A way to help, feet on the ground

Not all of us find a calling in life, something that is clearly a motivating factor in every life decision. Some of us aren’t even particularly looking, but still something takes hold of us. Then, a certain path becomes undeniably the only way to go.

A calling is a good way to describe the mission of Salisbury’s Jim Britt in Guatemala. Britt, after having been a reporter at this newspaper in the late 1980s, went on to work as the computer technician at Salisbury Central School for 12 years. He helped a lot of Salisbury children with their computer skills before retiring several years ago. But somehow, in the middle of that, he became connected to Guatemala, and step by step, more and more entwined with helping at the ground level poor children and their families there.

Britt visited the Central American nation first in 1993, after having found a book about it in Mike McCabe’s old bookstore in Salisbury. McCabe encouraged him to visit Santiago Atitlan, as his cousin was living there at the time. Britt did meet Mike’s cousin, visiting mainly as a tourist then, but went back in 2009. After that second visit, he went back every summer, during the school break, until he finally retired and moved there in 2016.

In the past 10 years, his calling to Guatemala, especially Santiago Atitlan, has been to find ways to help the poor, mainly indigenous Mayan people who live there. It’s a mountainous city, Britt said in a conversation last week at The Lakeville Journal during a Northwest Corner visit. There are volcanoes surrounding it and Lake Atitlan, which at 5,000 feet above sea level, is a central source of water, transportation and natural beauty. 

One of Britt’s inspirations, and of whom he spoke reverently, is Fr. Stanley Rother, a beatified Roman Catholic priest who dedicated his life and work to the population of the city and in 1981 was murdered there by right-wing death squads (during what Britt referred to as the scorched earth genocide period, from 1980 to 1982). Now the population is about 50/50 Roman Catholic and evangelical, with some Mayan religious rituals continuing to be practiced, he said. 

In 1991, after a 1990 massacre during the bloody civil war greatly affected the city, the population successfully petitioned the government to permanently evict the Guatemalan army from the city. This eviction has held to the present day. Coffee and avocados are their primary economic drivers, and in addition to Spanish, one of the 22 Mayan languages is spoken there. During the 36 years of civil war, there was no school and much Spanish language understanding was lost.

Britt now takes care of 21 sponsored children, who will go to school because of the financial support he gives or finds for them. Sixteen of them are girls. Women wear traditional garb, Britt said, to a much greater extent than the men, and often must leave school very early to care for their families. He has one student who is 23, Maria Sajvin. She returned to school in January to continue her elementary education, after having raised her siblings following her mother’s death. The ability to do this will change her life.

That is what Britt tries to do: affect individual lives as possible with direct support to help them better their lot in life. Money that comes in through the U.S. government, for instance, which President Trump is now threatening to cut, mainly stays in the capital, Guatemala City, Britt said, never filtering down to help the poor in surrounding areas. His attitude is to give them a hand up, not a hand out, so they can live more independently and gain skills that will last their lifetimes.

To help, contact Britt at jbrittscs@gmail.com, or send checks to Laura Rodd Young, a major supporter who is working to get a 501(c)3 nonprofit organized for his efforts, at: 310 S. Carolina Ave., Spencer, NC  28159, with “Wellspring Fund” in the memo line. She will send the money to Britt via Paypal. She will send the Paypal transaction report back to any who contribute. 

Young said in a phone conversation that Britt loves the kids, and they love him. “It’s a circle of love,” she said.