Cloning the Apoyo Program
A year or so ago, we wrote about Kitty and her Apoyo program in Progreso. We were amazed at her dedication and inspired by her results with the children, and we signed up to sponsor a student. Our student, Vladimir, has apparently been doing well and we will continue to support him until he graduates from high school in six years. Apparently our article inspired a few other readers too, and Kitty now has an incredible 50 children in her Progreso program.
In our conversations with Kitty last year, we were struck by the amount of thought and intelligence that had gone into her program, which combines personal attention with strict rules and responsibilities in giving to children who could use a little help. (And that bell rings every time we get a mind-numbingly detailed report from her about where the money has been spent and who got what from it... talk about transparency and accountability!) Unlike many random acts of charity we expats find ourselves participating in on a regular basis, Kitty's program doesn't just give money to the kids and their families, primarily because a gift of raw cash is often abused in various ways. And her program doesn't just give "stuff", either. The program provides a few needed items to children and their families if they can exhibit that they care about the benefits that a good education can bring, and are willing to do the work that is required. It also provides the moral support to continue in school and the clear message that schooling is important.
It turns out we weren't the only ones to see the brilliance in Kitty's program. Last week we were contacted by two local expat women who are taking Kitty's exact program to other communities here in the Yucatan. We'd like to tell you about them for a number of reasons. Perhaps you will be moved to sponsor a child yourself, knowing that your money will actually make an immense difference in the life or a child and his or her family. Or perhaps you are one of our readers who lives in Mexico, and you will be inspired to create a program like this in your own Mexican community. At the very least, in this era of renewed interest in community organizing, you will have another example of how Yucatan expats are making a difference in their community that will add a sparkling drop of renewed hope into your turbulent ocean of worries and fears.
The Children of Cholul
Pattie Trapp has lived in the Yucatan for nine years. Just before Pattie arrived at our offices, we had spent about an hour with our architect, Mercedes Sanchez, discussing a few things in the house that needed to be fixed. Why are we telling you this? Ten minutes later, we were talking to Pattie for background on this article, and learned that Pattie's family was the family that Mercedes stayed with during her year abroad in the United States in high school. And it was the Sanchez family that invited Pattie to come to Merida for the first time. Pattie fell in love with the place, the weather and most especially the people, and the Sanchez family helped her find her house in Cholul where she lives to this day. For a city of a million people, Merida can sure be a small town sometimes. But, we digress...
Pattie calls her program "Adopt a Kid in Cholul", and this is her second year of operation. She started with six children, sponsored by two locals who quit after a year. Undeterred, Pattie has enlisted new sponsors, all of whom are expats living in the Yucatan or not-yet-expats still living in the US and Canada. She now has 12 children and hopes to grow that number for the 2009-2010 school year, as she has eight children on a waiting list.
Pattie runs her program in close connection with the local grammar school, Agustin Melgar. She starts with a list of needy children provided to her by the school administrators. She then visits each family, speaking to the parents in her fluent Spanish and determining for herself if this family really needs the assistance. She also makes a determination, as best she can, if the child has the grades (above an 8.0 average on a scale of 10.0) and if the family has the commitment to succeed in the program.
Once in the program, each student receives all their school supplies (as defined by the school), as well as a new backpack, 2 uniform pants or skirts, 3 blouses or shirts, 3 pairs of socks and a new pair of shoes at the start of each school year. If the sponsor adds an additional $25 US, the child will also receive a sweater or jacket, which would have been a welcome addition to this winter's uniform as we have had at least three months of cool weather. If there is enough money left over (and there usually is), the children will also receive a Christmas gift, which has been Harry Potter books for the last two years.
Pattie's work extends beyond this, however, and this personal involvement is, we think, one of the unique beauties of this program. Before the school year starts, Pattie shops with the kids to get their shoes and uniforms. Sometime early in the school year, she invites the kids over to her house for a letter-writing party (letters to their sponsors). The kids also have their pictures taken to send to their sponsors, and then get to enjoy the rest of the day eating lunch and swimming in her pool. She also meets with them periodically throughout the school year to review their grades, and visits them at Christmas with a gift.
As in all these programs, sponsors for "Adopt a Kid in Cholul" are assigned a particular student, whom they commit to sponsor until they graduate from high school. They receive a copy of the student's grades, a thank you note (in Spanish and translated into English), a picture of their student in their new uniforms with their backpacks, and a detailed bookkeeping of where their money was spent. Sponsors are encouraged to write a letter back, if they are so inclined. Once you commit to a child, you commit to sponsoring them through to graduation (unless of course there are extenuating circumstances... this is a verbal commitment only. No contracts or legal mumbo jumbo.). The costs of sponsorship are:
- $125 US per year for a child in 1st through 6th grade
- $150 US per year for a child in 7th through 9th grade
- $250 US per year for a child in 10th through 12th grade
The difference, of course, are the textbooks and supplies. And the rise in costs gives you an inkling as to why many of Yucatan's children don't make it past sixth grade.
The Children of Telchac Puerto
In another of Yucatan's beach communities, Judy Abbott Mier y Teran of Yucatan Today fame is starting up the "Sponsor a Child's Education in Telchac Puerto" program. The program has just begun and will start sponsoring children in September 2009. Of course, much of the groundwork has begun already. Judy has contacted the local school and will be receiving a list of students soon. The number of students to be sponsored will be determined in May, based on the number of donors that Judy can bring to the program.
This program is a direct offspring of the Progreso Apoyo program, as Judy is using the same paperwork and requirements. Her goal is to help at least 15 children in this first year, and she already has two sponsors from the local Telchac area. Judy has been living in the Yucatan for 37 years, after visiting here as a young(er) woman and marrying a local. She also speaks Spanish fluently and has been involved in community service for years. Now that she is officially retired, she found herself with free time and decided that that time could be put to good use helping the children in Telchac, a small fishing village where she has a summer home. Telchac has been especially hard hit by the slowly disappearing opportunities for fishermen and the growing encroachment of modern life for which the local community, with its limited opportunities for work, is largely unprepared.
The cost of sponsoring a child in Telchac:
- $125 US per year for children in 2nd through 6th grades
- $175 US per year for children in 7th through 9th grades
- $225 US per year for children in 10th through 12th grades
Of course, with both these programs, if you cannot commit to follow a child through to graduation, you might consider sharing the commitment with a friend or donating to the Slush Fund (for either program). Slush fund money goes towards toilet paper or water (both of which the children are expected to bring to school to contribute to the classroom), or towards unexpected expenses. In addition, if there is enough slush fund money, Judy has mentioned working with a local Telchac woman to sew the uniforms, thereby supporting another local family. Without extra money, the uniforms will be bought at a local WalMart or similar store, where they are cheaper than they can be made locally, because they are coming from China. Ahhh, the ever-present fingers of globalization, reaching into every corner and crevice of modern life!
Not a Rose Garden
Both women tell us they have found that conducting this program has been both rewarding and challenging. Judy of course is facing the start-up phase, looking for sponsors and getting organized, which has meant learning new computer skills, among other things. Pattie has discovered that she has to improve her screening process, as more than a few of her kids from this year have been unable or unwilling to "get with the program", so to speak. Some have not kept up their grades, while others have not shown up to report their grades every two months (a requirement of the program). She is facing the unpleasant task of dropping children from the program and filling the slots with others on the waiting list. As Kitty told us when we first talked to her, it is a hard reality to face the fact that you cannot help everyone, so you must choose the ones who will seem to benefit the most and go the farthest with the help that you can give. In this particular program, that means the children who can get the grades and follow the few rules.
It's Like Christmas
We asked what they enjoyed about running these programs, and Pattie replied without hesitation, "Looking at their faces when they see their full backpacks. It's like Christmas." The hardest part is getting the children to report in their grades regularly, but she's working on that. The families and children have been very welcoming and excited about the program, as both Pattie and Judy are careful to underscore that the children have earned the privilege of participating with their good grades. This isn't true, Pattie says, of the lunch program, where the kids who participate are teased by the other children, and she hasn't yet figured out a way to avoid this.
The women meet with Kitty, the creator of the original Apoyo program, once a month to compare notes and share tips on how to manage the ins and outs of the program. They call it the Leadership Conference, and they are also joined by Sharon Helgason who runs the Food Bank in Chicxulub and Susan Stewart who will be helping Judy in the Telchac program. There is also possibly a woman from Chelem who will be joining them soon to start an Apoyo program in that community.
We loved one of Judy's comments because it resonated with our experience of living here. When we asked her what was the best part of the program for her, she said "The happiness and pride the kids will feel having brand-new school supplies and uniforms. I also enjoy spreading the wealth between those "with" and those "without." In Merida and along the coast, between the locals and foreigners, there are so many with means that I feel instrumental in hooking them up with those that need." From rescuing sick animals to giving underprivileged children a leg up in life, we think this is a sentiment that motivates a lot of us.
It Takes A Village
Because there is so much need around them, both women have other programs either going full force or in mind for the future. Judy would like to provide much-needed nutrition and dental assistance to the children in Telchac as time and donations allow. Pattie has a modest cross-stitching business run through a website. She takes orders for cross-stitched items, and then farms out the work to local women who get fifty percent of the proceeds.
And Pattie has been running a very successful Breakfast Program in Cholul. This was started at the suggestion of the local Primaria (Elementary school) principal. She suggested that many of the children were showing up to school without breakfast and that this was affecting their ability to learn. A national program, DIF, provides breakfast for the first and second graders. So Pattie's program serves 36 breakfasts every school day to children in grades 3 through 6. These kids are chosen by their nutrition levels, as identified by their results in a government-run blood-testing program. This program identified children who were lacking important nutrients in their diets, and the breakfast provides them with both food and vitamins daily. Money to support this program comes from the Merida Men's Club ($2500 pesos a month... thanks, guys!) and individual donors. The program costs $3500 pesos per month, which pays for the food, prepared by a local woman in the community, who cooks and serves the breakfasts and who gets paid by a local donor separately for providing that service.
The day we were just finishing this article and getting it ready to publish, an email came from Pattie to tell us that this young man that you see on the right, Silvestre, was hospitalized, suffering from the effects of malnutrition. The doctors said that his hemoglobin count was down to 5 (it should be up nearer to 10-12), and another day or two in that condition could have been fatal. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the ONLY food Silvestre had been getting was the food from the privately sponsored breakfast program. And when the lady who cooked and served the food had gotten temporarily ill, no one had filled in for her, no one had served the breakfast, and no one told Pattie about it. Silvestre collapsed at school, and this is how everyone found out. Where are his parents?, we wondered. Well, his mother works in Merida as household help, making $80 pesos a day, out of which she must also pay her bus fare both ways (at least 10 pesos). His father works sporadically and drinks whatever money he can earn. Pattie suspects that Silvestre may have even been giving his meager breakfast food to his little brother.
Most Yucatecans that we see on a daily basis seem at least well fed, even though their living conditions often leave a lot to be desired. Apparently, our impressions are not always correct. $70 pesos a day is not a living wage for a mother with two young boys. We all enjoy the lower cost of living here in Merida, but this reminded us to guard against being greedy or stingy. Families count on the income from the jobs they do for us, and whoever negotiated Silvestre's mother down to an $80-peso-a-day wage should rethink their motivation. It isn't necessarily an expat who is employing this woman, but this should be a cautionary tale to those of us who try to get our services for the least amount of money we can get away with. We pay Carmen, the mother of three who cleans our house, $250 pesos a day. This is a lot lower than we would pay for similar services in California, but a generous wage here in Merida.
This also underlined for us how important these programs we're talking about are for the communities we live in. We cannot save the world, (well, maybe we can...), but we can look around our communities wherever we are and find a way to contribute. Should Mexico itself be helping these people? Yes, of course. But while we debate who is responsible, this young boy is starving right in front of us. We can't sit by and watch... can you?
When I asked Pattie what could be done for these boys, this was her answer:
We're going to bring Silvestre and his brothers to our house for a couple of months to get them really built up, then we are going to send them each afternoon to different homes in Cholul who have agreed to help us help them. I'm going to speak with the principal again to see if we have anybody else in that poor of a condition and perhaps we can keep the worst of them from starving. I don't know yet how we are going to finance this, but hopefully your article will bring in some funds.
Just Try It, Buddy!
Next time a disaffected gringo from the States writes into Yucatan Living, accusing us of taking advantage of the local people so we can live on the cheap, we will have only to point them to this article, the one about the Obama-inspired library donations and the one about Kitty's Apoyo Program. Who could help but be impressed by the difference these women and men are making in their communities? And we haven't even touched on the Food Bank Program at the beach or the Art Therapy program at local orphanages (we plan to write about these in the near future). Or the myriad of expats rescuing street dogs and supporting local animal shelters.
If you want to be a part of this too, we encourage you to jump right in. You might not know what your financial situation will be looking like next year, but we're pretty sure it won't be as dire as the families you'll be helping. We will all benefit from a well-educated, well-fed population of children whose brains and bodies are growing and thriving because the adults in their community know that they are important to our collective future.
Here is how to get involved:
- The Adopt-A-Kid program has new management and is now called EducaTE. You can find out more about them at their website, www.educateyucatan.org. Want to contact someone right away? Email Jill at firstname.lastname@example.org
- To "Sponsor a Child's Education in Telchac Puerto" or make a one-time donation to the Slush Fund, contact Judy at email@example.com or Susan Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Want to start your own Apoyo program? Contact Kitty at email@example.com