Hope blooms in Guatemala

Organization provides education, hunger relief
By Stephanie Grimoldby

Young girls from a village in Guatemala now have a chance to attend school just as their brothers do, aided by an ELCA-affiliated nonprofit. El Aguacate is home to approximately 800 families, many of which include up to eight children. Day laborers are common there, but the same can’t be said of work. Because of this, nutritious food is scarce, and school is often deemed too expensive for children, especially girls, said Jennifer Hope-Tringali, an ELCA pastor and founder of Tree 4 Hope, which focuses on improving the futures of Guatemalans experiencing poverty.

“For public school, there’s not tuition, but you have to buy school materials,” said Hope-Tringali, an adjunct professor at United Lutheran Seminary (ULS). “The cost of materials is a lot more than many families make in a month. And you have to buy a school uniform. If a family has four, five, eight children, they’ll send the oldest boys to school—that’s all they can afford.”

Many girls from El Aguacate are denied enrollment before first grade because of limited classroom space—boys come first—and even if they do attend school, she added, most drop out by sixth grade. Providing an education for those girls is one of the newest endeavors Tree 4 Hope has undertaken, and, despite the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has grown hope in the hearts of dozens of girls and their families.

A multifaceted ministry
Hope-Tringali founded Tree 4 Hope 10 years ago as a ministry of her home congregation, Tree of Life Lutheran in Harrisburg, Pa. During a visit to Hogar Miguel Magone, from which she had adopted two of her eight children, she witnessed the need for resources and encouraged her congregation to build a long-term relationship with the orphanage through prayer, mission trips and financial support.

“The director of the orphanage … said to me, ‘We see this pattern every year: girls are growing up in the village, they’re super intelligent, they have all this promise, but they’re from this really rough village,” Hope-Tringali said. “We started thinking, how could we make this dream a reality? [And now we have] Hope Academy.”

Since its founding, the organization has grown immensely and now partners with a dozen congregations in the Lower Susquehanna Synod, with support continuing to grow. Tree 4 Hope focuses its accompaniment in four areas: education, food/nutrition, health care and youth. Its work includes an influenza and pneumonia vaccination program and an agricultural effort that includes chicken husbandry.

The nonprofit also offers a food sponsorship program that allows donors to provide fresh fruit, vegetables and meat to a child or elder in El Aguacate. Currently, about 200 children and six elderly women are sponsored.

“We didn’t want to be a generic mission trip that came down and felt good about ourselves and then left and never looked back,” said Hope-Tringali’s husband, David, who oversees communication and media for Tree 4 Hope. “[We really thought about], how can we make a difference … and help them rise up out of the poverty that has trapped them from generation to generation?”

The organization opened Hope Academy, the area’s first bilingual, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) all-girls school with 36 students in 2019 on an avocado farm outside El Aguacate. “Girls throughout the world are not expected to do well in these fields,” Jennifer Hope-Tringali said. “But the vision at Hope Academy is, if girls wanted to go to university, they could do that, or if they wanted to stay in a more traditional role … they could grow food and have a small business and have space to do so.”

It also was important that bilingual education be provided. “This gives girls a great advantage in Guatemala, [and] not just if they want to go into tourism, which is the third biggest [industry] in the country,” she noted. “If you can write and communicate in English, you have a huge leg up.”

Accompaniment and adaptation
Seminarian Emily Orner was among the first students to enroll in ULS’ Guatemala immersion semester program, which partners with Tree 4 Hope and began in 2020. Unfortunately, her 10-week program was cut short by COVID-19, and she spent only two weeks in Guatemala, in March, before returning home to finish the program remotely.

Nevertheless, as Orner continues toward her goal of working with immigrant populations, she feels inspired by all she learned from Hope Academy. “Not only were these girls learning [English and] Spanish, they were learning their indigenous language,” she said. “That [mentality] of not trying to change or morph these girls in a certain way but affirming who they are … [moved me].” While the pandemic forced Tree 4 Hope to creatively adapt its programming—like organizing phone lessons for Hope Academy students who lack computers—the organization persisted in its mission and adapted its work. When the Hope-Tringalis realized that many families were near starvation because lockdown regulations prevented people from working, Tree 4 Hope took up the cause—it has fed nearly 100 families in El Aguacate every month for the past year.

“Tree 4 Hope is really what the work of the church is about,” said Crystal Hall, an assistant professor of biblical studies at ULS who is as an organizer of the immersion program. “In the assurance we rest in as Lutherans—that we’re justified by grace, that that work is already done and we’re free to serve our neighbors—we have tremendous partners like Tree 4 Hope in order to do that work.” 

For more information, visit tree4hope.org.