Melchor Free School

I first met Sandra on a communeta van going from Melchor de Mencos to Sta. Elena. She was running a work crew of 12 men on a dig. I asked how a young woman in Guatemala could run a work gang of 12 macho men. “Well, the first week was pretty rough,” she said, “but then they found I could figure their pay, and they couldn’t!”  The job was a pretty responsible one for a 26-year-old woman, but the pay wasn’t too great. And I’ve come to the conclusion that Sandra is just about the most intelligent Guatemalteca I’ve met in my 10 years down here.

Sure enough, within a couple of months, Sandra got a new job with the state of Petén. It started by them giving her huge tomes of law she had to understand. Back at the conclusion the civil war some 10 years ago, the government promised several hundred or thousand guerrillas small parcels of land. But in the Petén, these men couldn’t prove who they were/are. Sandra is in charge of determining their eligibility and then helping them prove who they are in order to get their land.

As such, she has had to visit many small barrios in the Petén. She saw the squalor first hand, over and over again. It was about 8 months ago that she voiced her project to me. The thing she really wants to do at this stage of her life. In all these barrios, the families can’t afford to send their kids to school. Sandra wanted to have a totally free school, so many of these kids could grow up being able to read, write, do simple arithmetic, and speak English. I asked Sandra how she’s going to teach English when she didn’t speak it. “It will be a learning experience for all of us,” she replied, “but they all need to speak English.”

So she went to her boss at the state of Petén and asked permission. If she could keep up with her job working just in the mornings and evenings, except when she had to travel, and her boss gave her permission, it was a go. But the state of Petén would not support her school in any other way. She’s now working 12 hour days, between the state of Petén and teaching!

Next she picked a barrio not too far out of Melchor, the barrio of Santa Cruz, where they had no school, and proposed her project. The people of the barrio gave her land for the school and, if she can provide the building materials, the men of the barrio will build it. Meantime, she started school in one of the homes in the barrio. No uniforms: “This is a free school, no one can afford uniforms.” Same answer for snacks in the afternoon. What about books? “There is only one book, and it’s mine.” Sandra replied. Desks? “When we get the school built, Gallo Distributing will give us tables and chairs.” Pencils and paper? “Ah, that’s a problem.”

So how’s she doing? Pretty darn good! She taught for about 6 months last year, had 24 children ages 4 to 11 in kindergarten. She taught out of someone’s house, with one book. Ten children, in spite of all the handicaps, “graduated” to first grade for this year. So now the “Melchor Free School” has 25 (10 new) children in kindergarten this year and 10 in first grade. They are starting on time this year, third week of January.

June, a volunteer nurse here, and her family in Canada have donated crayons, pencils, notebooks, rulers, and all those essential expendables for all the kids. In addition, June has bought a book for each 1st grade child, and one “teacher’s” book for kindergarten. Pete DeFoe (that's me) gave her a copy of Pimsler English pronunciation for Spanish speaking people. Only 8 lessons on 4 CD’s, but it's a start.

Where she’s lacking most is in the construction of the school. Estimates are about Q3500…would you believe that? Under $US500 for a whole (no plumbing) school building!! But as of this date, Sandra only has Q2000 for it (compliments of Pete DeFoe and Jim Maher). But it’ll come, it’ll come. This young woman has a dream and she’s making it happen!

Maybe someone out there can help her a bit more with that school building… or maybe with an old computer, more English CDs, or whatever. And books and supplies are going to be an on going expense every year. There is also the possibility of feeding the kids a snack every day. You can’t learn if you don’t have good nutrition. Incaparina is a very inexpensive cereal that kids have down here, and it's loaded with vitamins. The mothers of the barrio will cook it up. Cost is only about Q0.25 per child per day. Trouble is, for 35 kids, 5 days a week for 9 months, this comes to a whopping Q1575 ($210) per year, far beyond Sandra’s means. So that would be a huge plus. If you would like to help or if you’d like to see the school or meet Sandra and the kids, she’d love to have you. Contact Pete DeFoe for directions and coordination:

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Phone: 5919-7274
Or hail "Ocean Winds" on VHF Channel 68