At our age, we sometimes find ourselves thinking that we know a lot about the world. We also often find ourselves discouraged by the greed, selfishness, anger and violence that we see in people and organizations as yet another child really is left behind, a worthy person loses a job or a person is punished for a deed they have not done. Just when Hope seems like it's only a town in Arkansas, we come across a story like this one and Hope springs, if not eternal, then at least renewed.
Jill Allison was living on Bainbridge Island in Seattle and working for a financial firm when she heard Greg Mortenson, of Three Cups of Tea, speak about his adventures and accomplishments in Pakistan. She was inspired to do something… anything. She adopted Greg's idea of Pennies for Peace. She put jars around town, publicized her idea and convinced friends, neighbors and strangers to put all their pennies in her jars to further the cause of peace on the planet.
In six weeks, she raised $15,000 USD.
Her success in this venture, and the feelings her accomplishment engendered in her, changed the direction of her life. She quit her job in the financial firm and applied for, and got, a job at the Gates Foundation.
Jill Goes To Yucatan
About the same time, Jill and her boyfriend made plans for their annual trip to the Yucatan, starting on Isla Mujeres and working their way down to Guatemala on a bus tour. These plans were scrapped when she and her boyfriend ended their relationship right before the planned trip, but Jill decided to go anyway. She came to Merida instead of Isla, and ended up extending her stay here.
In Merida, she met and talked to local expats as she explored the city and contemplated her new life. Through conversations with one of those expats, she learned that the Apoyo program she had read about on Yucatan Living that had been started in Cholul had just lost its leader, who was moving back to the United States. Without taking an extra deep breath, and without thinking too much about it, Jill jumped in and said “I’ll do it!” … and EducaTE was born.
A New Start
In January 2010, Jill started networking and investigating, and through luck and serendipity, managed to forge a bond of sisterhood and service with two local expats, Katrin Schikora and Cherie Pitillo. Together they worked to understand the current program and the needs of the community.
They changed the name from Apoyo (which means “support”) to educaTE (which has dual but similar meanings in both Spanish and English, and works in both languages without the need to translate… rather brilliant, actually!). When asked recently what educaTE meant to her, an eleventh-grader who participates in the program said “Everyone should have the chance to attain/achieve their dreams." This young girl, who lives with her family in a very tiny home in Cholul, hopes to become a doctor or a nutritionist. She is interested in medicine and is currently learning the Latin names in anatomy. If anyone can see the benefit in a program like educaTE, it would be someone like her.
Taking Stock and Getting Real
For the rest of the school year, Jill and the team spent a lot of time watching, getting to know people and began the process of fundraising and organizing to become a bonafide non-profit organization in the United States. The 501(c)(3) designation was recently and finally achieved in August 2010, with educaTE incorporated in the state of Washington. The first official board meeting was held on September 4, with board members from Merida and Seattle joining together via Skype. Elected officers for 2010 are Jill Allison, Chair and Merida resident Alex Martinez as Vice Chair. Diane Troyer, Jill's former boss who lives in Seattle serves as Secretary and Deborah Thompson, recently retired teacher and administrator in the Detroit Pubic Schools and recent transplant to Merida, is Treasurer. Locals Katrin Schikora, Cherie Pitillo and Rosi Jinich are other Members of the Board.
School Breakfast Program
There are two programs in educaTE. The smaller of the programs is the School Breakfast program, which recognizes that growing minds cannot learn on an empty stomach. About twenty children participate in the program, eating a healthy, fresh and balanced breakfast every day.
Through lack of oversight, the breakfasts had degenerated into non-nutritional belly fillers. The group appointed Aliza Mizrahi, a local Cholul resident, as the benign overseer of the program. Aliza, who works as a consultant on environmental issues and has an organic farm, has a B. Sc. in Chemistry from UC Berkeley and a M. Sc. on Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University. She has two children of her own but donates her time almost every day to making sure that these children in the public school in Cholul have their nutritional needs met. The breakfast program so far has been paid for with money donated by the Merida Men’s Club, as well as with helpful donations of food and drink from local individuals and businesses.
The children in this program have been identified as ones that are not able to get sufficient food at home. They are in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades, as DIF, Mexico’s federal agency for social welfare, has a program for the younger children. While it is sometimes slightly embarrassing for the students to participate, as they must leave their first period classroom briefly in order to eat their breakfast, the children seem to enjoy the food, the ambiance and each other’s company once they are in the sunny room. (They aren’t so sure about that lady with the big camera, however.)
The day we were there to visit, breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs with chaya and a roll, with a glass of juice and one of milk. After the children had eaten and left, the visitors were invited to eat also as there was food left over. We sat down to the meal, and were surprised to drink milk that was full of added sugar.
Aliza had never considered that the cooks, who are Mayan, might be adding sugar to the milk… who can blame her? But it was a perfect example for us to see why Aliza’s oversight is so necessary. This discovery prompted a discussion about why the cooks had felt this was necessary, if it is true that Mayans often have milk allergies and what could be the solution in this situation.
Mayan cooks from the community have been recruited (and are paid) to do the cooking and serving for these children. But they too must be educated in nutrition. The process of bringing the correct nutrition to the community is a complicated one that must take everyone into account, and must be undertaken slowly with diplomacy and kindness. It appeared to us that Aliza and the others are blessedly up to that task.
The second and larger educaTE program is the Student Sponsorship program. This part of the program is patterned after the Apoyo program in Progreso that we wrote about a few years ago. Donations from sponsors and others goes to pay for the uniforms, shoes, books, backpacks and other necessary items and the fees that allow a child to continue in school. In 2010, the program sponsored fifteen students in grades 2-6 this year (Primaria) There were no first graders this year. They also sponsored 13 students in grades 7-9 (Secundaria) and 16 students in grades 10-12 (Prepatoria).
In order to get to know the families in the program during the last school year, Jill and her cohorts had a big party at the end of the year. All the students and their families were send hand-delivered invitations, helped greatly by a local woman, Doña Chula, who also participates in the program. At the party, Jill, Katrin, Aliza and Cherie got to know the individual students and the students were given certificates of participation in the program. The party was a big success, the certificates were a point of pride and afterwards, even more families applied to participate.
This, of course, presented the women with a dilemma… how to determine which families are in real need of help. This year, the program is not taking any new participants, but is accepting applications. Katrin Schikora, who lives in the community, is gathering, and with the help of the others, assessing the applications. Interviews are being held. Visits will be made to each and every home. Teachers will be talked to. And we have no doubt that, with time, this program will have figured out the best way to evaluate needs and fulfill them as much as possible.
It's Not About Perfection
What impressed us about educaTE is not the perfection of its program, but the dedication of its participants… all of them. From the students to the parents to the school administrators to the volunteers, everyone involved seems to be on board with the idea of bringing a better education to the children of this little town on the outskirts of Merida.
Of course, Jill Allison is not a woman of small ideas. She works for the Gates Foundation, on a program for postsecondary education to raise the percentage of children that graduate from college. Even though educaTE is not a program associated with her day job, she has big plans for the little program that she inherited here.
The first thing she intends to add is a Girls Scholarship Program, which will provide a monthly stipend that allows a local girl (or more than one…) to attend a local free university, such as UADY (Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan). To attend University here involves the cost of books, travel to the city (or the cost of living in the city), and the cost of presenting your final thesis, which can run upwards of $1000 USD.
Once Jill and the others have the processes for the two main programs worked out in Cholul, educaTE also plans to expand the program to other small towns in the Yucatan and throughout Mexico.
Do You Want to Donate?
Of course, educaTE continues to accept donations of services and money, as well as sponsorships.
As of this writing, it costs $125 USD to sponsor a child in primaria, $150 USD for a child in secundaria and $300 USD for a student in preparatoria. This amount covers all books, a backpack, two uniforms and two sets of shoes, tuition fees (and there are fees, even in a public school), school supplies and a Christmas gift, which is usually a book and a sweater or sweatshirt.
Donations that are not specifically for sponsorships go towards the Girls Scholarship Fund, the costs of creating and maintaining the 501(c)(3) non-profit status and the costs of the school breakfast program.
Donations “in kind” are also gladly accepted, and often a more satisfying way to participate. In kind donations have added greatly in the past to the varied nutrition that they have been able to provide for the school breakfasts, but they can always use more eggs, milk, beans, oats, pancake mix, fruit, sugar and oil. Recently, a family visited from the United States and spent their time here shooting a video that they will edit and will be available for all to see on the soon-to-be-announced educaTE website. And of course, there is so much to do, so anyone who wants to volunteer their time would also be welcomed and put to work.
If you want to become a part of educaTE, you can find the contact information at the end of this article, of course. Though we’d be happy if you donate in some way, as we do believe this is a worthy cause and a well-run, by-the-book non-profit organization, that is not why we wrote this article.
Spirit is the Patient, Hope is the Cure
Remember Hope? We have found that it is easy to get discouraged if you read a lot and think a lot about the state of the world. It is easy to find things to be sad about when the Internet dumps every world disaster in living color and high definition video on your digital doorstep every morning. We have been advocates of Pollyanna since, oh, 1960 or so. But sometimes, Hope needs help. And that help has to be concrete and real. We are too old to be cheered for very long by a half-dollar found in a puddle or a rainbow on the bedroom wall. A program like educaTE, though… that’s another story, isn’t it?
We have seen for ourselves how educaTE has brought a light into the eyes of the Merida women who are actively volunteering. We have seen the smiles of the Mayan women who are cooking and serving breakfasts, as they look out on the roomful of children enjoying their morning meal. We have seen the laughter and brightness of the children in school. And you cannot help but notice the passion and fire in Jill Allison who has found a lifework that fuels her soul and challenges her to bring all she knows and all she is to a beast of a problem that she knows she has the power to tame.
And we have noticed how thinking and writing about educaTE and taking photos of the people involved has lightened our spirits considerably as well. We are not behind your laptop screen or peering over your shoulder as you read this in your cubicle in Manhattan or Milwaukee, but we dare to say that you too have felt a glimmer of Hope just reading about this program. So for you and for the children… that is why we do it.
Contact educaTE by emailing email@example.com or call 206.240.3383 in the USA.
educaTE’s website: www.educateyucatan.org
Photos of the Children in Cholul with their backpacks and uniforms, ready for the new school year!
Want to help educaTE and get a subscription to the New York Times? Subscribe through this link and designate educaTE Yucatan on the right hand side. Not only do you get 50% off your subscription, but educaTE automatically gets $17.50!
Here's another way to help. When you shop online, go through this link at Goodsearch, and educaTE will get a small donation for every dollar you spend. Even Amazon is listed, so bookmark that link!