Education and HOPE in Cobán
AMI International School Vision: We expect students who graduate from AMI International School to become God-honoring and capable human beings, prepared to succeed in college, pursue meaningful careers, and transform communities for the glory of God.
Our vision (above) of improving the quality of education here in Cobán can feel incredibly daunting at times. Walk around the city of Cobán on any given weekday during school hours and you'll see children everywhere: children helping out in their parent's stores, hanging outside their homes, running errands, or taking care of siblings. Children are everywhere because most of them have attended only 3-5 years of school and that is "enough."
Double click into the schools themselves and you'll see why students aren't excited to go to school. Due to lack of funding, schools only operate on a half-day schedule. In most schools, primary students go in the mornings (8:00AM-12AM) and secondary students go in the afternoons (2-6 PM). Go into a classroom and there are mostly bare walls or simple diagrams drawn by teachers. There are zero to very little educational materials compared to the ones found even in the poorest of US public schools, such as toys, manipulatives, diagrams, maps, and bookshelves. Believe it or not, many of these classrooms don't even have books inside of them and many schools can't even provide a library for their students.
Moving on, in the beginning of the year a student purchases a blank notebook for each subject they are learning. The teacher writes information on chalkboard and students copy it into their notebooks. These notebooks may serve as their only study materials. They may have textbooks in high school, but by then, it is certainly too late to foster a love of reading. Educators say it's a challenge to get their students to read the material. "No one reads," is a lament we hear often, and sadly, it's not a statement that applies to students only, but to many teachers as well, but that's for another blog post. We can't blame them for not reading books either. The price of books is cost prohibitive and easily equals to a few weeks of groceries for a local family. Textbooks are not provided by the schools, so students have to purchase their own textbooks which can run up to 500-600Q ($70-$90) and a fiction paperback is around 100Q ($15). Imagine trying to afford all this with an average "good" salary of 1,600Q ($230).
Needles to say, students are far behind global standards and it shows. "What is the blue part?" an older man asked us kindly when shown a world map. Kids lack basic world geography, basic math, literacy, and even conversational Spanish (many solely speak their indigenous languages). Not only that, there is a certain resignation that comes from not diligently pursuing education in younger years. Education promotes growing skills such as perseverance and grit. Mastery of subject matter builds confidence in children and discovering a joy of learning translates to a desire to grow unceasingly in all areas of life. This is not to say that these skills can't be developed in other ways, however, a structured education generally provides this.
Most of these problems stem from lack of financial resources on the part of the government as well as individual families. Being able to send their kids to school instead of taking care of younger siblings or generating an income is a luxury. However, breaking cycles of poverty REQUIRES education in order to open up career opportunities. Knowing how to read and write in Spanish, Mathematics, English proficiency, and a general love of learning can open up their job prospects and lift families out of living hand to mouth. Ultimately, we believe that if enough individual families are lifted out of economic poverty, the whole country will also be lifted out of it.
I want to share all this, mostly because I wanted to explain how incredibly overwhelming our vision feels at this point, especially as we have only been here 2 months. There are millions of children here, however AMI Ministry center only sponsors 8 kids for schooling, though we offer educational programs for dozens of kids. When we open our school next year, our best case scenario for the first year is to have about 60 students, though we may open with less. "Is it enough?" "Does it even matter?" "Will it make a dent?" These are the type of questions that run through my head and can be paralyzing to know how to help. I'll be honest, sometimes I feel like these education problems are too large and I am too small. I want to share this because I feel like being overwhelmed to the point of being paralyzed is something many of us can relate to. There are so many reasons for me to give up, to go home, to not move forward, to be afraid [and there are more days than I would like to admit that I have felt these emotions]. However, I have been leaning in prayer to keep pushing forward and to hang onto the HOPE. A "suffering, endurance, and character producing HOPE" [paraphrased from Romans 5:3-5].
When I focus on the hope in this place, it immediately becomes clear that our little part can help. I see children light up when they let us know they are in the finals of an academic competition at school. We see their diligence as they sit in study halls reading and re-reading their one textbook. We know many of them walk a mile or so to attend our church or attend one of our extracurricular classes. I see hope in what the team here has built: Elder Kim creating this amazing ministry center, Naby leading a church with her youthful energy, and our two interns, Gloria and Julia, loving on the children here as they teach and lead. I hang onto that hope that supporting one community is enough, that supporting one child is enough, that encouraging one student is enough, that our constant presence in these children's lives are enough, and that my obedience is enough.
The second thing that has helped has been turning that hope into action. We've been working through the details of the school and it's been overwhelming, particularly on top of existing ministry needs. "Enroll 60 kids." "Find qualified teachers." "Furnish School" are some of our projects. One thing that Jon and I did last week was break down every project into small bite-sized actionable steps and list them out with due dates, owners etc. This has helped immensely and has organized us into action. We've also been able to tackle some fun projects (like creating a marketing plan for the school or meeting with families) but it has also made sure we complete the less fun projects (like digitally scanning enrollment forms and reading legal documents). It is a project management tool that we will carry on to our medical clinic project and possibly other projects.
Lastly, I've been hanging onto this quote from the book, Misional Motherhood by Gloria Furman, "Missions is basically the fruit of prayer being picked up." There are many people who have prayed this mission into place, there are many many people supporting us in prayer and reaching out to us frequently, and there are many people who have this mission center in their hearts and minds. We are likely just the people who happen to be here. One thing Jon and I talked about frequently before coming here, was that God's plan would come to fruition with or without us. That takes away a lot of the pressure. We are here, we will do our best and we will love to the best of our ability.
I wanted to share this blog post, because in our newsletters we share our positive updates and what we're working on [which is wonderful and all true!], but I wanted to share how I personally have felt plagued with doubt and paralyzing fear and I don't think that I am the lone missionary who feels that way. I hope this helps someone out there who may be facing a daunting challenge or if the world may feel just a little bit hopeless. If you are, we would love to pray through it with you if you would like to reach out to me and share (firstname.lastname@example.org).