Twelve-year-old Nicolás spends his days on the street shining shoes. Does he ever go to school? No, he replies; he has graduated from sixth grade. He answers very shyly as he goes about his work, first cleaning the shoes with his rag, applying the black polish with his fingers, then buffing the shoes to a shine. His income helps support his family, he says.
Inflation has affected everything since I served as a missionary in Guatemala many years ago, including the cost of a shoeshine. Now the price is up to three Quetzales—about 39 cents. But I suppose anything Nicolás can contribute will help.
Someday when he is too old and too big to live on a shoeshine boy’s income, he will undoubtedly need to find work as a laborer. He will be competing with a lot of other men who are in the same situation.
Twenty-two-year old Estéban will be on his way home to Costa Rica tomorrow with the prospect of a good job. It will probably allow him to marry his girlfriend next year and start a family.
What’s the difference between being a shoeshine boy at 12 and the opportunity for a job that allows someone to advance and support a family? In the case of Nicolás and Estéban, the difference is the opportunity for education.
We’ve learned a lot about education in Guatemala this week.
On Monday night, we learned about an educational program that provides scholarships for children in primary schools who keep their grades and accomplishments at certain levels. The money, from generous donors, allows the children to continue in school when their families otherwise might not be able to afford it. The program encourages children to go on beyond primary school. The schools get better students, and the students get a better chance at a good start in life.
There is free public education here, in primary schools only, but many parents in the big cities struggle to send their children to private schools because public schools have so little and some schools can be dangerous. On Tuesday, we talked with a young friend who is the father of twin baby girls; he and his wife are already wondering how they will provide a way for their daughters to attend private school because, he says, gangs recruit children in the public schools, and some who have refused to join a gang have been killed. So he and his wife are already trying to find a source of income to pay for private school tuition, the uniforms, the school supplies, the activity fees for things like sports, even the school-color socks that students must wear.
Wednesday we met Estéban. He was able to qualify for an educational institution that offers vocational training beyond high school. The Funval school is also supported by generous donors. It has cooperative arrangements with a number of important companies in eight countries of Central and South America, and those companies are eager to take all the graduates the school can supply. They have positions waiting in technical or service areas, and they like the values and the work ethic of the Funval graduates they hire.
The school espouses 10 core values that would be a credit to any institution—honesty, responsibility, discipline, hard work, and others you would want to see if you were a prospective employer. Students must study and learn in English so they can offer prospective employers the opportunity to hire bilingual employees.
Estéban’s school was founded by Latter-day Saints to help young Latter-day Saints get a start in a career. The students will be glad to share their testimonies of Jesus Christ if you ask them. But the LDS Church is not alone in its commitment to high values, and this school´s values should be congenial to any upstanding citizen, no matter his or her religious faith. The school’s purpose is to help young people become productive, contributing citizens who can support a family. No religion has a corner on that idea.
In this particular educational situation, everyone wins—the donors, the students, the companies that hire them.
Every so often you see a good idea that works as well as this one and you have to ask: Why aren’t there more educational programs like this?