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Breaking barriers: educating indigenous children in Guatemala

How do you recruit people to work in the wilderness? That question was one of the first that occurred to me after arriving at Adopt-a-Village’s (AAV) remote rain forest school campus in northern Guatemala. My answer: You entice them with big fat paychecks and big fat steaks. After all, free market enterprises such as oil and mining offer handsome compensation. But a government running a failed state such as Guatemala, mired in corruption, tenuous political and judicial systems, insecurity, and soaring levels of poverty and unemployment don’t offer rural teachers these incentives. So how does the government fill teaching posts in remote areas of Guatemala? Nobody wants to be stranded on a mountain with only beans and tortillas for food. The Guatemalan government suffers no consequence for poor customer service and sending qualified teachers to impoverished areas is challenging. Sadly, in so many cases, Mayan children in isolated regions of the country are taught be people who lack experience and often have little interest in the future success of their students. The consequences are clear: many Mayan youth move through a few years of rote education but never become fluent in the national language of Spanish. The Maya of this region speak one of their native language, Q’anjob'al, Chuj, or Mam, which adds yet another obstacle for the indigenous citizens to overcome. Nor can the Adopt-a-Village foundation partner in Guatemala afford hefty paychecks and steak at every meal, but it has been remarkably successful in recruiting staff members who are committed to AAV’s mission of educating children and improving communities.

During my recent visit to AAV’s extraordinary Maya Jaguar Educational Center, I saw firsthand how its teachers and senior students are reaching out to nearby villages to help primary school children learn. The seniors plan and lead teaching activities that involve arithmetic and vocabulary. They use a wide variety of activities and games to encourage the children in their learning. Games include word and math bingo, number puzzles, dice games, flash cards, and mathmonopoly, among others. The high school students design and make the games that they take to the villages. The primary school village children in Nuevo San Ildefonso were engaged, excited to learn, and enthusiastically participated in all of the activities.

The AAV staff also does a wonderful job connecting with parents. Although parents are eager to educate their children, food and shelter remain top priorities in a country where most of its indigenous citizens live in extreme poverty. While child labor is illegal in the United States, most Mayan children in Guatemala must work to help support their families, making education opportunities all the more challenging. A child in the classroom means one less farmhand in the field. Ironically, many parents were in attendance on the day we visited the public school. These individuals with very limited Spanish vocabulary immediately introduced themselves to the staff and me and expressed their appreciation for our visit. I was told that most had taken time away from their work to meet us. The language barrier made our exchange somewhat difficult, but it was obvious that we shared a common interest—the well being of their children.

The poverty I’ve witnessed in Guatemala in staggering. As a long-time supporter of AAV and its Child Sponsorship Program, I have seen firsthand how the organization is making a positive impact in the lives of indigenous children. Despite the failure of the Guatemalan government to address the issues of poverty in the Cuchumatanes Mountains, there are children there who are learning and thriving thanks to Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala.

Terri Touchet is a CPA in Dallas, TX. Her first visit to Guatemala was in 2001. She recently joined Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala as a member of its board of directors.

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