On a rainy February afternoon during my recent stay at Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala’s Maya Jaguar school, AAV’s founder and executive director, Frances Dixon, told me, with downcast eyes, that something momentous had happened—that she was still reeling.
Concerned, I sat down across from her and prepared for … what? A tragedy? A triumph?
After a somber pause Frances’ face lit up with a bright smile and tears of joy. A triumph!
One of her star graduates, Estela Ramirez Pablo, 22, who was working part-time as AAV’s biology and nutrition teacher, announced that she’d prevailed over 50 applicants for a full-time nursing position at the region's county hospital, a four-hour drive away.
Estela’s monthly salary? $750 U.S. dollars. By comparison, the housekeeping and field work available to uneducated women in this impoverished area is about $70 a month.
“Imagine that!”, Frances exulted. “An indigenous Mayan girl came out on top after a lengthy application process for a professional job. This is what I envisioned for indigenous students when I started AAV 30 years ago. I could die tomorrow and know my life’s work has been worth it.”
On the other hand, the good news meant that Estela would be leaving her part-time post at Maya Jaguar that Friday, and Frances was saddened that she would no longer see her on the small campus.
“I will miss her terribly but most of all I am happy for her,” she said, adding, “This is one of the best days of my life.”
I was happy, too. Friday happened to be when I’d begin my three-day slog to the airport in Guatemala City to catch my flight back to Oregon. Estela’s childhood home was just a few miles off the route, and my driver said there’d be no problem dropping Estela there as she began transitioning to her new life. (And informing her mother about the great news.)
Good, I would get to spend a little time with her and also see where she came from.
Born into poverty
Estela was born to an indigenous Mayan family, one of six children surviving in a dank dark one-room shelter with a dirt floor and a wood cook stove. The children slept in one bed.
The father was an alcoholic and by the time Estela was 10, he’d deserted his family. Even though the mother and her children worked in the coffee fields at a fraction of minimum wage, without the father’s scant income, they were destitute.
During one of AAV’s visits to the village the mother approached Frances, sobbing, saying she had nothing to feed her children.
“We gave her sacks of beans and corn,” says Frances. “But that wasn’t going to solve the problem, long term.”
It was during that visit when Frances noticed a child who stood out. Estela.
“I had never in all my years found a female child with such a burning desire to continue her schooling,” says Frances. “Despite her family’s grinding poverty, Estela had somehow persuaded her mother to keep struggling to finance her middle school costs.”
After primary school Guatemalans must pay fees for their children to continue through middle-and-high school. It’s a rare indigenous family that can come up with the money
By the time Estela, who had worked alongside her mother in the coffee fields during harvest season, completed middle school, the family was broken. The cupboards were bare.
Estela’s mother told Frances how desperately her daughter wanted to continue school. How she, her mother, had made every possible sacrifice, skimping on food and clothing, walking long distances instead of paying for public transportation, spending every centavo she could scape together to pay Estela’s middle school costs. But she could not continue.
Frances’s brain began buzzing about the prospect of Estela attending Maya Jaguar. But how to convince the mother to release her promising daughter from working in the fields to help support the family?
As fate would have it, good things soon converged upon the family. Lives were about to change.
Breaking the cycle
Frances approached another nonprofit, Finding Freedom through Friendship.
“It was a rare opportunity to work with another nonprofit in NW Guatemala,” says Frances. "And it produced excellent outcomes for the family."
FFF funded materials and construction labor while AAV provided budgeting, purchasing, and transportation services, made monthly food deliveries, and checked on the children's health and their schooling.
In addition, FFF sponsored Estela through AAV’s accelerated two-year high school program and then another two-and-a-half years of nursing school.
Although Estela is extraordinary, so are many Maya Jaguar graduates. Since 2010, when the high school recruited its first students, dozens have graduated and gone on to pursue teaching, nursing, computer and other careers closed to those lacking middle-and-high school degrees.
“We send every graduate into a tough world equipped to perform at a high level,” says Frances. “They know how to set goals and work hard to attain them. And they are active or potential agents of positive change in the indigenous villages from which they came.”
Frances reports that the day Estela got her first paycheck, she began helping her mother support her younger siblings. She can’t lift them out of poverty, but she can make their lives more comfortable.
Perhaps the most important thing Estela, and other Maya Jaguar graduates can do, is provide indigenous youth a glimpse into bright futures made possible through education.
At Maya Jaguar, the doors—and our arms—are wide open.
Mary Korbulic is a retired writer and photographer and a former journalist and teacher. She travels extensively and publishes resulting stories and photos on her personal blog, Ordinary Life. Mary plans to write more about Guatemala and Adopt-a-Village.