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A Ray of Hope for Needy Students in Guatemala

To reach out to needy students in Guatemala, a team of Tzu Chi volunteers made slow but careful progress on their journey to a remote mountain village, gingerly walking across a worn-out wooden bridge, while a heavily-polluted river roared past below their feet……

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Volunteers crossing a precarious-looking wooden bridge to visit the remote homes of impoverished school children.

In Guatemala, impoverished children living in remote communities often have inadequate stationery for school. Thus, the municipality of San José Pinula sent a request for help to local Tzu Chi volunteers, to distribute stationery supplies to children from 55 impoverished households in the nearby communities. Through the aid of the local city government officials and village heads, Tzu Chi volunteers conducted assessment visits from 7th to 11th June 2017. They carefully noted the details of every household, and hoped to enroll those with greater needs into the list of beneficiaries for long-term care.

Difficulties in Providing for Every Child’s Educational Needs

San José Pinula’s Monteredondo community houses about 3,000 households. There is only one public bus service that plies to and from the community daily, and the bus departs at 4am each morning and returns to the community after 3pm. The majority of the residents in the community depend on subsistence farming of various crops, such as chayotes, carrots, avocados, etc. and animal husbandry for their daily sustenance.

On 7th June 2017, the village head, Victora, led a team of Tzu Chi volunteers on house visits. The team made their first visit to the home of Ana Maria Gomez Escobar, who kept her kitchen clean and tidy, with embers of fire on her stove. Her living condition looked spacious and comfortable, and she has a child studying in the third grade.

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A shanty hut made from metal sheets stands precariously on the edge of a steep cliff, providing the only shelter from wind and rain for a family.

Another resident who lives nearby, Maria Elvira Gomez, is currently pregnant and has two other children studying in the second and fourth grade respectively. Their school bags are damaged from wear and tear, but their parents cannot afford to buy new ones for them. Maria Elvira used some plants to decorate their simple and crude home, and the three generations of the Gomez family live under one roof. Although they are very poor, the family members are closely-knitted and their relationships are heartwarming.

The household of Maria Sonia Gomez is a typical four-generation family, with a traditional wood fire stove in the simple kitchen, and a few soot-blackened pots. In the unpredictable weather of the current rainy season, there is a constant pile of unwashed clothes in the laundry basin, yet the whole family is neatly attired.

Maria Sonia has four school-going children, with the oldest already at 18 years old, a third year senior high school student, while the youngest is only in the first year of elementary school. In addition, she has her hands full in serving a bedridden mother-in-law and an uncle with intellectual disability. Upon seeing the bedridden elderly lady, volunteers quickly stepped forward to inquire of her well-being. The young daughter-in-law told the volunteers that although her husband is working, his daily income is only 80 Guatemalan quetzals, which is barely enough to sustain the heavy living expenses of this large extended family.

The residents are scattered far apart in this mountainous region, but thanks to the familiarity of the village head with the vicinity - he led the way ahead for the volunteers, while they followed in single file along the narrow mountain paths.

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Many of the locals have no concept of contraception, and think that having more children is a sign of love; hence, many households have three or more children.

After completing their home visits, the volunteer team travelled to Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta No.856 La Primavera, a local elementary school which has only four teachers, but a fairly large student population of 105. Due to a severe lack of resources within the school, students from two different grades have to share a classroom and one teacher, and even the school principal has to take on the additional responsibility as the teacher-in-charge of Grade 5 and 6 classes. 

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Volunteers visiting a local elementary school encourage the students to study hard, so that they will be able to give back to society in future.

When the volunteers encouraged the Grade 1 & 2 students to study hard, the latter gave an enthusiastic and affirmative response in unison. The young pre-school children enjoyed a daily meal subsidy of 1.5 Guatemalan quetzal and an allowance for stationery for every semester from the education ministry. But volunteers hoped that every child could don school uniforms, keep a neat and clean appearance, learn various social skills and life etiquettes, and use the knowledge and skills they have acquired in school to contribute to society in the future.

Next, the team of volunteers arrived at the community of Santa Sofia, which is located opposite San José Pinula. Santa Sofia has a good transport network, and has gradually become the preferred place where young people relocate themselves to work and live. Currently, the government’s primary goal is to resolve the pressing issues of overcrowding and dangerous living conditions as they may lead to more serious social issues if left unresolved.

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Many of the local womenfolk earn a meagre income from selling tacos to supplement the household income.

Seeing roads that were damaged by storms, and face-to-face with such scenes of destruction, the team of volunteers couldn’t help but feel a shiver down their spines. They gingerly treaded over a broken wooden bridge, while a heavily-polluted river roared beneath their feet. It was imaginable how helpless the people on the opposite side of the riverbank must be feeling living in such conditions.

A few local womenfolk came up behind the team of volunteers that was crossing the dilapidated wooden bridge. Seeing the women bearing firewood on their heads, some of the volunteers attempted to carry the wood, and realized with a shock the heavy load these females were bearing. But the young girls did not find the work hard; they followed behind their mothers and grandmothers to sell firewood from house to house.

Perched on the edge of a steep cliff are haphazardly constructed metal shacks that serve as shelters from wind and rain for many families. In a dark and dank corner sits a run-down shack made from rusty metal sheets and cardboard. It is the home of Maria Sara Avendano, a single mother. Since her husband’s death two years ago, she has been working as a domestic helper, while single-handedly raising her three children. Presently, her 12-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy are in elementary schools, and she has another girl who is a preschooler.

Bringing Hope for a Brighter Future

There are no distinctive house numbers in the remote mountain regions, and it is not easy for outsiders to know if they are calling on the right house. But thankfully for the team, the village head is well-versed with the remote region.

One resident in particular, Aura Leticia Yol Luna, lives in an area that is very difficult to access, and the only way to and fro is via a narrow stone path carved out along steep slopes. Aura has four children, including three girls and one boy; her husband has an issue with alcohol addiction, and their children had to stop schooling due to poverty.

Aura’s eldest son is studying a course in computer science, and can easily find a job after graduating in the following year, but her youngest daughter has dropped out of school to stay at home. The volunteers tried hard to convince her to resume her studies so that she could find a good job, but Aura said that the income from her taco sales alone wasn’t enough to keep the family going.

Another resident, who makes metal gates and windows for a living, Jesús Estrada Cid, is straddled with the burden of raising ten children all by himself after his wife passed away. His youngest child is only five years old this year, his eldest daughter is currently seeking employment while his second daughter is in the first year of law school in university. He has a 16-year-old son who is currently studying car mechanics in a vocational school, and a 24-year-old son who had stopped schooling at a very young age and chosen to stay at home to help look after the livestock and to take care of the family.

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Through the home visits to impoverished local children, the volunteers hoped that continuing education could turn their life around and help them out of poverty. 

There is an elderly relative living on the same plot of land as Jesús and his family. The volunteers warmly greeted the old granny as soon as they entered her home. The granny shared that she is already 83 years old, has difficulty walking, and needs money to buy medicine. Her son is a carpenter with a monthly salary of around 1,007 Guatemalan quetzals, and she has two grandchildren, one of whom is in the first year of elementary school and the other in the first year of high school.

Towards the tail end of the home visits, the volunteers were surprised to discover a child who was not in their name list. It turned out to be one of the girls who crossed the rickety wooden bridge with them while bearing firewood on her head. The volunteers proactively showed her care and found out that the girl’s mother, Dairi Griselda Pu Pu, takes care of ten children of her own, but none of them goes to school.

Although her husband is a gardener, and three of their older children have already started their own families, the younger children still lack the opportunity for formal education. As such, the volunteers included the girl’s name into their list of beneficiaries, and hoped to help the struggling family in the days ahead.

Although these families live in abject poverty, they know what it means to be content with their lot in life. The volunteers hope that the children will receive their best inheritance for a brighter future - the gift of education, in order that they may break the chain of poverty. The local government has been most cooperative, be it in finding suitable resources and in helping to smoothen the home visits. It is everyone’s deepest hope that the children can make a turnaround in their lives for a better and brighter future.

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