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Moved by a mission: helping to educate underserved Maya children in Guatemala

A first-hand look at how a nonprofit is helping to educate underserved Maya children in Guatemala

By Mary Korbulic

Last February, just days before the world was heading toward a lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, I spent two weeks at Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala’s Maya Jaguar Educational Center. This Oregon-based nonprofit organization has a strong and beautiful vision of restoring self-sufficiency and self- respect to the Indigenous people of northwest Guatemala through outstanding education and skills-training. My time on the organization’s campus and in the surrounding area was fascinating, frustrating, frightening, fun, and inspirational.

Adopt-a-Village’s educational center is located on a mountaintop in a remote and rugged region of northwest Guatemala—an hour from the nearest village.

Embracing community

It took me three full days of travel to get to the Maya Jaguar campus from the nearest airport in Guatemala City. Frances Dixon, the organization’s founder and president, has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to offer underserved Indigenous children in this area the opportunity to learn in a natural environment filled with bird songs and fresh rainforest fragrances. The center includes classrooms, administration buildings, teachers' cabins, dormitories, a cafeteria/kitchen, numerous raised-bed gardens, 40 rainwater collection tanks, outhouses, greenhouses, and a coop with more than 50 chickens.

The school’s curriculum significantly exceeds educational standards established by the Guatemalan government, and eager students are committed to their studies. Graduates go on to become nurses, teachers, and computer technicians; some enroll in graduate programs in nearby universities.

Parents were initially reluctant to allow their children to enroll in an educational program that took them away from their work at home or in the coffee or cardamom fields. You would never know that the Maya Jaguar students were from disadvantaged homes. The students I met were hardworking, cheerful, polite, and unjaded. Like most teenagers, they took pride in their appearance.

Many young children come to the Maya Jaguar campus having never slept in a sturdy building with wooden floors, flush toilets, and sinks with running water. The campus also has limited generator-produced electricity. Each student is supplied a solar-powered flashlight if further illumination is require

A driver picks up students near their villages to deliver them to the campus in a 4WD truck. Eighteen days later, they are returned to their homes for 10-12 days.

Speaking Spanish

A new student at Maya Jaguar—a lovely young girl named Vidalia—touched my heart. We had several commonalities. Neither of us wore the traditional colorful embroidered Guatemalan clothing. Vidalia wore second-hand clothing: a boy's shirt, a plain navy skirt, and ragged ill-fitting flip-flops. She wore the same outfit every day. We both stunk at Spanish. Like all the school's students, Vidalia grew up in a village speaking only Mam, one of three Mayan dialects in the area. The free public schools available to villagers do not teach the Spanish language, and teachers, by all accounts, rarely show up. Few Maya children make it through sixth grade. Back to the fields they go. On the first day of classes, Vidalia looked as perplexed as the three other new students who were experiencing their first Spanish language lesson.

All classes are taught in Spanish, and students learn quickly. It turns out that Vidalia was fortunate to be there at all. Her family, more destitute than most, was in crisis. Her father had been forced off a small plot of land he believed he'd purchased with a handshake years ago. Handshake deals are common in villages where illiteracy is rampant. With scant notice, his impoverished family, including three children, was forced to vacate.

New student Vidalia, at center in red, is welcomed to Maya Jaguar.

Learning Spanish is the first order of business at Maya Jaguar.

Teaching good nutrition

Every item on the plate is grown on campus or on Adopt-a-Village’s educational farm three hours away. Meals are homemade; vegetables are chopped by students during their rotating chores. Teaching good nutrition is integral to AAV's mission. Seventy percent of young children in this region of Guatemala are stunted and malnourished.

Meals at Maya Jaguar are an important part of the educational experience.

Frances Dixon consults with master gardener Pasqual, and colleague Juan, by the greenhouses and raised garden beds just steps from student housing. Every student participates in all phases of organic gardening.

Paying it forward

I still think about my time in Guatemala and how moved I was by the experience. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see first-hand how learning can be life-changing. For more than 30 years, Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala has stayed true to its mission of empowering the Maya through education. But there is much more that can be done to help the strong and determined indigenous people in this region escape poverty and discrimination.

I have joined Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala’s Advisory Council, a group of professionals who are working closely with Frances and the organization’s board of directors to develop and implement groundbreaking initiatives that will build upon three decades of work in Guatemala. Despite the pandemic, Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala continues to work diligently to provide specialized educational training for children. I could not be more proud to be a part of an organization that is transforming the lives of bright and ambitious kids like Vidalia who would otherwise have little hope for the future.

For more information or to donate, visit Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala.

Mary Korbulic is a writer/blogger, photographer, volunteer, and gardener in Rogue River, Oregon.

August 11, 2021


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