The big day has finally arrived! I am officially thirty. But before I talk about my brand new age (or really in order to talk about it), I’d like to write about the volunteer work Lacey and I are doing with Manos de Colores (a.k.a. El Nahual), and then invite everyone who can to donate something — even as little as $5 — to the organization. If you can make a donation in honor of my thirtieth birthday, that would be awesome, or if you become inspired to give something regardless, even better. This post should give you a good idea of what you’d be giving to; feel free to read straight through or use the links below to browse everything from the situation of public education here in Guatemala to more information about the kids we teach, the schools they attend, the Manos de Colores organization, and even my personal take on volunteering and “The New Thirty.”
First, some background. Government funding for public education in Guatemala is low and falling. Much like in the US, the government has begun to deal with the problem by shifting emphasis to private education, unaffordable for the vast majority of Guatemalan families living near or below the poverty level. Statistically, given a random group of one hundred Guatemalan children entering the public school system in first grade, only forty will complete three years of school; thirty to thirty-five will reach secondary school. Of these, perhaps ten will be able to attend university, at great expense (even Guatemala’s single public university requires entrants to pay for books, food, housing, etc., making it all but impossible for even the brightest candidates to attend if they don’t have the financial resources). In other words, the situation of Guatemala’s education system is dire at best.
The ninos (kids, in Spanish) are what it’s all about. The majority of the kids we teach may be impoverished, malnourished, dirty, or have problems at home, but they’re just kids, beautiful and brilliant, funny, curious, friendly, weird. They grin at the smallest jokes in our broken Spanish and kiss us goodbye after class. They raise their hands even when they don’t know the answer; they fight over the pieces of scrap paper with the most interesting pictures on the reverse side. Laura is a teacher’s pet and Donald a young rebel; Maria is a tiny shy girl who must be asked three times to speak, while eager Juan leaps up out of his seat to shout the answer first. The most macho of the boys will become engrossed in the making of a paper-bead necklace. Sometimes the ninos try to teach us curse words in Spanish, slyly, so that we’ll repeat the words without knowing what we’re saying. They sing our bilingual songs at the top of their voices, stand up and follow our stupid dances with inexhuastible gusto. They demand the right color marker, a pencil that’s not broken, a pen that works. Some of them learn English at light speed. Most importantly, though, they don’t look like poor kids, hungry kids, or kids in poverty — they look just like kids, any kids, kids who want to score a goal in playground soccer, who want to get the right answer and a “muy bien” from their teacher, who want to color their pictures inside the lines, who want to learn even when they don’t know it. They will make you frustrated and euphoric, but like any kids you spend a lot of time with, they will not break your heart, not on their own; for that you need the statistics, the surrounding environment, the cold facts that could doom them to be anything less than they’re capable of.
Manos de Colores serves over two hundred children, teenagers and young adults at the western edge of Quetzaltenango in a variety of ways. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, for instance, Lacey and I bike past the edges of the city to two different schools to teach English and Art: La Candalaria in the morning and La Cuchilla in the afternoon, each with a unique story.
La Candalaria was founded and built by a community an hour’s walk from downtown Xela. A few years ago, this community of subsistence farmers, mostly living below the poverty level, recognized that the condition of their families and children would not improve without a local school (sending children to schools in the city, even public ones, was prohibitively expensive). With astonishing hard work and cooperation the community acquired the necessary land, built a school, staffed it with teachers, and now keeps it running. Although the school itself is in a gorgeous setting, perched in a cornfield beneath the ragged jungle and rearing cliffs of an ancient volcanic cone (and not far from another pyramid-perfect volcano), the needs of the community are still desperate: for instance, Lacey teaches one class with about 50 students (and only one full-time teacher), while one of my classes is held in a shed and another in the tarp-covered courtyard of a nearby family’s house.
Fortunately, a construction project to add four new classrooms, also supported by Manos de Colores, is underway. To break up the harder work of teaching, I head up to the site with other volunteers at least twice a week to help move earth, mix cement, haul materials, or do whatever else is needed. Our help accounts in part for single mothers or other families who are unable to send a worker, since families must provide a certain number of man-hours to keep sending their kids to the school. Still, even when the new wing is completed in December, most of the kids attending La Candalaria will face an uphill battle: on the way to help with construction after school I see younger children sorting through trash by the side of the road, girls pulverizing rock with hammers, boys struggling to pull their goats into town. At moments like this secondary school looks like a pipe dream.
La Cuchilla’s beginnings were with an inspired director, who recognized the need within her impoverished community and undertook the unlikely task of fundraising and start-up work to create a school. Although a little closer to the city and somewhat better equipped physically to handle the needs of its students than Candalaria, La Cuchilla (basically a row of classrooms opening onto a sidewalk) is still without lights in many classrooms, without textbooks for its students, and without many other resources that we take for granted in schools in the US. Also, like the students at Candalaria and all public schools, the kids at La Cuchilla must buy and bring their own uniforms, notebooks and pencils to class, which means many come without them. Still, the students in our after-school program are bright-eyed and energetic; the rowdiest students still amaze me when I sit down next to them — just to calm them down — and they reveal themselves as the most eager learners of all.
An unfortunate quirk of Guatemala’s public school system is that, although primary education is theoretically mandatory, children are prevented from enrolling in school after a certain age. This impacts the rural poor in particular, where children’s work is often required to sustain their families. When these children “miss” their window to enter school, they miss out on an education altogether. In an attempt to serve part of this population, Manos de Colores runs a Saturday school for teenagers and adults who were unable to attend school at the usual age. Lacey teaches English for an hour every weekend as part of this “equivalency” program at Manos de Colores’ center. Lacey also teaches English on Wednesdays at Telesecondaria, a high school that is a government experiment in cutting education costs (much of the teaching is done by television). Only the very poorest students — those unable to attend the public high schools downtown — go to school at Telesecondaria. So once a week, Manos de Colores provides a few more live faces like Lacey’s to deliver supplementary education in English, a subject critical to success in secondary school and beyond.
Finally, Manos de Colores also runs its own educational after-school program every day in-house, mostly serving kids from yet another nearby school. Thanks to our willingness to ride bikes up long hills (or maybe we were conned into it?), Lacey and I only volunteer at the center to fill in occasionally, usually heading out to the other schools. But like our other destinations the center at Manos de Colores is bursting with children (on some days almost a hundred) who all need to learn. During the upcoming three-month school vacation, Manos de Colores will expand its coverage, hiring Guatemalan teachers to cover math and other subjects while volunteers continue to teach art and English at all schools. Art is taught because otherwise it isn’t part of the school curriculum, meaning children miss the satisfaction and confidence that comes with beginning and finishing a creative project and taking it home. English, as I mentioned above, is key to advancement here, both in the school system and in Guatemalan society in general.
While I did write the bulk of this post on my birthday, I’ve left this last part for now, several days later. In reality this is because Lacey whisked me away to a birthday weekend at Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan — look for pictures soon!) and because I now spend my evenings glued to the computer under the illusion that the Phillies will actually make the playoffs, but theoretically it has also better prepared me to answer everyone’s favorite birthday question: do you feel any different now that you’re thirty?
The answer is not so straightforward. I really don’t feel much different now than I did a week ago. On the other hand, I’m in Guatemala, trying to figure out how to teach kids in a new language before I bargain for my dinnertime tomatoes at the outdoor market. This feels a lot different than designing websites in Philadelphia or visiting swimming holes in Vermont. I know a lot more about the present-tense basics of Spanish, the socio-political situation in Guatemala, the best place to buy donuts in Quetzaltenango. I know a little more about teaching, and I know that it’s hard, hard work. But I guess what we’re really asking, when we ask each other this stupid, stupid birthday question, is: do you know yourself any better now than you did before?
In volunteering I have one answer. Not because I am discovering a more altruistic side of myself; volunteering, as many have observed, is as much a transaction as it is a service, at its best involving giving and receiving in equal measure. In fact, our original plan wasn’t even to volunteer in Guatemala; this was just a place we decided to come stay for awhile where we couldn’t really make money. But here we are, teaching, playing, shoveling, wheelbarrowing. Some days it just feels like work. But doing this work gives me a greater and greater awareness of the grand and simple human equation, the equation through which we are all giving to each other, all the time, in our smiles and greetings, in our hugs and grins and kindnesses and friendships, in our teaching and learning, our efforts to understand each other — in all the myriad ways that we give and give and give meaning to each other’s lives. This is the greatest lesson of these first, fresh days of my new thirty: that although Lacey and I have transplanted ourselves to a new country and culture, we are still part of this same equation, this human equation, the unending cycle of generosity that most of us are hardly aware of, but that we take part in every day.
So, if you are able to make a donation to Manos de Colores, what will your money go toward? It could go directly to the simplest imaginable things: dry erase markers, pencils, notebooks, construction paper. All are really easy to buy with a few US dollars, and you can’t teach a roomful of underserved children if they don’t have pencils and notebooks. Lacey and I give in this way weekly, copying worksheets, buying markers, stickers, and other small things to improve our classrooms. A slightly larger donation could go to buying shoes for students at La Candelaria who don’t have them. Or your donation could go to expanding Manos de Colores’ programs by hiring Guatemalan teachers to teach math and other subjects during fall vacation (supplementing our English and art teaching and providing a huge educational boost for hundreds of students, as well as an income boost for underpaid teachers). Your donation could even go toward funding Manos de Colores’ new scholarship program, starting up in the next month, a program which will fund the education of 20 students who couldn’t otherwise afford to study beyond sixth grade, providing everything from school supplies to supplemental income for their families to a nutritious lunch that they would not eat otherwise. It only takes $250 to fund a year of education for these children, a year they absolutely could not afford on their own. Most importantly, whatever you are able to give, 100% of it will go directly to Manos de Colores’ programs, since no one at Manos de Colores, from the director and the board to the volunteer program coordinators and teachers, makes a penny from any operations.