Monday, February 14, 2011

February 2011: Why Open Windows opens doors.

In a conversation with Teresa Quinonez, founder and director of Ventanas Abiertas, or Open Windows, the NGO with which we are partnered in our project, we began to understand the significance of the two houses we are building in her town, San Miguel Duenas.

I was born in the house you see, which is now the Headquarters of Open Windows, she began. I was the fifth of eight children. My parents could afford to educate me; I went to primary school here in San Miguel, and then to secondary school in Antigua. At that point, I decided to go to the United States and try my fortunes. I worked as a nanny and a care-giver to an older lady. I took courses at a beauty school, and in accounting. Eventually, however, I decided that life in the USA was not what I wanted, and I returned to Guatemala. I lived for a while in Antigua and then decided to return to San Miguel Duenas. At that point, having given up on the American dream, I decided to give back to my society and my town. With a friend I raised money for childrens’ toys, and gifts for poor families at Christmas. I soon decided, however, that these efforts were not doing enough for the people we wanted to help.

I realized that lack of education was depriving the poor of the choices and the opportunities that I had had. By that time, my father had left this house to me, and I decided to start a library where children from poor families could read, study and do their homework, things they could not do in their crowded houses. This was the beginning of Open Windows.

San Miguel has a population of twelve thousand. The average family has four children, and among the poor, the average is higher than that. Of the roughly four thousand children in the town, only about half go to school regularly. Of those in school, most complete the sixth grade which is in theory free. Roughly 65% of these continue to grade nine, 25% go on to secondary school in Antigua, and only a tiny per cent enter university.

The reason for this failure to educate the young in San Miguel is clear. The poor have not enough money to educate their children. The first six years of school- in theory free- in fact require the parents to pay for a school uniform and school supplies. The government gives each student only two note books, a pencil, an eraser, a pencil sharpener and a pen. The parents must supply the rest. When you understand that the poor have annual incomes of perhaps $US1,500, the burden of education is clear. The costs after grade six are even more difficult: from grade seven to nine, $500 per year; for secondary school $800 per year; for university $2,000 per year.

What happens to the kids who leave school after grade six? Typically they go to work so that their brothers and sisters can be educated to this basic level. And this is where Open Windows sees its mission. They provide the library, a computer room, and classrooms where children can come and receive support when they are in school. And perhaps most importantly, they find financial support for bright children from poor families that will enable them to continue their studies.

Anna Laetitia’s father was a fireman who supported his three daughters and an invalid wife on a very modest salary which would not afford the school fees for Anna, a bright girl, to continue in school after grade six. Open Windows stepped in and found a sponsor for her. She qualified first as a kindergarten teacher, but then decided that she wanted to become a nurse; nursing required expensive post-secondary education. Again Open Windows found the money for her to continue. She is now in her second year in nursing and doing well. During her holidays she volunteers with the local health department. Open Windows is very proud of her.

Mario came to Open Windows at the age of seventeen in Grade 10. He was working during the day to pay for his evening courses and found that he had no time to study or complete his homework. His ambition was to take post-secondary training either as a chef or in some aspect of the tourist industry, but he had decided that he could not continue, that he would drop out of school. Open Windows heard of his situation and found a sponsor for him. He now works only on weekends and can attend post-secondary classes in Antigua.

These are examples of the bright children Open Windows helps- the scholarship kids. Our project aids in this work. Open Windows gets funding from organizations like Developing World Connections to build housing for families with bright children that will enable the kids to study in a house that has room for them. When we go bed at night with aching muscles and stiff backs, we are comforted by the support we are giving these talented boys and girls.

Brian Metcalfe
DWC Participant

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