Vuelta Grande: A Model for Youth Education and Community Development

This week, I gained new insights on a rural community only 20 minutes away from where I currently reside in Antigua Guatemala. Vuelta Grande has become the attention of several national and international organizations, who have been working through institutional partnerships in the last 10 years. Two of the partner organizations are: La Unión Spanish School, based in Antigua Guatemala, and the Young Dreamer Network, based in Redwood City, California. This blog is a summary of what I learned about this emerging model of youth education and community development during interviews I conducted in my ongoing field research in Guatemala. I visited Vuelta Grande as part of the field program of the Guatemala Practicum Away course in January 2015 and January 2016, and plan to join one of the several groups scheduled to engage in volunteer work in this community in the coming weeks.

Many of the 4,000 inhabitants of Vuelta Grande are of Mayan origin, mostly Kaqchikel, one of the 23 ethnic groups in Guatemala. According to the young female leader I interviewed, men in the community commonly engage in agricultural activities for subsistence and work as day laborers. Besides doing house chores, women engage in occasional income-generating activities, such as cooking and washing cloth for others in the community. Most of the 300 families living in the community have up to 8 children, are low-income, and lack access to land and other family assets. Of the approximately 1,000 children in the community, only 80 attend primary education because many parents do not give priority to children’s education. Instead of sending children to school, parents put them to work in the fields or at home at a very early age. The community has limited social infrastructure and its health center lacks medical personnel, proper equipment and basic supplies, such as medicines. Parental substance abuse, domestic violence, early pregnancy among girls, primary school absentism, and limited job opportunities seem to be the major risk factors for child and youth development in Vuelta Grande.

La Unión Spanish School has been supporting the community organization since 2005 with a focus on securing the social infrastructure necessary for the community to achieve a threshold of community assets. Through service programs, volunteer groups from outside the community have tripled the number of classrooms in the primary school building, from 3 to 9, and equipped the school with bathrooms, common washers, and a soccer field. With the support of various national organizations, including the municipality, churches and Rotary clubs, families have benefited from the construction of permanent brick homes, and latrines, and received food supplies and clothing during times of scarcity.

The  Young Dreamer Network started educational scholarships for youth in disadvantage in Vuelta Grande in 2008 and is currently supporting 26 youth to  pursue education beyond primary school. The first cohort started with 5 students, of which only 2 graduated; the second cohort of 8 had only 4 graduates; and the third cohort of 3 had a 100% graduation rate. Currently, 33 students have some type of scholarship to complete secondary education (basico) and high school (diversificado) in Antigua Guatemala since these programs are not available within the community.

The young community leader I interviewed is one of the first beneficiaries of the scholarship programs in Vuelta Grande. After completing her studies as a bilingual secretary in a school in Antigua over a year ago, she was hired by the La Unión Spanish School  as a group coordinator. She is now doing what she dreamed of doing: giving back to her family and community. With her income, she is able to support a younger brother to complete his high school, and she is directly helping 16 families in her community through her outreach work. Through personal example, she and other graduates from the scholarship program have started to change parental perceptions regarding education. Many parents in the community view children’s education as a “waste of time” and think that “school is an expense [while] children’s work is a profit.”  During the interview, she told me proudly that she is supporting her mother, who no longer  has to go out of the home to support the family; instead, her mother stays at home caring for her 6 year old brother as he attends primary school.

Since its foundation 20 years ago, La Unión Spanish School has partnered with over 100 community organizations in Guatemala to develop a wide range of social and humanitarian projects. These have included medical clinics and campaigns, schools and educational programs, community infrastructure, potable water and agricultural programs, among others. Through a personalized approach of 1 teacher-1 student, the school teaches the Spanish language to about 500-700 foreigners yearly, mostly high school and university students from the U.S. and Canada. The school’s curriculum also immerses foreign students in the culture, gastronomy, customs and history of Guatemala.  La Unión Spanish School  promotes a form of “tourism for development” in Guatemala by involving national and international organizations as partners in order to strengthen communities such as Vuelta Grande. Through its “transformative scholarship program,” the Young Dreamer Network seeks to support youth from Vuelta Grande so that “these individuals are equipped with the knowledge and opportunity to pursue their life dreams.”

The partnership of these organizations is an excellent example of how outsiders can engage with communities on youth education and community development. As part of my Fulbright research and to further learn more about this comparative model, next week, I will be facilitating a focus group with 6-7 youth involved in the various educational scholarship programs. I am looking forward to identifying some of the critical protective factors enhancing the ability of individual youth to succeed and how they contribute to building greater resilience in their community.

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