Apoyo Program for Students in Progreso
Probably every extranjero that we have met here has at one time or another expressed exasperation over wanting to help alleviate the poverty or need that they see around them, but not knowing how to do it in the best way. As an average American or Canadian citizen, any casual walk down the street will make you keenly aware of how financially fortunate you are, compared to many of the Mexican families around you. We realize that whenever we eat at a restaurant, renovate a house, hire someone to clean that house or shop in a store, we are supporting the local economy, and by extension, the people who live and work in Merida. But sometimes, we look around us and we want to give back in a more meaningful way. We want to do more.
Of course, anyone who has lived here long enough will tell you that it isn't enough to just give someone money. Sure, there is a place and time when just that, a little money, helps immeasurably. We never turn down anyone older than ourselves who asks for a few pesos, for instance. We try to buy something from any vendor that comes selling at our door. But on a regular basis, with the people that you see every day and live with in your neighborhood, we have learned that just giving or lending money doesn't work. If that money comes too easily, the person asking for it gets addicted to your easy touch and you start feeling like the local caja de red (ATM machine). There are better ways, and the following program is a perfect example.
The first time we met Kitty was in a little sandwich shop just off the zocalo last summer. She sat down over a plate of pasta and explained how she came to create this program and how it had grown. She emphasized again and again how she didn't want the program (or this article) to be about her, but instead she wanted the focus to be on the kids. Kitty is retired, after what sounds like a long and rewarding life that included a lot of travel and a lot of living. Now she lives a quiet life in Progreso, and this program is her mission. How fortunate for Kitty that she has found something to be passionate about... and how fortunate for the children and families of Progreso that Kitty brought her intent focus and problem-solving skills to their aid. To date, four children from this program have graduated and gone on to college. The first female graduate went on to study business administration at the University of Merida. Last year, one young man received a scholarship to study law at UADY and a young lady went on to study chemical engineering at the Technological Institute in Progreso. If you have seen some of the poverty of the back streets of Progreso, you know what a huge and important step this is for these children and their families.
Out of respect for Kitty, we aren't going to focus on how wonderful we think she is to have created and fine-tuned this program into the success that it has become. But we're hoping that you will be able to read between the lines and see the amazing dedication, creativity and caring that she has been put into this program.
And now, about the children and the Progreso Apoyo Program. Apoyo means "support", not "handout" and this is what it is all about.
When we heard from Kitty this year that she had fourteen children on the waiting list for the Progreso Apoyo Program, we immediately decided to sign up as sponsors. Kitty sent us the following letter, which we think says it all. With her permission, we are therefore reprinting it for all of you to read. We hope that it will encourage you to sign up as sponsors, or at least to support the program through buying phonebooks or cookbooks (more on that later). We also hope that it will plant seeds so that some readers who live in other communities in the Yucatan and around Mexico will be inspired to start similar programs. All it takes is a notebook, time, organization and an open heart.
And now, here's Kitty...
Dear Prospective Sponsor---
Progreso is a city of approximately 75,000 people, mostly local fishermen and their families. More notably, over 70% of the population is under the age of 18. Thus, they should be attending public schools which are "free" in Mexico. However, the children require uniforms of white shirts and socks, and either navy blue or plaid skirts for the girls, and navy, brown or grey pants for the boys. They are also required to purchase all of their books and school supplies (notebooks, pens, pencils, etc.).
For the poorest of the poor, this is often impossible, especially when there is more than one child in a family. At times, the eldest child (or eldest boy) can attend school if and when the family can afford it. Thus, a few of the poorest learn some basic skills but most kids can look forward to adult lives of fishing and poverty, just like their parents. Many live in tin or tar paper shacks with no running water, electricity or proper sanitation. There are little government social services available and the meagre resources of local church groups are stretched pitifully thin trying to help so many.
My partner and I retired to Progreso eight years ago and I have since become active in a group of women (foreigners and Mexicans) who initially met bi-weekly for simply social reasons. When the group was 2 years old and growing in membership (121 at last count, of which 46, including myself, live here full time), they decided that it was time to give something back to Progreso which has given many of us a wonderful place to enjoy our golden years in peace and safety.
We decided on a project to help keep deserving kids in school (those with good grades and at least a shot at university). Those of us who live here year round have gotten to know some of our less fortunate neighbors, so identifying needy children was not a problem. We developed a list of qualified students and interviewed each of their families to make sure that the parents were willing participants in and committed to their children's educations. (A written Family Profile is generated for each child in the Program). It was a difficult decision to base our gifts on scholastic performance but we realized that we could not send EVERY child to school. Thus, we viewed our assistance as a reward to the most serious and promising students.
The first year of the project was 2002 and we donated 12 backpacks filed with school supplies to one of the poorest elementary schools in Progreso. Interest among the Women's Club members dwindled in 2003 and we were only able to manage 6 backpacks. Seeing where this might be headed and not wanting the kids to be disappointed because they got a backpack last year, maintained their grades, and now there was nothing, I took on the project myself in 2004. I raised money from family, friends, former colleagues and even a few strangers to sponsor specific children through the 9th grade or through 3 years of high school (which costs considerably more than primary and junior high).
The first year of the new program raised $14,725 pesos (about $1300 USD) from 13 specific families and individuals who committed to seeing their sponsored 14 kids through the 9th grade as long as the kids maintained an 80% average in their studies. An additional $9720 pesos was donated by 2 individuals to see 3 kids through high school. I do all the shopping and at no time is any cash given directly to the families; the money is always under my complete control and is spent for its intended purpose. Each sponsor is provided with a complete accounting of all monies received and spent for their child, as well as periodic updates of their grades. I deliver the backpacks and uniforms in August of each year and make appointments for the kids to meet me in town for proper shoe fitting at a store which gives me a 30% discount because I buy all the shoes there. I also get a 15% discount on supplies from Office Depot in Merida and 20% from the backpack store, also in Merida. I estimate the annual cost per child to be approximatley $100 USD through grade 6, $150 USD for grades 6-9 and $250 USD for grades 10-12. This is perhaps not mucho dinero to many expatriates but makes a profound difference to a child with a vision of a better future. These amounts purchase a new backpack, all of their supplies (including books for the high schoolers) and uniforms (which consists of 3 shirts, 2 skirts/pants, 3 pairs of socks and one pair of new shoes). It also includes an inexpensive gift and a new book from their sponsors at Christmastime. The book is either a classic or on a topic about which they have expressed particular interest.
August 2007 started the fourth year of the program with thirty-three kids whose grades so far are mostly up to par. The families this year were given a Program Sheet in Spanish which tells them that this apoyo (help) is not part of any Mexican government program, but is a gift from the generous people of the US and Canada and in order to keep receiving it, they must do the following:
- Maintain a grade point average of 80% (8.0 on the Mexican scale of 10.0)
- Bring the list of needed supplies to my house in July (all the schools post these on their front doors for each grade)
- Write a thank-you note to their padrinos (sponsors) in the US or Canada
- Come again to Kitty's house the first week of school, in uniform and with backpack, to have their photos taken to send to their padrinos. I mail these along with their thank you notes, which are translated from Spanish to English at no extra cost so that every peso donated goes directly to the kids.
Now that I have three years under my belt, it will be easy to add more kids to the program. As long as there are willing padrinos up North, there are plenty of willing and very appreciative kids in Progreso! I hope you will give serious consideration to sponsoring a child towards a brighter future. We can't save them all, but surely we can make a difference and a help a few children's dreams come true.
Ms. K. B. Morgan
Word of the program has spread throughout Progreso. We know this because last June, Kitty had 14 report cards either hand-delivered to her or stuffed in her buzon (mailbox) by children hoping to be adopted into the program. All of them had grades above 8.0 and six of them were above 9.0. The waiting list for next year includes 2 high school students, 4 junior high students and 8 elementary school students, one of whom has a perfect 10.0 grade average going into the 3rd grade. Kitty's list includes notes that one is a child of a single mom and a few others are brothers or sisters of children already in the program. As far as we know, there are at least 12 kids on this waiting list who still need sponsors.
What we love about this program (and this story) is the on-the-ground involvement that Kitty brings to the picture. She probably does have moments when she sits around enjoying her retirement. But she has certainly found a good place to expend any extra energy she has to get up and do something when she isn't sipping margaritas by the beach. We love how she gets to know the children and the families, how she shops for them and takes the time and trouble to make sure they don't get the same present two years in a row or that they get a book that will interest them. With this kind of caring and involvement, a little goes such a long way.
Of course, the WGs are planning to sponsor a student in the Progreso Apoyo program. If you are interested in becoming a sponsor too, contact Kitty through email at email@example.com and tell her you read about her on Yucatan Living. Or if you want to start a similar program in your own area, Kitty will gladly consult with you and share what she has learned makes a successful program.
The children of Progreso thank you for your support!