On January 31st, two men from North Raleigh traveled to Guatemala for a singular purpose…literacy. These two men are members of the Rotary Club of North Raleigh and they embarked upon this journey to inaugurate new schools into the literacy project sponsored by this club and approximately 95 other clubs throughout North America and beyond. The project is called the Guatemala Literacy Project (GLP) and is a partnership between Rotary Clubs and Cooperative for Education (CoEd). The goal of this partnership is to end poverty through education.
Guatemala is one of the most illiterate nations in the Western Hemisphere with as many as 75% of the population unable to read. The majority of the illiterate are indigenous Mayans in the most rural parts of this vast, mountainous nation. These are the people who have been long forgotten by their government and forced into a subservient life. The thirty-six year Civil War did little to improve their lot as hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, many in the most rural regions, were murdered or abducted…never to be heard from again.
This is the backdrop of this nation that boasts a poverty level that is around 70% of the population. The middle-class is nonexistent and few dream to obtain this meager level of success in their lives.
This program was introduced to the North Raleigh Rotary club in 1998 and was quickly adopted as an organization we would support. As a result, this club has faithfully donated every year to this project while sending several members over the years to Guatemala to witness the transformation-taking place there. This was my third visit on behalf of the club and each year proves the program is working with new success stories every year.
This year, Past President Terry Hutchens and myself made the trek. It proved again that the people of Guatemala are proud of their nation and driven to change it…one student at a time.
We landed on Friday and the following morning, loaded onto buses to visit our first school of the trip to witness the expansion of the scholarship program. At Cerritos Asuncion School, we met several sixth graders who had been accepted into the scholarship program for 2015. These bright young faces were heartwarming and they were excited to see us.
Terry and I had an opportunity to sit down and speak with Beberly Muj, who is eleven years old with four siblings. Her dream is to become a professional, quite possibly a police officer. As the second of five children, she has worked hard to be an outstanding student with the highest grades in her class. Since her father is a day laborer in the farming industry with a low and unstable income, he is unable to pay for her to attend school beyond the sixth grade. Her older sibling was unable to continue in school, but thanks to this scholarship, she will be able to continue her education.
After leaving this school, we visited the home of a current scholarship student who is just starting the 7th grade. She is one of nine children with two older sisters who were unable to continue with their education. The home, though nice for Guatemala standards, was a very meager two-room cinder block home where eleven people lived. The family was renting this home along with an eighth of an acre of land to farm. The father spoke with us that he understands the importance of an education, but he is unable to afford to send his children beyond the sixth grade.
In fact, many rural Guatemalan parents think it is a success to have their children advance to this stage of their education. The government has recently made it compulsory that all students complete Basico, which would equate to the 9th grade in America, but less than 30% actually do. Furthermore, less than 5% of all Guatemalan students complete Diversificado, which is high school for us. At the end of the week, we learned of a young, 22-year-old lady who had received a scholarship and is now working in Guatemala City, making four times the income of her father. She is also supporting her younger siblings education.
One of the factors that are important to understand about the scholarship program is the focus on young ladies in the program. Currently, 70% of the scholarship students are female with the goal to push it to 80%. It has been shown that if the females are educated it has a boomerang effect in other areas. First, they are less likely to have large families and their children are more likely to get an education.
The scholarship program is simply a side effect of the real program…textbooks and computer centers. Up to 70% of all education dollars are spent in Guatemala City, so you can imagine the need for supplies throughout the rest of the nation. Unless a school is in this program, the students are not given a single textbook. This became the original focus of CoEd and remains the primary focus. The rest of the school visits centered on these programs along with the relatively new Culture of Reading Program (CORP). While in Guatemala, we inaugurated seven new schools into the textbook program and re-inaugurated six more schools and one computer center.
The reason this program is so successful is the sustainability factor. The students pay a small fee to use the textbooks or computers. After five to seven years, the school has collected enough money to replace these tools…thus the re-inauguration. The CORP program is completely free for the schools and works with the Primary schools (1st-6th grades) to teach them to learn Spanish and read. This makes the schools with the textbooks more effective. In Guatemala, there are 22 official languages so many students do not begin to learn Spanish, the primary language, until they enter school.
Terry and I have so many stories from our school visits to count, but one of the more memorable ones for me was the school where we played soccer. If you know me, you will know that I am a former high school athlete, but that was several pounds ago. At 5,000 feet of elevation, I am even more out of shape than here in Raleigh where the air is not as thin. Despite two spills on the concrete field, I lumbered down the field to score two goals. It is always fun playing with the youth as many have never seen a Gringo in their young lives.
Another memorable moment was at the fire-dragon school. Each school performed dances for us and one particular school incorporated a fire-dragon. A young boy was equipped with a decorative, wooden dragon over his head and proceeded to light the attached firecrackers. One of the Rotarians from Virginia became concerned as this happened less than ten feet from where we were sitting. He proceeded to get up and walk away with fear in his eyes. Unfortunately, his escape route happened to be the same planned route of the young boy. It looked as if the young boy was chasing him around the schoolyard. It was funny, and fortunately, the boy’s costume did not catch fire and all was well.
Another moment I will remember for the rest of my life happened on the final Saturday, while we were in Antigua, Guatemala. I had the pleasure of reuniting with the young boy my wife and I are sponsoring, Ricardo. I first met him two years ago as he was just entering the 7th grade. It was our first year sponsoring him and over the two years, he has grown at least a foot. He is a very sweet young man and very respectful. When I first met him, he had a growing interest in computers so I showed him my I-Pad. This year, he still had an interest in computers but had decided he wants to study horticulture next year in Diversificado. I am sure he will find a way to incorporate these two passions.
Terry met his student and we took the boys to Dominos for pizza. We barely had enough pizzas with two large for the boys and the three adults in our group. They enjoyed the ice cream that came with the meal and took the leftovers with them. Terry got the email address of his student and I am hoping to connect with my student on Facebook. The great thing about sponsoring a student is the interaction you receive from that young person along with the knowledge that you are making a difference in a young person’s life.
My wife and I do not have any children, but in a way, Ricardo is becoming like the son we never had. After hearing about Beberly, she wants to sponsor her as well. We have committed that she will get a sponsor, whether we do it or another person in Raleigh. We will ensure she has the advantages that many students in the U.S. take for granted…an education.
It is always rewarding to visit and assist countries that have little. We have been blessed in America and many could never imagine how much of the world lives. One thing is certain, the people of Guatemala are happy, despite their hard lives. It just goes to show that it is not your possessions that make you happy…it is how you live your life. I am not an apologist for the successes we have experienced in the U.S., but I think it would do many well to experience how the most people in our world live so then can be more appreciative of their lot in life.