Two very similar boys with very different futures

by Barry Rodriguez

It was a magnificent view.

I had just reached the guesthouse in the village of San Pedro La Laguna. I threw my bag on the bed and went up to the roof to have a look around. In front of me was a stunning panorama of Lake Atitlán, a volcanic lake in central Guatemala.

I had come to San Pedro at the end of my time in Guatemala to get a taste of a different side of the country, to capture some photos for this magazine, and to rest after a long and busy month. I also hoped to process some the things I had seen and experienced so far.

One moment in particular kept running through my mind, but I wasn’t sure why. It was from a couple of days earlier, when I had spent the night with the family of a Saber y Gracia (Wisdom and Grace) Christian School student named Emerson.

The evening was completely uneventful. Emerson, part of Saber y Gracia’s sponsorship program, is a smart, delightful young man, but pretty much nothing happened while I was there.

Why would this evening stand out as one to be remembered?

The view from the roof of my guesthouse

The view from the roof of my guesthouse

Emerson

Emerson’s small house is on the outskirts of Santo Tomás Milpas Altas. Tucked away on the edge of the village, the neighborhood was clearly a bit less developed than homes at the center of town.

Emerson’s home on the outskirts of Santo Tomás

Emerson’s home on the outskirts of Santo Tomás

Instead of cinderblock walls, homes there are made of wood and sheet metal. Instead of paved roads, the paths are made of dirt. Although Emerson’s home has a few basic amenities such as electricity and a gas stove, his family is obviously a bit lower on the socioeconomic ladder than others in the community.

When I arrived at his home, Emerson came to the door and greeted me with a smile. We had met a few times at the school, and I had even visited his house once before, so it felt like we knew each other a little bit. I did my best to make small talk with my limited Spanish, but I soon ran out of things to ask.

When our conversation slowed to a crawl, Emerson asked if I wanted to walk around the neighborhood. Glad to have something to occupy us, I quickly agreed. As we walked, Emerson described everything we were seeing. He told me who his neighbors were and what kinds of trees were growing on the side of the road. He talked about the crops being cultivated in the nearby plantation and what he liked to do for fun.

Bright and friendly Emerson

Bright and friendly Emerson

I was struck with how friendly and bright Emerson was. He seemed eager to make sure I felt welcome and at home.

After returning to the house, we hung out at the kitchen table, entertaining his little sister, Melanie. As his mother cooked dinner, Emerson studiously organized all his class notebooks, double-checking to make sure he had the correct ones for the next day. As he loaded up his bag, I asked him, “Emerson, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Emerson’s mother and little sister, Melanie

Emerson’s mother and little sister, Melanie

His answer was immediate. “Arquitecto.” An architect. There wasn’t a hint of uncertainty. He even knew what kinds of buildings he wanted to design. I smiled, encouraged to hear his confidence for the future.

Dinner was ready. We chowed down on tortillas and frijoles, talked a bit more, brushed our teeth, and went to sleep.

Like I said, uneventful.

And yet days later, looking out over Lake Atitlán, my few moments with Emerson’s family still stood out to me. That image, of Emerson shuffling through his schoolbooks to prepare for the next day’s classes, seemed incredibly significant. But why?

Sergio

I didn’t find an answer to that question until I met another young man about Emerson’s age. His name was Sergio. After meeting him, I finally began to realize the full significance of Emerson’s eagerness to learn.

It was my last day in San Pedro. After a very relaxing and productive weekend by the lake, I was making my way back to Santo Tomás. The first step was to take a speedboat across the lake to the town of Panajachel. Sergio approached me as I was walking down to the docks.

Sergio the shoeshine

Sergio the shoeshine

“Shine shoes?” he asked me in English, gesturing to my feet. I looked up and saw a wooden box filled with shoe-shining equipment hanging from his shoulder.

“No, gracias,” I said. I didn’t want my shoes shined.

I boarded the boat and took my seat. Sergio hopped on as well, looking for customers among the other passengers. As the boat departed, Sergio’s friend Pedro, another shoeshine, jumped on with him. The two of them sat down in the front of the boat, hitching a ride to “Pana.”

As we made our way across the lake, the boat bounced and jumped over the choppy water. During moments of calm, I asked Sergio a few basic questions.

“¿Cuántos años tienes?” I asked him. How old are you?

“Trece,” he answered. Thirteen.

“¿Dónde está su casa? ¿Pana?” I continued. Where is your home? Panajachel?

“No. San Pedro,” he told me.

“Ah,” I said. “San Pedro.” My well of Spanish questions started running dry, so I sat back in my seat and fell silent.

As we pulled up to the Panajachel dock, Sergio grabbed the rope, jumped off the boat and helped secure it to the pier. The whole time, he had a huge smile on his face and kept stealing glances at the boat’s driver to see if he was being noticed. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the dynamic between them was. Sergio admired the guy.

For Sergio, being a boat driver on Lake Atitlán would be extremely cool.

For Sergio, being a boat driver on Lake Atitlán would be extremely cool.

I don’t blame him. For a small town kid stuck shining shoes all day, it must seem pretty glamorous to have your own boat, ferrying people all over the lake with a powerful engine roaring behind you. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that Sergio dreams of being a speedboat driver himself some day.

As I stepped off the boat and began walking up the pier, I smiled, remembering the idealistic dreams I used to have at that age. When I was 13, I knew I’d be a missionary pilot in Ecuador some day (still waiting on that one to pan out).

But as I thought more about Sergio, my smile disappeared. The farther I walked, the more heartbroken I felt about him.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a speedboat driver. It’s a perfectly legitimate profession. But here’s the thing. It’s the best job Sergio can hope for. He may be a hard worker with discipline, drive, and perseverance, but with no education, his options are severely limited.

Similar Lives

I needed a place to think about this some more, so I walked to a nearby café and ordered a cup of coffee. I pulled out my journal and wrote about what was on my mind.

I thought about how similar Sergio’s life was to Emerson’s. Two hard working, disciplined young men. Each one comes from a lower-income family. Each one lives in an impoverished community. Both of them are smart, friendly, and full of potential. But only one of them stands a good chance of breaking free of the cycle of poverty.

It has nothing to do with how much money their families have. Neither Emerson nor Sergio’s parents had the resources to send their sons to school. No. The only difference was Saber y Gracia’s sponsorship program, giving one of them a chance the other could only dream of.

I couldn’t help but imagine what Emerson’s life would have been like without Saber y Gracia. There is no way his parents could have afforded to send him to one of the private schools in Santo Tomás.

Most likely, he would have gone to school for a few years until his parents hit a rough spot, then he’d have been forced to drop out. He’d help his mom around the house until he was old enough to start working. When he grew up, his options would have been completely limited: manual labor or… well, manual labor. He would have done seasonal work on a local plantation, struggled to make ends meet, and most likely been unable to send his own kids to school. The cycle of poverty would have continued in the lives of his children.

But because of Saber y Gracia, that doesn’t have to be Emerson’s story.

A Leg Up

Saber y Gracia’s sponsorship program is the backbone of the school and one of the reasons it’s becoming so well known in the area. Fully one fourth of the 264 students in the school are sponsored.

As the principal of the school, Rudi Pineda, explained to me, it comes down to a simple fact: they don’t want money to be the reason a student can’t continue in school. I heard story after story of parents who were flabbergasted to learn of a place that would educate their kids even if they didn’t have the resources to pay for them to attend.

Roni, one of Saber y Gracia’s older sponsorship students, also wants to be an architect some day.

Roni, one of Saber y Gracia’s older sponsorship students, also wants to be an architect some day.

But here’s the most remarkable thing about the program. Before any student is sponsored, Rudi and other teachers meet with his or her parents, visit their home, get to know their story, and listen to them describing their needs. Then they develop a plan in partnership with the family.

These aren’t just blind hand-outs. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a family to be rejected for the sponsorship because they don’t have a genuine need, and many of the sponsored kids are actually only partially sponsored. The understanding is that the school isn’t giving charity; it’s giving an opportunity. A leg up, not a hand-out.

And it’s this attitude that makes their sponsorship program really one of a kind.

A huge percentage of Saber y Gracia’s teachers are former students themselves. They understand the life-changing impact the school can have.

A huge percentage of Saber y Gracia’s teachers are former students themselves. They understand the life-changing impact the school can have.

Many well-intentioned programs in impoverished communities around the world operate from a perspective of poverty. Their message (implicit, of course) is this: “You are poor. You are helpless. Your future is bleak. You can’t succeed without our help. So we’ll fix you. Here’s a hand-out.”

Saber y Gracia doesn’t see it this way. They operate from a perspective of potential. Their staff truly believes in their students. They genuinely expect them to go on to bigger and better things. Their message (again, unspoken but extremely powerful) is this: “You have limitless potential. Your future is what you make it to be. We won’t let your family’s economic circumstances stand in the way, so let’s see how we can work with you to become who you’re meant to be.”

One program offers a hand-out. The other offers a leg up. And it makes all the difference in the world.

Excited

After spending a couple of hours in the Panajachel cafe, I boarded a minibus back to Antigua. Watching the beautiful Guatemalan countryside zipping by, I had plenty of time to think about what was on my heart. I was sad, of course, to think about the lack of opportunities for Sergio the shoeshine, not to mention the vast number of other lower-income children he represented. But I’d be lying if I said sadness was my overriding emotion.

The fact is, I wasn’t sad. I was excited. I kept thinking about Emerson and his dreams of becoming an architect. I though of the 61 other sponsored students at Saber y Gracia who now have an opportunity at a better life.

Yes, many children in rural Guatemala don’t have access to a quality education. But now, because of this school, hundreds of children do. And some day, when the vision of Saber y Gracia’s new campus is realized, that number will increase to a thousand.

It fills me with joy to think of the number of lives Saber y Gracia is changing through their sponsorship program.

It fills me with joy to think of the number of lives Saber y Gracia is changing through their sponsorship program.

I couldn’t shake the feeling of joy in my heart as I thought about the changed lives in Santo Tomás. Even more, I was thrilled that folks back home now have the opportunity to be a part of it.

How cool is this? We can be sponsors! For $40 a month, you and I can partner with Saber y Gracia to raise up a whole community of Emersons. We can come alongside what God is already doing through these selfless educators and watch as the cycle of poverty is broken in the lives of their students.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up the beauty of all this than in the words of a student who had just found out he was accepted into the sponsorship program. He turned to his mother and said, “Mom, can you believe it? I don’t have to work this year. I can go to school every day!”

Perhaps some day, if Saber y Gracia continues to grow, that reality will no longer come as a surprise.

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