Service with Love

Service with Love

By Shelly Stokes

Becca Pohl teaching

 

Becca and Alan Pohl, founders of Alivio International, made the first of many visits to Chapala in 2010 to help with a summer program for local children. Like so many of us who eventually move to the area, the community and the local people found a place in their hearts. On various trips, they worked with La Ola girls’ home, Hope House boys’ home and medical clinics in Mezcala, San Pedro, Agua Caliente and Chalpicote, villages east of Chapala.

Becca’s background in nursing and Alan’s talents as a carpenter and pastor give them the skills to tackle all kinds of projects, but it is their thoughtful perspective on where to help and how to help that is especially refreshing. They resist the urge to go for the easy fixes. Instead, they dig into the details to find the underlying problems.

Why are there so many intestinal infections in this community? Why so many kidney problems in the next community? Why don’t people trust the local water?

Rather than organizing ongoing medical clinics and medication distributions, Becca and Alan ask why these needs are present – and then look for ways to prevent the problems instead of treating the symptoms.

During a recent conversation, I asked Becca why they chose to work with people in Agua Caliente. The village is not far from Chapala in distance, but the road along the lake is horrendous and the alternative route makes for a very long drive.

Without hesitation, she said the distance from Chapala was exactly why they chose to work there. Most Lakeside organizations choose to work closer to home, and very little aid gets out to villages further to the East.

Becca also explained that she and Alan pick their projects carefully. They are a two-person team and can only do so much. Even when they partner with a local Rotary club, they feel that they can be more effective taking on projects in small communities, where helping a few families can make a difference to the entire community.

After several medical clinics in the villages, it became clear that clean drinking water and proper sanitation could prevent many of the infections and medical issues they were seeing. Knowing that big infrastructure projects were not feasible, they set out to find a home-based solution for purifying water without electricity. After finding a low-cost ceramic filter that can remove the vast majority of impurities, they went to work with the Chapala Sunrise Rotary club to distribute the filters to people who needed them.

While working on that project, they learned a lot of hard lessons about what works and what doesn’t work when you are trying to change behavior or beliefs – particularly when you are an outsider working in a local village.

They discovered that it’s not just a matter of showing up, handing out filters and thinking a problem is solved. It’s not just a matter of taking water for analysis and handing out an information sheet showing that the filtered water will be fine. The information-rich approach that works well in the US or Canada simply doesn’t translate well to a rural village in Mexico.

Through trial and error, Becca and Alan were able to uncover the belief system that informed the relationship people had with their water. They learned that people in the villages grew up hearing that the water wasn’t safe from authority figures they trusted. To tackle the drinking water problem, they needed to tackle the belief system. And for that, they needed help from a local doctor, a pastor, a government funded environmental agency and members of the Chapala Rotary club.

As they learned more, they set up a system. To get a filter, a family had to attend an education session to learn how the filters worked and how to use them. The local partners (pastor, doctor, government official) provided assurance that the filters would, indeed, make the local water suitable for drinking. Finally, each family was given a certificate of completion, which helped instill the new behavior in their home – and could potentially influence other families and neighbors to do the same.

While the water filter project connected Becca and Alan with several communities, it is not the only project on their plate.

Before moving to Chapala, Becca started a Days for Girls group in Lethbridge, Alberta. Volunteers in Lethbridge made kits of reusable menstrual pads, and Becca distributed the kits on trips to locations in Costa Rica and El Salvador. Here in Mexico, she distributed kits to the Wixárika (Huichol) people in the Sierra Madres and in villages east of Chapala.

After moving to Chapala in 2017, Becca wanted to set up a Days for Girls Enterprise, teaching local women to make pads and liners that could be donated and sold to local women at a subsidized price. Unfortunately, she was faced with another hard lesson. The pattern and construction methods to make the Days for Girls pads and liners were simply too time-consuming to make it a viable work-from-home enterprise. 

Discouraged but not deterred, Becca spent the next two years designing a reusable menstrual pad that is both comfortable to use and simple to construct. Over time, her “sewing ladies” in Agua Caliente turned into a small but capable sewing cooperative that enables women to work from home while taking care of their families. The women produce reusable menstrual pads that are sold under the Bela Feminina brand and distributed to local schoolgirls along with health and wellness education.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Becca and Alan knew they needed to switch gears. With the total shutdown throwing vast numbers of people out of work, Alan focused on emergency food relief efforts with the Sunrise Rotary club. Working with Rotary members and local partners, they coordinated and distributed weekly food dispensas to 130 families for five months.

Becca redirected the efforts of her sewing ladies, putting them to work making 4-layer reusable facemasks. With help from friends, Becca sold masks in the expat community as a fundraiser and made donations to local front-line workers, including 85 masks for the entire Chapala Municipal Police force at a time when masks were not readily available.

When fabric masks became commonplace, Becca made yet another pivot. She contacted Teleton hospital in Guadalajara to see if the kids in the rehab program needed masks. Expecting that they might need 350-400 masks, she got a big surprise when they asked for 1900! In her usual fashion, Becca took a deep breath and got to work. By expanding her sewing group, the women made 2000 masks for the Teleton kids and earned valuable income while other family members were out of work.

With life returning a bit more toward “normal,” Becca is once again taking three children from Chalpicote to Teleton in Guadalajara every other Wednesday, working with her sewing co-op, establishing the new El Tulipa bazaar, and serving as president of the Chapala Sunrise Rotary club. Alan is back to work with the boys at Hope House, serves as pastor of the Lakeside Community Fellowship and supports Becca’s projects in the community.

Becca and Alan truly serve the Lakeside community and the surrounding villages with an abundance of love. They rely on fundraising and sustaining donors to fund all of their projects. You can read more about their current efforts and make donations at:

Aliviointl.com

Al and Becca with boy from Hope House

Al and Becca with boy fromAl and Becca with boy from Hope House

El Ojo del Lago – Home Page

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

 

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