Every year we give out 15 scholarships to kids from El Rosario to go to a private Christian middle school in nearby Chimaltenango. It’s an alternative school, which really just means kids have class one day a week and do the rest of their work at home. “Weekend school”, as it’s called in Guatemala, is from 7:30am to 2pm on Sundays. Kids turn in their homework, copy the following weeks work from a whiteboard, listen to a short lesson, take notes, ask questions and rush to their next class. Rinse and repeat until 2pm.
When we award scholarships we also provide summer school and tutoring. Six hours a week with a teacher, isn’t enough. Before the school year begins, new students come to the academy 3 days a week to prepare for middle school. We work with them for 2 ½ months. During the school year, we offer tutoring 2 days a week from 3:30-6pm. I say “we offer” but if they accept the scholarship, it’s required.
Why would anyone want to go to “Weekend school”?
Most of our kids on scholarship can’t afford middle school. Without it they would most likely stay at home, help mom around the house or help dad out in the fields until they’re old enough to get a full time job of their own. A full time job will be hard to find and will probably pay one third the legal minimum wage.
I want you to meet Meyra (pronounced May-duh). She was awarded one of our very first scholarships. Her older sister is in high school so she would have had to wait her turn to go to school. Most families can only afford to send one child at a time. Some kids wait until they’re 18 to begin the 7th grade. Last year we awarded a scholarship to a girl who was 20-years-old.
I noticed Meyra wasn’t coming to tutoring so I asked the other girls if they knew where she was. “She’s working at a factory.”
Ughhhh! My heart broke. “Is she still going to school?” I asked.
“Yes!” they sang in unison.
I stopped by her house later that day to talk with Meyra and her parents. Meyra was at work but her mom said I could meet with them on Sunday after school.
“Is she working every day?”
“Yes. She works every day but Sundays. She goes to school on Sundays.” Her smile said that she was proud of her.
Sunday came and I sat down with Meyra and her momma. She told me that she wakes up every morning at 5:30am and walks about a mile down a dirt road to catch a bus that takes her to a factory in a small town called Parramos.
She washes her hands, puts on a mask and at 7am she begins cutting broccoli that will be cleaned, packaged and shipped to the United States. She shows me little cuts all over her left hand.
“Do they hurt?”
“Not any more,” she says with a smile.
She cuts broccoli until 10am when she gets her first break. She has 15 minutes to stand in line to buy 8 tortillas and a cup of atol, a common Guatemalan porridge, all for about .45 cents. She continues to cut broccoli until her lunch break at 2pm. It’s a 30 minute break and it’s her last. After her lunch she’ll work until there’s no more “product”.
“What time do you finish?”
“I don’t know. It depends. Sometimes we finish at 6 or 7. Sometimes I don’t get home until 9 or 10 at night.”
I was speechless. I had no idea what to say. I literally had no words.
I leaned over and gave her a hug. I still had no words. In my mind I told her “I’m sorry.” All I could think about was my daughter Cecilia. I couldn’t imagine her working those hours.
She told me that she likes to work.
“Why?” I asked with crinkled eyebrows.
“Because there’s a lot of need in my family. I want to help my dad. My family has really suffered.” My frustration began to melt.
“How much do you earn?” I asked even though I didn’t want to know the answer.
“I earn Q940 a month. I give half to my parents and I keep the other half.” That’s $127.25 a month, divided by two. She works 11, 12, sometimes 13 hours a day. On her day off she goes to school, comes home for lunch and tries to do most of her homework that day. On days she gets home early, she takes a short rest and keeps working on her homework.
I’ve visited Meyra’s family many times over the years and this was the first time I took notice of the condition of their home. If you take another look at the photo you can see it’s made of wood planks. As you can imagine, wood isn’t the best material to build homes in such rainy climate. You can see the spaces between the planks that I’m sure the wind literally whistles through. You can see the dirt floors.
I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed before. That frustrates me. I LOVE this family. Meyra’s father is one of the good guys. He works hard but there’s never enough work. Her younger sister Crystal is super smart and will most likely receive a scholarship next year. Her younger brother Luis is in the 4th grade and he’s on track to receive a scholarship as well.
I’ve met many men who have left El Rosario for the United States and Canada to work. Only one of them got there legally, with a 1-year work visa. The rest paid a lot of money and risked their lives so they could save their families. Can I just be real with you? There’s no opportunity here. Full time jobs that pay minimum wage (about $400 a month) are almost impossible to find. And when you find one you’re usually worked into the ground. Your body wears down quicker. Your spirit wears down quicker.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the government or opportunities changing any time soon. So when men and women cross the border, I get it. Please don’t tell me they should do it legally. The people crossing the border have zero chance of getting there legally. I checked into taking one of our teachers, just to visit, and quickly found it’s impossible.
I don’t know a single Guatemalan in El Rosario who would rather live in the States. They want to stay here. They want watch their kids grow up. They love their country. But when your back’s up against a wall…what are you going to do?
Education is the key to ending poverty. I don’t see any other way out. With a good education, MAYBE they can get a full time job. And then maybe they won’t have to cross the border. It’s a slow process but each scholarship, each student is a seed.
I am forever humbled by your desire to change lives. How we love our neighbors is how we love Jesus. Thank you for loving Him so well.
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