the side of the road, a built in landscaping crew keeping the grass from getting out of control.)

But you know, you pass dogs. And people, watching from small windows. Or standing out in the street. It’s not that I’m afraid of them, but it reminds me, again, how off my beaten path I really am. That can be scary for mere mortals like myself. “What have I gotten myself into” was a popular recurring thought.

Turns out, something very good indeed.

When we finally made it to the top of the area, we did a few switchbacks to get to our street. This neighborhood is high and tight. But we made it, and when we rounded that last corner I saw a house, high up off the street, covered in balloons.

decoration¬†“Is this for us,” I asked.

“Yes,” said Karla, “it is for you.”

That was one thing that struck me this week — the importance of Me, representative of You, the person sponsoring. Perhaps not you, specifically, but the people out there who sponsor children or donate to the scholarship fund. These people are so grateful for the life-changing support and when I arrive at their homes, they are delighted to meet These People in the form of me.


I am humbled to be that person.

When I sat down on Irma’s front porch and as I looked out and took in the view, Karla told me where we were.

“This is the village on the mountain,” she said, “the one we saw driving in.”


There we sat, for the next ninety minutes, talking to Irma about her life and the circumstances that have brought her to this day. She has one son, Joel, with special needs; he receives health benefits through the program. There is also her nineteen-year-old daughter, who lives here with her five-year-old son. Another son, Carlos, is sponsored through Unbound and attends the local school. His sponsorship frees up more of the scant funds available to Irma, so her other children can also go to school. And those children live here as well, three more of Irma’s six children, along with their father.

That he is a here is a testament to Unbound’s impact.


The foundation, as Irma called it, helps a lot.

“It is God’s blessing,” she said. “It helps economically, with the food it is a great help. The foundation helped build a new roof and they are helping build a new room.”

But the way they help, I find out later, is through Irma’s own dedication. The foundation doesn’t offer handouts. It helps Irma decide what she wants and needs, and how to make that happen.

The way Irma and her family are getting a room built is like this: instead of taking her sponsorship benefits each month, she is waiting for three months for the money to accrue. Then she and her family work together with the supplies they can now afford, and slowly they are getting another room on their home. Every three months, they save up and use. And then start again.


Irma showed me pictures of her family, and of a recent visit from her son Joel’s sponsor. Those pictures are attached to a large piece of styrofoam and covered in plastic.

A few years ago, Irma learned to read and write so she could send letters to Joel’s sponsor. Three or four times a year she sends an update, how he learned to bathe himself, about the things he learns and changes he goes through.

“I would love to write about the expressions and gestures he ¬†makes when he receives her letters,” said Irma, but said she struggles to find the words.

“I try to tell her, but I can’t express it.”

Because two of her children are sponsored through Unbound, Irma is part of a Mother’s Group. And that involvement changed her life, and the course of her family.


Up next: the story of Irma and her partner.


  1. Marilyn H says:

    Thank you so much for these beautiful reflections on your trip. I began sponsoring a little girl in Guatemala several months ago. When I read that her family of five’s monthly income was $26, it was hard to fathom. I am so glad that Unbound is there to provide assistance. We have so much in our country and it feels good to share the abundance that God has bestowed on us. The only slight disappointment I have with Unbound is the change in their name. When I signed up they were called the Christian Foundation for Children and Aged (CFCA). It made me happy to read about the Catholic roots of the group and their desire to live out the Gospel. While I understand the desire to appeal to a more universal group of donors, I also believe that if it is God’s work it will prosper without having to conform to the world. But, the name has changed and I guess there’s no going back. I would just like Unbound to more prominently explain their Christian roots on their website. As it is now, there is almost no reference to this aspect in their written materials.

    God bless you as you continue your trip! You are in my prayers on this wonderful endeavor.

  2. Thank you so much for the updates on your trip. I really look forward to reading them each day. You make it feel as if I’m right there with you!

  3. You helped us feel like we were right there with you, Rachel. What an uplifting moment (couldn’t help the “high altitude reference!) and time of sharing with that family!

  4. What a beautiful reflection on the importance of these visits. I participated in a trip to Guatemala last year, and to say it was “perspective-changing” or even “life-changing” is to put it mildly. The simple love and gratitude expressed by the communities that we visited was at once both humbling and inspiring. I am fortunate to sponsor an adorable boy from a remote area, and he and his family travelled over 8 hours just for a brief meeting. They had never left their community, or visited an urban area (where we met), and having the opportunity to share that experience, play, eat, and laugh together (despite some significant language difficulties and two translators), was priceless for me. Yet, through that visit, I learned what incredible need remains, and how many more children are awaiting sponsorship!

    I stumbled across your blog through the Unbound Facebook post, and look forward to reading the rest of your reflections. May God grant you continued peace and hope in the light of your experiences.