Graduation Season, But Not for All

April 29, 2011

Graduation season is soon upon us. Minnesota high school students will don caps and gowns and host open houses to celebrate an achievement many take for granted, though it is hardly universal. In Guatemala, for example, graduation is an accomplishment exclusive to relatively few. Today, one in four Guatemalans graduate from high school, one in three from junior high and almost six out of 10 from primary school. Many begin working before they have gone through puberty.

When Perham, Minn., residents Dave and Betty Heubsch visited Guatemala in the 1980s, they were so troubled by the poverty and lack of education they formed a non-profit called Common Hope to help families improve the chances of extending education beyond the average of five years. Using a comprehensive and efficient approach (84 percent of funds are directed to programs), Common Hope has helped thousands of families. Yet, conditions in the communities it supports around Guatemala City and Antigua are still difficult to imagine.

Currently, Common Hope collaborates with 8,000 family members by providing tools, not charity. The goal is to help people make systemic changes to eliminate the impoverished conditions in which they live. Without becoming politically involved, Common Hope educates citizens about their role in creating poverty as well as their responsibility and power to eradicate it. “We were born into a world of opportunity. They were born into a world of poverty. Other than that, we are exactly the same except we were born in different places,” said Executive Director Shari Blindt.

Social workers help families identify their specific challenges and set attainable goals in which they become invested. The goals are to foster independence and to respect dignity. Families gain access to health care, housing and education. Collaboration opens the door to coveted medical and dental services in an area where there are only nine physicians for every 10,000 citizens. If they live in good health in stable homes, kids can attend school and parents can work.

Common Hope’s philosophy and financial integrity appealed to the Thompson family of Shoreview. Elizabeth and Jim signed up with three of their children to be a part of the University of Minnesota Parent Association vision team that spent eight days with Common Hope in the Antigua area last month. They worked with preschool and grade school students on craft projects that incorporated math concepts; constructed a home with cement block floors; visited medical clinics; and became acquainted with Guatemalan families. Then they decided to offer ongoing support by sponsoring a student.

To help with a child’s educational expenses, sponsors commit to pay $60 per month for a year, although most remain involved for an average of seven to eight years, Blindt said. Sponsors provide more than financial support, though. Through letter writing and personal visits they inspire students and help them to figure out who they want to be. “If parents haven’t been to school themselves, they often don’t know how to dream,” Blindt said. “Sponsors reinforce and encourage dreaming in a survival environment.” Last year, 15 sponsors attended the graduation of students they had supported through high school.

By sixth grade, many students are at a fork in the road. There is an opportunity cost for families when children attend school, for if they labor in the fields or weave textiles they contribute to the family’s income. If they stay in school they must pay substantial fees. But if they get an education, they dramatically increase their opportunities in life, Elizabeth Thompson observed. Common Hope’s success was documented by a University of Wisconsin study, which found its students are twice as likely to graduate from high school. Moreover, both affiliated students and their non-affiliated siblings stay in school longer — 36 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

The Thompson kids, sophomores at the University and a junior at Mounds View High School, wanted to sponsor an older student. By choosing 14-year-old Alfredo, who is repeating seventh grade, they addressed a significant need, Blindt said. “Most people who consider sponsorship are drawn to the cute 5-year-old in pigtails. Yet, the greatest need is for the 12- to 16-year-old age group,” she said.

Common Hope strives to incentivize the family to keep the children in school for as long as possible. The relationship begins with sponsorship of one child but includes the entire family. With the Thompsons as his sponsor, Alfredo, his parents and two siblings established an affiliation that provides access to important supports as long as he stays in school. If he drops out or fails to advance, the affiliation is terminated and cannot be reinstated.

Affiliation also opens the door to improving housing conditions. After a family has worked sweat equity hours, volunteers may work with local staff to add a latrine or build a new home. Many families they serve live in homes constructed of cornstalk and metal with bacteria-breeding dirt floors.

By supporting the entire family, Common Hope obviates the need for parents to choose which children attend school and which join the workforce. For 17-year-old Jake Thompson, the dilemma was unfathomable. While kids here sometimes complain about attending school, the Guatemalans he met were lucky if they could go past sixth grade, Jake said. He is so busy juggling school and sports he’s yet to hold a job. The opposite was true for the Guatemalan youth, he observed. They are so busy working it’s a challenge for them to go to school or to play sports.