The best anti-poverty program is a world-class education–Barack Obama
Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) Guatemala Country Office Deputy Director Waleska Crowe is acutely aware of the importance of education and the difficulties of obtaining one. A native Guatemalan who biked over an hour to her elementary school, Waleska knows first hand the lengths parents and their children go to secure an education. From traveling miles in the dark across mountainous terrain to foregoing food to pay for school tuition, uniforms, and supplies, the road to education can be literally and figuratively treacherous.
But, with a spate of recent engineering projects building schools and improving school infrastructure, Waleska and the EWB-USA Guatemala Country Office team, are removing barriers, making it easier for kids to get to class, and constructing better futures.
As we mark the start of the school year, we are celebrating two school projects we recently completed in Guatemala providing access for the most difficult to reach audiences: rural communities and students with physical and intellectual challenges.
Poverty and learning are often woven together because it is widely agreed that education provides a path out of poverty. For individuals, education can be the difference between life above or below the poverty line. And for communities, educating girls is seen as the closest thing to a magic bullet for breaking the cycle of poverty. Better educated women tend to be healthier, earn higher incomes, marry later in life, have fewer children and create conditions leading to better health care and education for their kids. These factors, when combined, can lift people, communities, and nations out of poverty. But getting kids to school is complicated.
Education in Guatemala
Over half of the population of Guatemala lives below the poverty line. While primary school is free and required, less than forty percent of children go on to enroll in middle school with the number for those attending high school plunging even further. Limited access to schools and fees for necessities like uniforms, books, supplies, and transportation put education out of reach for many and contributes to more than two million Guatemalan youth between the ages of 15 and 24 lacking essential life skills as well as the vocational skills necessary for entry into the workforce.
That’s where EWB-USA comes in. Our engineering projects provide more children with access to schools and the infrastructure—structurally sound buildings, working water systems, kitchens, and toilets—contributing to their success once there.
New School in La Cantun II Receives High Marks
Electricity, potable water, road infrastructure, and schools have been slow to wind their way up the rugged, mountainous terrain of Guatemala’s highlands into La Cantun II, a small, primarily indigenous agricultural community.
Traveling to La Cantun II in 2017, EWB-USA’s Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University-Florida State University (FAMU-FSU) Chapter conducted a number of assessments, kicking off a yearlong series of in-depth interviews with community leaders to understand the community’s priorities.
First on the list was a school.
The community desperately needed to replace a structure serving as an interim school. Constructed from bamboo sticks, scrap wooden columns, tarps, cornstalks, and other scavenged materials; the school’s earthen walls were caving in. The structure was small and unstable. Its roof leaked badly and there was no place for the children to go to the bathroom or wash their hands. In addition, it lacked proper ventilation and was not nearly large enough to accommodate the children in the community—one room for 27 students.
With input and collaboration from the community, EWB-USA designed and oversaw the construction of a larger, modern building containing two classrooms, a kitchen, office, toilet, hand washing facilities, and a septic system. More than double the size of the temporary structure, this new school has room enough to educate approximately 50 children.
The school is receiving high marks in the community. “It is a great advantage because it is a formal, proper school, and it is also close to the children. Previously they had to walk 40 minutes to get to school, they had to go down, up and down, and the ravine grew a lot in the winter and represented a risk to the lives of the children crossing. Sometimes they even stopped attending school,” expressed one very happy mother of a student at the new school.
In early June of this year, the first group of students entered the new building with smiles and enthusiasm fueled by dreams of a better future.
Santa Eulalia: A Ray of Light and Hope
One hundred and twenty nine miles from La Cantun lies Santa Eulalia, a mountain town in Cuchumatanes, comprised primarily of Q’anjob’al, an indiginous Mayan group. There, near the top of a winding road, stands the newly constructed Escuela Luz (School of Light). The name is fitting. The school not only provides light, but also hope, as it is one of the few schools in the region, and the country, providing learning opportunities for children with physical and cognitive challenges.
Due to a dearth of services and misperceptions about disabilities, children with special needs, especially those in rural communities, and their families previously had few options for educating their children. “This school represents a unique opportunity for our children, before this school they had no educational care options,” said Alfredo López, president of the school’s Luz Association. That’s why Escuela Luz is such a beacon of light and hope for the community.
Designed for students with special needs, the building features larger doorways to better accommodate students in wheelchairs and also has indoor bathrooms adjacent to the classrooms to provide easy access.
And, Escuela Luz isn’t just for the kids. Through an alliance with the University of San Carlos de Guatemala, parents are receiving training on how they can better support their children at home.
Escuela Luz’s inaugural class of 40 students and their parents are looking forward to pursuing the opportunities the school will unlock. As Waleska poignantly summarizes, ”Schools are among the most important buildings in a community. They are essential in developing younger generations. They provide the knowledge necessary to build a better future. We celebrate every time we build a school because we know we’ve made the community stronger by providing opportunities for kids. Both students and teachers should have safe places to teach, learn and grow. There’s a lot riding on it.”