Education for Impoverished Guatemalan Youth

by Common Hope
Hermalinda enjoying a picture book with her family
Hermalinda enjoying a picture book with her family

Every year, about one in three Guatemalan children fail first grade. Many of these students come from impoverished homes of parents with little education, most of whom are unable to provide their children with adequate stimulation—the lack of which delays their development and puts them at higher risk of failing once they do start school. This is especially true of San Rafael el Arado. But Lesbia, San Rafael Site Coordinator, and her social work team are working to change that by visiting children and parents in their homes and bringing them puzzles, toys, and books. The goals of these visits are to get the children accustomed to being around people who are outside of their family, so the transition into the classroom is easier; to develop their motor skills, communication skills and problem-solving skills; to instill good behavior and habits; and to get them excited about their accomplishments.

It’s not always easy. Lesbia says that sometimes the kids don’t want to participate, they cry, or they are sick but she never gives up. She knows that if she’s persistent, the kids will warm up. One such student is a girl named Hermelinda. Lesbia says that when she began visiting Hermelinda at her home, she only wanted to be by her mother and she didn’t participate when Lesbia tried to do activities with her. Now, Hermelinda gets excited and applauds when she makes towers out of blocks or when she successfully completes a puzzle. She is receptive to Lesbia, warmly greeting her when she arrives and waving goodbye when she leaves. She also loves to look at picture books, as seen in the included photo.

Lesbia states that the development of these skills takes a long time but that after seven years at San Rafael, she and her team can see small but important changes, just like Herminda’s accomplishments. “The willingness, enthusiasm, and faith that we put into each one of our activities will have an impact on the community.” We agree, Lesbia! We are proud of Hermelinda and all of the children who are discovering that learning is fun, and we’re very proud of the hard work carried out by the Common Hope staff in San Rafael. As Lesbia mentioned, we expect that these small changes will continue to lead to big successes, like Luis, for example, who was the first Common Hope student to graduate from high school in San Rafael this past November. You can read more about Luis's story in another report located here.

Thanks to supporters like you, we look forward to celebrating many more San Rafael graduations, including young Hermelinda’s. It is your generosity that allows us to help young students who may otherwise enter school unprepared, putting them at high risk for dropping out. Thank you for all you do!

Have you visited the community of San Rafael el Arado? What questions do you have about this indigious community or the work we do there? Please leave your questions in the comments section below and we will answer them as soon as possible! Once again, thanks for supporting Common Hope and education for impoverished guatemalan youth. 

Youth in the indigenous community of San Rafael
Youth in the indigenous community of San Rafael
Luis with his parents at graduation
Luis with his parents at graduation

This year’s graduation in Guatemala was a very special time for many, perhaps even more so for Luis and his family. Luis is from San Rafael, a predominantly indigenous community where completing junior high is uncommon let alone high school. He is the very first Common Hope student from this community to graduate high school. After overcoming obstacles and demonstrating that hard work and perseverance pay off, Luis serves as an inspiration not only to his five younger siblings, but also to his community and peers.

Beating the odds
Luis’s father Jose, came to Common Hope in 2012 and expressed his desire that Luis continue his education. Generally, it is harder for older children to be sponsored since the likelihood of them dropping out is higher than that of younger children. In spite of the risks involved, Luis was sponsored at the start of his high school career.

In March of 2012, Luis began high school in a community called Sumpango where he studied automotive mechanics. Though continuing his education was a step in the right direction, it presented new hardships for Luis and his family. Luis had to travel by bus every day as a means to attend his classes, which started early at 7:30 a.m. He also had to leave his comfort zone and become acclimated to a new group of people away from his community. Regardless of the obstacles, Luis always demonstrated a great respect for education and he even became one of the top students of his class. Luis received special recognition during the Independence Day parade that took place on September 15; he walked with honors and wore a banner to denote his scholarly success. “We were pleasantly surprised when we got the news that Luis would walk with honors,” said Lesbia, San Rafael coordinator, “this made us think that he could achieve graduation and much more by just believing in his family and in his hard work.”

Family support and serving as a role model
Luis’s parents have played a major role in his success from the very beginning; however, supporting their son’s education did not come without sacrifice. Luis’s degree required him to have hands on experience repairing vehicles, which required further monetary investment. Luis’s parents sold one of their cows to get extra money so that they could buy the materials needed for their son to complete his practicum. Since last year, Luis has been employing his skill sets and knowledge by helping his fellow community members fix their vehicles. As a result, his parents have been able to witness firsthand what Luis has learned and see the benefits of his education.

Currently, Luis’s brothers and sisters are following in his footsteps as they are all in school. One of his siblings is in his final year of high school studying computer programming, another is studying to be a bilingual secretary, and the three youngest are in 7th grade, 2nd grade and kindergarten. “It’s exciting because we didn’t expect to see the results we have seen so soon from this family," Lesbia mentioned, “I say family because Luis is a role model for his younger siblings.”

Kind words from Jose
In a community like San Rafael, where advocating for education is a challenge and where families often encourage their children to drop out early so they can start working, Jose says he wants his family to be different. Luis’ father made a speech at the graduation ceremony and mentioned that he can see changes in San Rafael ever since Common Hope started working in their community, and that he is appreciative of all the efforts that have been put forth. Later Jose stated “this organization has come to us like angels so that my family’s dreams can come true.”

Luis was one of 144 students who graduated this year, bringing the total number of Common Hope graduates to more than 1,500 since 1998. That's 1,500 young men and women who now posess the confidence, compassion, and organizational skills that will enable them to be agents of change in their communities. You help make that possible!

Luis at our graduation ceremony in Antigua
Luis at our graduation ceremony in Antigua
Hugo with his brick on the Pathway of Dreams
Hugo with his brick on the Pathway of Dreams

Hugo remembers well his years of writing letters to his sponsor. So much so, his hand trembled with emotion as he wrote his dedication in his graduate thesis. “To Common Hope,” Hugo began, “Thank you . . . for letting me dream.” This was more than a decade after Hugo graduated from high school, and more than two decades since he was first sponsored by Common Hope. Still, Hugo remembered the people and the process that made his “difficult but beautiful education” possible.

One of our very first sponsored students in Antigua, Hugo graduated from high school in 2003 with a degree in elementary education, and he quickly landed a job as a teacher, both great feats. He taught for five years at Common Hope’s pilot school, working with students in grades 1-3 who were struggling. At the school, Hugo says he acquired many tools for being a good teacher, including the creative curriculum techniques used at New Hope School, and opportunities to attend a number of teacher trainings. Hugo says he also learned “the spirit of serving others” at Common Hope, something he believes everyone should cultivate.

But Hugo didn’t stop with these teaching accomplishments. He continued to seek new ways to help others. Over the following decade, he went on to pursue a law degree, attending college with the help of Common Hope. And in 2010, he moved on to a new and challenging position with Semillas de Amor, a home for children who have been abandoned or orphaned. “My current position is totally different,” Hugo says, “but I’m always motivated to make positive changes in the lives of children.”

Last fall, Hugo accomplished two new feats. He finished his law degree and he was promoted to director of Semillas de Amor. “I couldn’t believe it — it was too motivating, too exciting. It was like a dream. There were many people competing for the position that had more experience. … But I knew the organization and the kids, which gave me an advantage. Still, I think a whole night passed before I could believe that they had chosen me,” he said.

And all along this career journey, Hugo has remained mindful of the opportunities that got him where he is today. This was top of mind when he wrote the dedication to his law school thesis, where he included a thank-you to Common Hope and his sponsor. “I’m so grateful to Common Hope and my sponsor Sharon,” says Hugo. “I never had the opportunity to meet her personally, only through letters, and I would like to thank her for all her support. I’m grateful to Common Hope for the great administration of their resources—I couldn’t ask for more than they gave me.”

Hugo continues to think of way to pay it forward, too. In the future, he hopes to have his own law office “to help people that need legal assistance but cannot afford to pay a lawyer. I want to support them,” he says. Hugo also wants to teach classes for law students, to help them pass the Guatemala bar exam. Hugo’s great achievements over the past decades bode well for accomplishing these new dreams in the years ahead.

Congratulations to Hugo and his sponsor Sharon for the accomplishments made possible by hard work, generosity, and persistence. Hugo’s thesis dedication is printed below in its entirety.

“To Common Hope:
Thank you for all your support, in my difficult but beautiful education process.
Thank you for letting me dream.
Thank you for believing and trusting in me.
Thank you for being an organization that transforms the future of Guatemalans so that we have the desire to improve ourselves.
Writing these words makes me remember writing letters to my sponsors to thank them for their help. My hands still tremble with emotion thinking that there are many people that worried and cared for me so much.
My most sincere gratitude, I really don’t have a way to thank you for all you did for me. I can only say what my grandparents used to say: ‘May God bless you and repay you!’”

Supporters like you are the ones who helped make Hugo's dreams a reality. In 2003, there were 49 students in Hugo's graduating class. Today, our graduating classes are nearly triple that size. And thanks to your generosity, over 1,300 students have graduated from high school since 2003, bringing our total number of graduates close to 1,500 after this year's class!  

Hugo when he worked for CH cerca 2006
Hugo when he worked for CH cerca 2006
Henry, pictured far right.
Henry, pictured far right.

Henry started his journey with Common Hope as an affiliated student at nine or ten years old. Years later, after graduating from high school and starting his career, he became the Youth Development Coordinator at New Hope. A genuinely kind person, Henry's passion for working with youth is readily apparent to those who meet him. He is an example of the great difference the youth program can make, thanks to your support.  

Henry says that before graduating from high school, it was a bit hard to have a clear vision for his life. “I imagined myself with a simple job, such as selling things at a store. I didn’t have big expectations,” he says. But he says he did have strong remodels, in New Hope Director Renato Westby and Country Director Tamalyn Gutierrez. “I wanted to be just like them,” Henry says. “With everything that I learned from them and Common Hope, I started to have the desire to help others.”

Henry also says he had great opportunities to explore his interests with Common Hope. As a Common Hope student, he took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, including engaging with the volunteer teams that came to Guatemala. They brought artistic activities and sports, and also volunteered to teach English classes—so he always went to these activities after school. He also had the opportunity in 2010 to intern with Tamalyn Gutierrez, Common Hope’s Country Director. He helped by filing documents, organizing her schedule, and planning graduation for Antigua and New Hope. The internship was a great learning experience, Henry says, especially learning to managing challenges with working with others, from the communication to the collaboration with many different people.

After graduation, Henry started working in Guatemala City, doing publicity for a business, writing emails and creating special flyers and promotions. It was a very small, entry-level job, he says, with a terrible salary and a massive commute—two hours both ways. Plus, it was all about “selling selling selling,” Henry says. “I felt that it wasn’t a good fit for me, and that it wasn’t putting my skills to their best use.” After a time, Henry decided to resign, and within a couple of weeks, Tamalyn and current New Hope Director Mynor Lemus contacted him about working with young people in New Hope. The new role has been such a welcome change for Henry, and a great fit.

It seems that Henry has allowed his own challenges in discerning a career path to inform his work with the youth program. He has made some changes to the program since his arrival, including more focused attention for students who are about to graduate. Youth program staff are prepping students with classes and immersion in the work force so they are able to arrive at a job interview prepared, and so that they will have the interpersonal skills they need to succeed. The program staff also works to prep youth with the tools and skills they need to go out and find a job—using the Internet, responding to postings, etc.

Henry also focuses a fair amount of time for the youth program on sports and physical activity, so students are healthier and happier in everything they do. In addition, he is encouraging more reading activities for youth—“just because of the simple fact that if a young person can read, he or she automatically knows much more than a young person who cannot.” And finally, the program is dedicating more time to more diverse extracurricular skills—such as skateboarding, dancing, and street art. “We’re doing this so we can focus on the many different talents our youth have,” Henry says. He hopes that through these varied activities, youth will have more skills and inspiration to contribute to their communities and schools.

On why he was attracted to working for Common Hope, Henry says, “I always had thought that you can make positive changes with young students, if you just spend some time with them.” And why young people? “I really enjoy working with young students,” Henry says. “There are a lot of people who think that youth are just a problem—but really, they’re a solution.”

Henry says a key challenge he sees for the youth he works with is adapting and understanding a new world, outside of the New Hope community. “In New Hope School, things are run very differently than in the mainstream public school system. The outside world, especially in Guatemala City, is much more accelerated and moves at an extremely fast pace. In New Hope, we try to give the students the opportunity to experience success, in many different ways. Within their own spaces that they feel comfortable in, students find success.”

Henry says that youth are more vulnerable to falling into bad situations when they are young, but when they are in a safe environment, with healthy activities, they are going to have more opportunities for their jobs and futures as they grow up.

But Henry also encourages youth to accept and embrace challenge. He advises students that “in any moment or situation, one should always look at things as a challenge to be overcome. It’s important to recognize that they are challenges so that you can learn from your mistakes.”

The youth at New Hope are very fortunate to have Henry's wisdom, enthusiasm, and vision. They are also very fortunate for the support of donors like you that makes Henry's work possible. Thank you!

Henry helps a student in the leadership program.
Henry helps a student in the leadership program.
The youth group (Henry in back row, yellow shirt).
The youth group (Henry in back row, yellow shirt).

Last year, our youth leadership group in Antigua was refreshed and re-energized, and the results have been inspiring. The number of youth leaders has more than doubled—from nine members last year, to an astounding 21 members this year.  

The program works to develop leadership qualities, and the students participate in a number of different training sessions like exercises on public speaking, for example. The group members also give talks each week on a variety of topics ranging from self-esteem to drug prevention.

Two students from last year have continued to participate in the youth leadership group. One student is Dulce, who started getting involved in youth activities in 2010. Dulce loves to draw and wants to be an architect one day. She says, “My dream is that people recognize me in the world of architecture.” Dulce’s ambition is apparent. She says that she decided to be in the leadership group because she likes to participate in activities and if other kids were doing it, why not her? Last year, Dulce was the youngest and quietest member of the group.  She was very shy and had a particularly hard time with public speaking. Thanks to continued encouragement from her peers, Dulce says she’s gotten better at expressing herself. “Before when I had to talk in front of people, I felt sick to my stomach. Now it’s not as hard,” she explains.

Another student who continued to participate this year is Erick. Before joining the group last year, Erick wanted to study technical and industrial drawing. Now, his dream is to graduate as a teacher and continue to give talks to youth. He wants to replicate Common Hope’s youth programs and have spaces for youth to go where they have positive and healthy activities like cooking, music, and sports. He has already taken the initiative to lead a cooking group on Thursday afternoons. Erick credits the youth leadership group for bringing him out of his shell. He says, “When I started coming to youth groups, I opened up more. At first I thought I wouldn’t be able to get up an speak in front of the group, but they’ve taught us how to handle it when we got confused, how to be dynamic when we speak, and how to handle big groups. I’ve learned a lot.”

The youth leaders don’t have everything figured out, of course. Like their peers, they too struggle with passing classes, dealing with family issues, and staying on the path to graduation. But their own challenges only strengthen their influence on their peers.

The group facilitator Teresa, says that the group constantly encourages each other. “There’s something about hearing the advice from someone who is the same age, from the same place. There’s more trust and a better understanding,” she says.

We anticipate that the program will continue to grow and thrive thanks to leaders who encourage their peers to join, and also thanks to supporters like you. Your support makes it possible for this year’s 21 youth leaders, students like Dulce and Erick, to continue to strive for their dreams.

Thank you!

This year
This year's youth leadership group

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Common Hope

Location: St. Paul, MN - USA
Website: http:/​/​
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Lizz Peterson
Marketing & Communications Manager
St. Paul, MN United States

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