September 07, 2023 | Child Sponsorship

Liberation in Literacy

How two individuals are using learning opportunities to free their families from poverty

By Kati Burns Mallows

Literacy fights poverty.

Literacy empowers and liberates; it encourages autonomy and progress.

Yet with an ever-expanding digital divide, the aftershocks of a global pandemic, rising global conflicts and climate change, education has never seemed more out of reach for many of the world’s poorest.

According to UNESCO, the share of 10-year-old children who could not read and understand a simple text with comprehension increased from 57% in 2019 to an estimated 70% in 2022.

UNESCO’s 2023 International Literacy Day, recognized annually on Sept. 8, raises awareness about global literacy needs while celebrating literacy achievements. The role that literacy plays in building more inclusive, peaceful, just and sustainable societies cannot, and should not, be denied.

But Unbound has long understood these truths, while also recognizing how education breaks down barriers to the potential and power of choice of an individual living in poverty. That’s why education is the cornerstone of Unbound child sponsorship.

Whether supporting a child, youth or adult, there are myriad ways Unbound is committed to enabling a more literate society. Here are the stories of two very different Unbound individuals who are challenging poverty with literacy in such a way that not only benefits them but also their families, communities and, one day, the wider world.

Ana María: She keeps moving forward step-by-step

In the Western Highlands region of Guatemala lies the city and village communities of Sololá, where a large majority of the population is indigenous Kaqchikel Maya.

According to the Guatemala Literacy Project, the country’s Central and Western Highlands regions exhibit one of the most extreme combinations of systemic poverty, illiteracy and inequality in the hemisphere.

Illiteracy rates among all indigenous adults reaches as high as 33%, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Educational attainment is estimated to be less than two years for indigenous women.

Ana María was one of these women before her children became a part of the Unbound community.

Ana María spent much of her childhood begging for food on the streets and bouncing from one family member’s home to another. She says her family did not believe an education was useful and often kept their children from attending school.

“The teachers used to look for us,” Ana María said. “My mom hid us from them, but we didn’t want to hide. My parents ... told us that we had to learn to work.”

Thus, Ana María never learned to read or write.

She went to work at a young age, cleaning houses and doing laundry, often accepting food in place of wages.

Ana María, now 48, and her husband, Francisco, have been married for more than 30 years and have a large family. They make their living working as ice cream vendors. Before Unbound, the family slept together in one room of their home, and the children did not know what it felt like to have new clothes.

Two of Ana María’s youngest daughters, Antonia, 15, and Irma, 12, have been sponsored for more than a decade now, and the family has used their sponsorship funds to invest in their home, their business and their children’s educations.


Ana María and her husband, Francisco, embrace in the doorway of their home in rural Guatemala.

But sponsorship benefited Ana María specifically in ways that she never anticipated. With help from her children and their elementary school reading books, she learned her vowels. Ana María became active in her Unbound mothers group and attended a one-year literacy program offered by staff where she finally learned basic reading and writing skills. In addition, as a mother leader, Unbound staff put her in charge of helping families with letter writing, which built her confidence and skill.

“It was a great and beautiful experience because I can read,” Ana María said. “I’m not going to tell you that I can 100% write because I skip letters and misspell, but I was able to study a little bit … not in a school or with a teacher … but that’s how I keep moving, step-by-step.”

The experience has changed her perspective on education for her children as well. Unlike her own parents, Ana María's greatest desire is that her remaining school-age children complete their studies.

“In these times, if you do not study, there is no work for you,” she said. “I would love for [my children] to have a good future, to graduate and be someone in this life.”


With the help of Unbound and her children, Ana María learned to read and write as an adult, and her confidence to lead her family and community has grown.


Ana María provides additional income for her family by raising chickens, a business she sometimes boosts with help from her daughters’ sponsorship funds.


Irma, 12, Ana María’s youngest sponsored child, reads from a bed in the family’s home in Guatemala. Ana María has instilled the importance of education in her children so strongly that Irma desires to be a doctor and determinedly rides her bicycle 25 minutes over rough terrain to reach school.

It was a great and beautiful experience because I can read … I was able to study a little bit … not in a school or with a teacher … but that’s how I keep moving, step-by-step.

— Ana María, Mother of sponsored children Antonia and Irma, Guatemala

Nico: Envisioning his future keeps him motivated

In an international reading literacy assessment conducted among 79 countries in 2018 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Philippines ranked lowest. In the World Bank’s latest statistics on learning poverty, it was reported that at least nine out of 10 children aged 10 in the Philippines struggled to read and write simple text in 2021.

The pandemic’s disruptions to education only deepened the present inequalities in children’s literacy skills throughout the Philippines. To put the importance of a literate society into perspective, the World Literacy Council reported in 2023 that, globally, illiterate people earn 30% to 40% less than their literate counterparts.

But in Quezon in the Philippines, 25-year-old Unbound sponsored member Nico was determined to not allow himself to become a statistic.

Sponsored since he was 7 years old, Nico’s love of learning intersected with his love of animals, motivating him at a young age to seek a career as a veterinarian. He is now in his fourth year studying veterinary medicine in college and on track to graduate in 2024. His educational journey has not been without hardship, however.

The only college offering veterinary medicine courses was located more than six hours away from his home. To avoid travel expenses, Nico has chosen to live with relatives near the campus while he completes his studies.


Nico’s love of animals motivated him throughout his childhood to want to be a veterinarian. He shares his living space in the Philippines with several of his own pets, including four cockatiels and two Siberian huskies. Pictured, Nico pets his Siberian husky Alscott on the veranda where he typically studies at home.

Then, in 2021, Nico lost his sponsor of more than a decade. Because he only had two years of veterinary school left, he qualified for a special program offered through Unbound’s Quezon program called “Benefits Through,” which gives financial assistance for up to two years to exceptional students. Nico’s family also received assistance from the Unbound Critical Needs Fund during the pandemic, and they used the funds to cover the cost of his veterinary school expenses during that time.

But, while the COVID-19 pandemic set many learners back, Nico used that isolation time to invest in his second love — which he refers to as “just a hobby” — writing.

Inspired by books like J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series and Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” series, Nico began writing his own fantasy novel. When he came across a publishing company on Facebook seeking writers during the pandemic, he submitted some of his work.

“Apart from being a doctor, I also want to be a writer,” Nico said. “I told myself ‘there’s nothing to lose if I try.’ So, I grabbed the chance to submit my write-ups, and they loved it.”

Nico published one fantasy novel, “The Tyler Harrison Chronicles,” and an anthology book of poetry and short stories, “Lonesome Hymns;” both books are available through Shopee and Apple Books. He is currently working on a second novel, “The Cosmos Heard It First,” and another anthology book, “All the Good Things in the Seasons.”

Nico says he became who he is today because of Unbound, but obtaining his degree is only the culmination of one dream and beginning of another for him — the one that will allow him to serve others, both two-legged and four.

“I plan to open a veterinary clinic after my graduation,” Nico said. “I want to have a mini library inside so people can read while waiting for their pets to finish grooming sessions. I know it will take a lot of money to build up, but there’s always possibility and hope.”


Nico is on track to complete his degree in veterinary medicine in 2024. He hopes his education will one day help him provide a better life and more opportunities for his family.

Apart from being a doctor, I also want to be a writer. I told myself ‘there’s nothing to lose if I try.’

— Nico, Sponsored youth and veterinary medicine student, the Philippines

Regional reporters Oscar Tuch and Teejay Cabrera contributed photos and information for this story.