By Martha Peak Helman
Rotary members often say that the work we do will change the lives of people we will never have the chance to meet. But nothing could be further from the truth in Jose’s case.
My Rotarian husband and I first met Jose when he was a gawky teen enrolled at Safe Passage, a program that makes it possible for children who live on the Guatemala City garbage dump to go to school and improve their lives. Through Rotary Foundation grants and Rotary involvement, Safe Passage has grown in the past decade into an organization that supports more than 500 children each year, in preschool through high school and beyond.
Even before Safe Passage offered him a way forward, Jose had had several years of schooling. But his education was sporadic. His family could only afford one school uniform and one set of school fees, so Jose and his three brothers had to take turns. As a result, when we met him, Jose was 19 and in the equivalent of sixth grade. We were already sponsoring Jose’s younger brother, Juan Carlos, who had skipped ahead to seventh grade. But when we met Jose and realized that he deserved the chance to reach his ambitions as well, we decided to sponsor both boys.
Even with our sponsorship, Jose could not attend school full time. After all, at his age it was necessary for him to help support the family. If Jose exhibits one quality, though, it is tenacity. He has hung in, attending school part time and working part time, for eight full years. It was not easy for him, because he struggled through some of his courses.
But Jose kept at it.
Last month, we returned to Guatemala to cheer as Jose, proudly wearing his academic cap and gown, marched across the stage to receive his high school diploma. Jose’s degree is in accounting, and in a country with few networked computers, every store needs an employee to do basic bookkeeping. With his degree, Jose will be able to get a good job, and with the tenacity he has already exhibited, he should do quite well. In fact, when I asked Jose what his plans were, he said he had three goals in mind: first, to get a good job; second, to marry his sweetheart of five years; and third, to apply to the university.
To put Jose’s achievement in perspective, only one out of 10 Guatemalans earns a high school degree. But the story is bigger than just one young man’s success. There were 800 students in his graduating class — 800 motivated young people with excellent job prospects and their lives before them. With unemployment rates in Central America what they are, Rotary members and clubs can make a real impact with just a small investment in a young person like Jose, or through Rotary Foundation grants that support organizations such as Safe Passage.
About the author: Martha Peak Helman is a member of the Rotary Club of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, USA, a past district governor, and Foundation chair for District 7780