Julia Bruce | May/June 2020
IMAGINE a childhood without access to clean water, schooling, or books. For the children in Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala, this has long been their reality. The people of Santa Maria de Jesus generally live in poverty. This village of 30,000 Mayans is often excluded from government funds supporting basic infrastructure and education. A small group of parishioners from St. Mary Parish in Ridgefield are volunteering to help make change there.
St. Mary involvement in Guatemala initially started in conjunction with the Helping Hands Medical Missions. For more than 15 years, Ellen Miller, a member of St. Mary and a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital, has been traveling with Helping Hands to treat the parasitic infections common there due to contaminated water. “Volunteering in Santa Maria de Jesus has taught me about what’s important in life: faith, love, and family,” she says. Miller reached out to Mary Staudt, chair of Catholic Action, St Mary’s social outreach committee, about the various needs of the people of Santa Maria de Jesus.
Staudt first accompanied the mission in 2017. Realizing that clean drinking water would significantly improve the villagers’ health, the group distributed inexpensive water filtration systems. At that time, villagers only had access to water for about 30 minutes every other day. Thanks to a grant from St. Vincent’s, and fundraising from St. Mary, the group returned in 2018 and installed a catchment system to ensure a continuous water supply to the village.
While clean drinking water is still a priority, St. Mary’s focus has turned to supporting Angelitos de Dios, a small private Catholic school started by Elvia Ortiz, a local Mayan woman. In Guatemala, mandatory education ends at sixth grade but many children do not go that far. Staudt, a language arts teacher in Armonk, New York, oversees the educational outreach. “I passionately believe all children should have access to quality education,” she says.
The teachers at Angelitos de Dios are young and enthusiastic, motivated more by their dedication than a pay check. On average, public-school teachers in Guatemala earn $450 a month, yet initially teachers at Angelitos de Dios were making only $130. “With the money we’ve raised we were able to increase the teacher’s monthly salary,” says Staudt. The sponsorship program helped cover the school’s rent payments as well as structural improvements to the building, including a new roof and bathroom sinks.
The classrooms were lacking basic supplies. Staudt purchased Spanish-language books at the Scholastic warehouse in Danbury and had them delivered directly to the school. “Some of these children have never had books. They were so happy they were dancing,” she says. She introduced a balanced literature program, modeling reading and writing instruction using the books. She bought four projectors to project images of a text on the wall, in lieu of the expensive “big books” used for guided reading in early learning classrooms. “I’ve received a lot of professional development in my 35 years of teaching,” says Staudt, “This is my way of paying it forward.”
In 2019, Staudt and other volunteers set the teachers up with a Google account and showed them how to use Google Apps. Currently Angelitos de Dios is the only school in Guatemala using Google. Staudt supports the teachers throughout the year through text messages. “Changing someone’s way of teaching doesn’t happen in a four day visit,” she says. She hopes to one day replace the current outdated computers with a classroom set of Chrome Books.
Gender inequality is a prevalent social issue in Guatemala but Angelitos de Dios is challenging these stereotypes. “These are local Mayan women running this school, which is a great model for the young girls in the school,” Staudt says. Currently, boys outnumber girls because culturally families spend more money on their sons’ education. “My dream is to have a girls’ scholarship to keep them in school,” she says.
While St. Mary’s Guatemala mission has made vast improvements in Santa Maris de Jesus, there’s always more that can be done. “We want to make sure that Angelitos de Dios is able to continue,” says Staudt. A donation of $150, 100 percent of which goes directly to the school, will cover the cost of a student’s education for one year.