February 2016 – Our bus pulled up to the small rural school in the village of Patzun. There was the band of young students ready to greet us. I’d seen that before. Each school we visited in Guatemala followed very similar protocols. I looked at them and smiled – not at anyone in particular, just at them. It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining. It was a balmy 73 degrees, a far cry from the 10’s and 20’s my family was dealing with back home in Silverthorne, Colorado.
We were traveling together, my business partner Tom Fellner, and his wife (and our wonderful bookkeeper) Wendy, along with 45 other Rotarians from around the world: India, the UK, Canada, Mexico, the Cayman Islands – we had all come to support the work of the Cooperative for Education (CoEd) and the Guatemala Literacy Project. We were there to inaugurate textbook programs in rural Mayan schools. We were there to offer fellowship and support to the teachers and students who would benefit from CoEd’s programs.
We stepped off our bus and started making our way up the dirt path to the school. The school sat on the edge of a cliff that overlooked a lush, green valley. The local farmers were cultivating crops of cabbage, corn and black beans. A couple volcanos rose imperiously on the horizon. The school was a small, whitewashed concrete building with open windows and steel doors. Two rows of tables had been setup in the breezeway between the two wings of the school to welcome us. We were going to spend some time with the students then enjoy a box lunch with them. I was taking in all the sights, sounds and smells, when a small hand took hold of mine. Startled, I looked down and saw two great big brown eyes looking back at me.
His name was Juan. He had a hold on my hand and he was not letting go. I noticed that my fellow Rotarians were also being escorted to the school hand-in-hand, or arm-in-arm by a student. Tom’s arm had been taken by Maria, a beautiful, intelligent 16-year-old. She smiled at him every time he looked at her. My own discomfort was being offset by his, and I found myself chuckling at him. We were both a bit uncomfortable. Kids don’t do this in the United States.
It turned out that Juan was Maria’s younger brother. They came from a family of six children. Maria was number three and Juan, number five in the sibling lineup. Juan was 12 years old and had just started seventh grade. Maria, at 16, was in the sixth grade. She hadn’t failed at school. In Guatemala, education is not free. So, families often have to make choices as to who goes to school. Boys are always given the opportunity before girls. Fortunately, Maria’s parents understood their kids needed school if they were going to break out of the cycle of poverty that grips so many of the rural Mayans. Maria started school a year after Juan.
Juan and Maria’s story is typical of kids in rural Guatemala. Seventy percent of kids drop out of school by the seventh grade. Their families need them to work the fields to bring more money into the home. There’s a lot of pressure on kids to quit school and go to work.
Of the 30% that continue past seventh grade, one in ten will make it through high school. Statistics show that if a child will just graduate high school, they can expect to live a middle class life in Guatemala. Kids who don’t make it through high school can expect a life of grinding poverty and back-breaking work in the fields. School represented their only opportunity for a better life – and Juan and Maria knew it. Only Juan and Maria are in school; none of their siblings have attended school. All of them work the fields with their father.
We spent the morning and early afternoon with our students. Juan and Maria did not let go of Tom, Wendy and me. As the day progressed, the reason became apparent; we represented hope for them. These kids, and the rest of the kids at the school that day, were a special group of kids. They represent the brightest, most motivated of the kids in their school. CoEd has a special program for them – sponsorships. If these kids get someone to sponsor their education through middle school and high school, CoEd works with the students and their parents to keep them in school and prepare them for college.
Tom, Wendy and I represented hope to Juan and Maria. Hope for a better life; in the bigger picture, hope for Guatemala as more of Guatemala’s rural children break the chains of poverty. We fell in love with these kids. They told us their dreams and aspirations. Juan loves communications, language and mathematics. He wants to be a lawyer because “that’s a good job and you can help people with the law.” Maria wants to attend college in the United States. She wants to attend school in San Francisco and become a medical doctor. From there, she wants to teach medicine in Guatemala because “we don’t have enough doctors.”
Juan and Maria made the need so real. Tom and I had been to Guatemala before. We helped inaugurate textbooks programs into dozens of schools. We loved the kids en masse and we definitely had a sense of the big-picture need; Juan and Maria made it personal. We have adopted Juan and Maria. Imagine That has made a six-year commitment to pay for their education, giving them a hand-up, not a handout.
Now I have a very personal reason to return Guatemala. I have an adopted “son” there. His name is Juan and he loves math and playing soccer. He wants to be a lawyer when he grows up.