Creativity In Crisis

Families in need are getting through the pandemic in a variety of ways with the help of Unbound.

March 03, 2021 | Be Informed


In early March 2020, it was becoming clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would seriously disrupt the lives of individuals and societies across the globe. By the end of the month the world looked very different and hasn't been the same since.

As with most catastrophic events, those on the margins of society have been the most seriously affected. Restrictions on public gatherings and commerce were devastating for the 61% of the people in the world who, according to the United Nations, earn their living in the informal economy.

These individuals and families overlap with the half of the world's population that the World Health Organization says lacks access to affordable health care. In a time of pandemic, that combination has placed hundreds of millions of families on the brink of disaster.
One of our main goals from the first day of confinement has been to make sure the [cash] transfer reached 100% of sponsored families.

— Francisco Chavajay, coordinator of the Unbound program in Guatemala

Providing a lifeline

Families in the Unbound sponsorship program live with the same risks as others on the margins, but they have resources that help them be resilient. Finding a way to keep those resources flowing in the pandemic was the first hurdle for local Unbound program staff, and it began with maintaining communication between staff and families in the program.

"We have seen a lot of creativity with technology," Melissa Velazquez, Unbound's international program director for Latin America, said.

The most common means are cell phones and video conferencing, but other examples Velazquez cited include radio broadcasts, free messaging apps, survey apps for program evaluation, and various social media platforms to pass along important health and safety information.

Technology also allowed Unbound staff to make direct cash transfers into the bank accounts of 94% of sponsored children and youth, which meant their families could purchase much-needed provisions and, in some cases, pay for health insurance and medical expenses.

Francisco Chavajay is the coordinator of the Unbound program in Guatemala. Like other Unbound coordinators throughout the world, his priority in 2020 was making sure that the flow of funds to the families was disrupted as little as possible.

"One of our main goals from the first day of confinement has been to make sure the transfer reached 100% of sponsored families," he said. "And thank God this is a reality. We had to make sure that each of our colleagues who have the responsibility of making transfers had safe equipment and internet access from their homes, so that the benefits to the families didn't stop."


In a photo taken last spring, a kite sails over a town in Guatemala. Normally a fall tradition, the kites were flown early as a way of lifting morale and building community while maintaining a safe distance during the pandemic.

Narrowing the divide

While digital technology has proven an invaluable asset during the pandemic, there were great disadvantages for those without it, especially students. In a year when distance learning became the norm, the gap between students with adequate internet access and the 43% of homes in the world that UNESCO says lack it only widened.

Acquiring the proper equipment is another challenge. Lidia, a single mother in Colombia, represents the difficulties faced by many families throughout the world. Her three oldest children use her cell phone — the only digital device the family owns — to study and communicate with their teachers. “We often stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning doing the tasks they have to do,” she said.

Some families allocate part of their sponsorship funds for the purchase of equipment and internet access, but these expenses can be overwhelming. In some local Unbound programs, staff and parent groups are also doing what they can to help students avoid falling behind because of inadequate equipment. Jensen, a sponsored senior high student in the Philippines, offered an example of how this is happening.

“When we heard from our PVL (parent volunteer leader) about the possibility that we can request financial assistance from Unbound in buying a laptop for our online class, we tried that opportunity since we really need to have it for our education,” he said. A few days later, Jensen and other students in the program were granted funds and given permission to purchase the equipment. 

According to Velazquez, the organization recognizes the increased importance of technology for education and is responding to it. One way was to adjust the Unbound Scholarship Program to allow for use of funds to cover technology needs. The scholarship program provides financial support for promising students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to continue their studies.

“We know that local programs have changed their policies and communication to encourage this,” she said. “We also recently modified the Unbound Scholarship Program manual to specifically include technology devices, data plans and internet access as education expenses that fall under scholarship.”

Photo 1: Sponsored youth Jensen, 18, shows his new laptop computer in his home in the Philippines. It was purchased with support from the local Unbound parents group. The pandemic has intensified the need for students around the world to have access to digital technology.

Photo 2: Juan studies while his mother, Lidia, supervises in their home in Colombia. Lidia’s daughter Ana Sofia, 11, is sponsored through Unbound. Lidia’s three children take turn using her cell phone, the only digital device they own, for homework. 

Compassionate and responsible

Unbound has been blessed in its nearly 40 years with a loyal community of sponsors and donors. Because of their generosity, and despite their own challenges, 2020 was a good year in terms of both financial contributions and the amount of funds the organization was able to send to the field. Disaster response funds totaling $2.4 million were sent to help families severely impacted by COVID-19, with an additional $370,000 for typhoon and hurricane relief in the Philippines and Central America.

Sound and responsible financial management over the years has allowed the organization to weather difficult times. Still, without knowing when the pandemic will end or what the world will look like when it does, Unbound staff know they need to stay diligent in their efforts to find sponsors for more children and elders in need.

Photo 1: A young woman in a community near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala cuts fabric to make masks. With COVID-19, mask-making has become another source of income for some who make their living in the informal economy. 

Photo 2:  A new batch of homemade masks waits to be distributed to residents in a community near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. 

Old values with new methods

Innovation and adaptability will continue to mark Unbound in 2021. Program staff are already using the same technologies for program evaluation that they use to communicate with families and deliver benefits to them. What they learn from those evaluations will help chart the way forward. As they have from the earliest days of Unbound, the families in the program will lead the way in developing solutions to poverty.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Unbound staff will continue to seek ways to connect caring people with those who need their help. "Unbound is resilient," Scott Wasserman, the organization's president/CEO, said. "Together, we have overcome difficult times in the past and will continue to do so. "Unbound will move forward as a strong and caring community."