Lakewood nonprofit Friendship Bridge lifts up rural Guatemalan women

Friendship Bridge, a Lakewood-based nonprofit, aims to raise up rural Guatemalan women by providing economic opportunities, education and more – with the help of Coloradans.

The nonprofit social enterprise, which mainly works with rural Guatemala’s indigenous women, provides financial services, health education, agriculture and business technical training and more. Coloradans can most easily support its cause by buying shopping totes, jewelry, ornaments and more created by over 30 artisans of Handmade by Friendship Bridge.

On Thursday evening, more than 40 people gathered to do just that at Convivio Café, a women and immigrant-owned, Guatemalan-inspired café at 4935 W. 38th Ave. in Denver. Guests chatted and munched on traditional Guatemalan snacks, such as canillitas de leche, or condensed milk soft candy, while the latest handmade designs were displayed for the Master Weavers Collection exhibition opening.

Friendship Bridge’s communications coordinator Marta Julia Ixtuc Cuc traveled from the Central American nation for the occasion.

“We’re changing lives,” she said. Ixtuc Cuc spent two years in the U.S. for education, then, upon returning to Guatemala, she had “this big responsibility of giving back to my community.”

That obligation led her to Friendship Bridge, which runs 11 branch offices throughout Guatemala, plus its small team in Lakewood.

The nonprofit maintains a staff of over 200 in total, with the majority in the Central American country, said chief development officer Nicole Eubanks.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., she pointed to the significance of Friendship Circles, which operate as volunteer groups that educate, advocate and raise funds for the nonprofit. Evergreen, Genesee and Foothills are all home to circles in Colorado, on top of others in California, Texas and Wisconsin.

Eubanks hopes to start another one in the south metro area in the coming months.

Joan Crawford, an Applewood resident, accompanied a friend who belongs to the Foothills Friendship Circle to Thursday’s event. She’s frequented similar events held with the aim of empowering women around the globe.

“Like any woman who is living today, you gravitate toward helping or thinking of ways to support other women,” she said.

This year’s Global Gender Gap Index – part of a report that provides findings on gender inequality internationally – ranks Guatemala as 113 out of 146 countries in gender equality. That’s the poorest performance by a Latin American and Caribbean nation.

Comparatively, Iceland tops the list, and Nicaragua holds the No. 7 spot. The U.K. sits at 22 and the U.S. at 27.

The majority of Guatemala’s almost 18 million residents – 56% – identifies as mestizo, or a mix of Spanish and Amerindian, and an additional 42% identify as Mayan. More than half of the country’s population resides in rural areas, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The youngest and most populous Central American nation, Guatemala is described as a “predominantly poor country” that struggles with health and development, malnutrition, literacy and awareness of contraception – and the indigenous population suffers “disproportionately,” according to Factbook.

In Guatemalan cities, “we’re just like in the U.S.,” with opportunities for women, said Maya Colop-Morales, manager of the Handmade program. Rural communities tend to lean on traditional patriarchal systems, although “the whole country’s not like that,” she added.

Originally from Guatemala, she lived in New York for a time, then returned to her home country to start her own business and eventually join Friendship Bridge.

Colop-Morales’ specific program – Handmade by Friendship Bridge – has sold thousands of products, supporting artisans like Valerin Bin Pop. When imagining the future, the 18-year-old indigenous Maya Poqomchi woman wants to open a textile store with her mom and run a small restaurant.

The recent high school graduate used to join her sisters in helping their single mother sell prepared foods and maintain a weaving business. Now, she works with her mom full-time.

“I am fascinated with weaving textiles and combining colors because I can express my imagination in them,” Bin Pop said.

The Handmade program presents “this opportunity that women start talking about money,” Colop-Morales said.

Established in 1990 by founders and doctors Ted and Connie Ning, Friendship Bridge focused on impoverished communities in Vietnam, then expanded to Guatemala in 1998. Among its current offered services are different types of loans, lines of credit, a mentoring network, education sessions, agriculture credit and training, business training and the Handmade program.

“I do see the change,” Colop-Morales said. “Friendship Bridge is truly making an impact.”

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