Emily Francona is the coordinator of a signature service project called Let’s Leave No Girl Behind (LLNGB) sponsored by Rotary E-Club of the State of Jefferson, District 5110. She recently traveled to Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala’s (AAV) Maya Jaguar Educational Center to observe the project firsthand. Here, we talked with Emily about her visit to Guatemala and the impact her E-Club’s partnership with AAV is having on the lives of indigenous communities.
How did you become involved with Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala?
Our E-Club has partnered with Adopt-a-Village for several years now. AAV’s Maya Jaguar Educational Center serves indigenous children living in remote villages who have little access to education. For many of its students, the center is a full travel day from home. Led by fellow Rotarian Frances Dixon, Adopt-a-Village has had a steady presence in northwest Guatemala for almost three decades and is funded exclusively by private donations. Maya Jaguar currently offers middle school and high school classes to more than 40 qualified Mayan students who would otherwise have little or no access to a quality education. Our E-Club’s interest in literacy initiatives that benefit underserved girls was an excellent fit with AAV’s mission and I’m grateful for the recent opportunity to see for myself the many ways in which this partnership is doing good in the world.
In addition to curricular offerings, what are some of the elements that make the educational experience at Adopt-a-Village’s Maya Jaguar campus unique?
The Maya Jaguar schools are “green” in every sense. They are powered by solar, rainfall is collected in water tanks and judiciously used, open-air structures provide shade for outdoor classes in the rainforest, classes are small (8 to 12 students) with the focus on guided student interaction by the teachers. In addition to their studies, students are expected to contribute to the school's operation. For example, each student is responsible for growing a vegetable bed and contributing its harvest to the common dining hall. Upkeep of their own space, dining area, classrooms, and school grounds are all part of their responsibilities.
Can you offer an example of how students are giving back to their communities?
During my visit I accompanied middle school students to Nuevo Progreso so that they could read Spanish language books to the village’s elementary school students. Six students, a teacher, and a teaching intern--a recent Maya Jaguar graduate himself -- and I climbed in the school’s pick-up truck and traveled for about 90 minutes to this remote village. After we arrived, more than a dozen young Mayan students gathered in shady area outside the single-room building to listen to our Maya Jaguar students read from the Spanish language books we brought. Reading progressed for two periods throughout the morning, with books circulating between several groups. It was exhilarating to see the interest and enthusiasm these children have for
something so basic as books!
What stood out most about this experience?
The reading activity attracted several smaller children. Pedro, a small boy about six years old, walked up to us with his little sister. Insatiably curious, he soon wiggled his way into one reading group, then another, all the while tending to his little sister. Soon he started pointing out illustrations, explaining some to his sister. He was clearly a child eager to learn. It turns out that two of his brothers are current students at Maya Jaguar. It was heartwarming to witness the joy these children have for reading, which serves to reinforce our E-Rotary Club’s commitment to supporting such important literacy initiatives in Guatemala.
What other kinds of literacy projects have been implemented?
While I was in Guatemala I accompanied student librarian Maria Velasquez to her home village of Nuevo San Ildefonso to read to the small children there. Maria traveled with a stack of Spanish-language books form the small starter village library. The books were funded in part from a literacy grant from our Rotary district, as well as from our district grant project. Maria's modest stipend to serve as the village librarian was also funded by our club. There’s a brief video that shows Maria reading to the children in front of the village elementary school for the occasion. It was a rewarding experience to see firsthand how we are actually making a difference in the lives of children.
In what ways do students thrive at Maya Jaguar?
Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala, while small, is a strong organization with a terrific mission that teaches the importance of giving back. The student experience at Maya Jaguar is often full-circle. Not only do graduates serve their communities and go on to attend graduate-level programs, many return to campus to work or teach. For instance, Estela, a Maya Jaguar graduate who studied to become a practical nurse, has returned to Maya Jaguar where she serves as the school nurse and teaches biology and nutrition. She has limited medical equipment and medication available to her so additional funding for wellness initiatives at the Maya Jaguar campus is critical. Estela’s contributions to outlying communities in need and Maya Jaguar are invaluable and we’re thrilled that she’s thriving professionally.
How has Estela contributed to her community?
On our trip to Nuevo San Ildefonso, Estela met with the parents to discuss with them the health issue of the intestinal parasite infections of their children. Although the cost of treatment is minimal, the extreme poverty in this area makes it challenging for families to cover costs for basic health care and other medical needs. Estela advocated for a program that will provide underserved parents with limited financial resources to receive assistance from Maya Jaguar to cover the cost of medication. This is just one of the many ways that the Maya Jaguar students and graduates are making a profound different in the lives of those in need.
My visit to Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala was a remarkable experience for many reasons. As a Rotarian, I could not be more proud of our work to partner with an organization that enriches the lives of children and underserved communities through education and to see for myself that together we’re making an impact.