Jessica Anderson recently earned her MA from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, in International Security and Development. In the Summer of 2019, she spent a few months in Oaxaca, Mexico, carrying out research with Crecemos, an AVSI-USA long-term partner. Her work culminated in a case study in which she evaluates the effectiveness of Crecemos’ localized nutrition interventions over five years and examines the influence of interlinking areas in a child’s life such as education, recreational sports and arts, family relationships, and food preferences. The study demonstrated conclusively that Crecemos’ programs are effective over time. In the following interview, Jessica discusses her time in Oaxaca and shares how this unique experience widened her “horizons and expanded both her intellect and heart.”
What moved you to go to Oaxaca and work with Crecemos?
I first learned about AVSI’s partnership with Crecemos when I watched the documentary “The Awakened Heart” [Simonetta D’Italia and Giovanni Morricone, directors] in 2016 while working as a social worker. Later, when I went to Culinary School and then on to pursue an MA in International Development, the mission of Crecemos, which was portrayed so vividly in the film, always stayed with me. Oaxaca is known worldwide for its delicious cuisine, so I kept thinking of the contradiction of malnutrition in such a food-rich area. These deep questions ultimately led me to pursue academic research for my MA thesis in childhood malnutrition, and my first choice for a research location was in Oaxaca with Crecemos.
What were your expectations, and what did you find there?
I had high expectations, and my experience met them. However, many of my expectations were different from reality. I had already seen many photos, watched “The Awakened Heart,” and read some reports about Crecemos. Seeing all of this in person was more enriching than reading about it or watching it in a film. I was there during summer, so there were fewer children at the center daily than during the school year. Because of that, I think I saw a smaller scale operation of what typically occurs at the center, but I think this allowed me time to develop better connections with the staff. I was very moved by how caring everyone on the team was and how they care not only for the children but also for each other. I was also very struck by how friendly many of the children and parents were.
Can you please describe your routine while you were there?
On weekdays, I would wake up at 6:00 am and arrive at Crecemos by 7:00 am. Crecemos’ beneficiaries were coming for breakfast every morning, and I was helping in the kitchen, chopping vegetables for future meals, serving plates, and helping to clean. Each day was different, but generally, I would either further help in the kitchen or conduct interviews and collect data for the case study after breakfast. After my time at Crecemos, I often spent time exploring Oaxaca City and learning about the local culture in the afternoons. I was lucky to be there during the annual Guelaguetza, an indigenous cultural festival with parades, dancing, and other artistic performances and cultural events. The festival enabled me to have a fuller understanding of Oaxaca’s vibrant culture. I also spent time with the Crecemos staff and volunteers, all still very dear to me.
What did you learn, personally and professionally, from this experience?
This experience widened my horizons and expanded both my intellect and my heart. Crecemos means “to grow,” and I feel that I, too, grew deeply from this experience – both while in Oaxaca and later while writing the case study. Professionally, this experience truly gave me a more holistic understanding of the development and the human person. In my MA studies, we theorized a lot about effective strategies for development, but what I learned during my internship with Crecemos brought these theories into a tangible reality due to the context of their work. I learned many lessons from the wisdom of Socorro Del Río [Crecemos Executive Director], and I’m thankful she was willing to share her experience. The biggest lesson she taught me is the importance of building genuine and healthy relationships with those we want to help. It’s about the importance of finding connection and friendship that comes from genuinely caring about others. Later this includes helping to develop the whole of a person’s life, instead of only focusing on a particular issue such as malnutrition or economic development. I will certainly hold on to this knowledge wherever my career in development takes me. I learned a pretty similar lesson in building relationships with others. I was often away from my phone, which enabled me to be there for the people around me, children or mothers I interviewed, my fellow volunteers, or Crecemos’ staff. Each moment was vibrant, and I learned to treasure the time given to me.
What did you find out while you were there?
The biggest thing I found out was how effective a nutritional intervention program could be if it is in tandem with the holistic development of all of the areas of a child’s life. I expected and hoped that the research results would be positive, that many children would have standard nutritional diagnoses (instead of diagnoses of malnutrition). I realized how vital the other areas of Crecemos’ programs are — such as the art and music classes, the opportunity for the children to learn how to use computers, and the various hygiene lessons. My research was initially very focused on malnutrition and education, but I’ve realized that education goes beyond just academia and extends to the whole of a child’s life. Being in Oaxaca with Crecemos shifted how I continued my whole MA research going forward.
Is there a day, an event, that you particularly remember?
There are many moments that I will never forget! One memory that I think of often, though, took place on one of my last days in Oaxaca. I was there during the summer session, and the children prepared different performances for their parents. They spoke about having a good character, danced, played instruments, and showed the art they created. It was beautiful to witness this incredible creation born from them working together!
For more extensive reading on Jessica’s research and case study, please follow the links below.