Jackmer shyly reads from his book while Dolly leans closely to listen to his careful enunciation. His writing is tiny, but very neat, in his spiral notebook. The blue boxed paper is covered with Roman Numerals on one sheet, math equations on others. Jackmer smiles up at her for encouragement as he stumbles on a word here and there.
Jackmer is snuggled closely next to Dolly Beaver, head of Angels of the Amazon, a not for profit formed in 2006 that is dedicated to the social, health, education and economic needs of the families of the Tahuayo River area of the Amazon some twelve hours up the river from Iquitos, Peru. Dolly, wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who founded the Tahuayo Lodge, the largest employer in the area, has spent the last two decades working hard to support the families and villagers of these isolated river communities, and it is paying off.
One of the most recent achievements for AoA is the building of a brand new high school in El Chino, the village closest to the lodge. For the first time, the children have the chance to earn more than just an elementary school education. Rather than have to leave home and head to Iquitos to continue their schooling, now they can advance their learning while remaining close to their families.
Jackmer’s mother has high hopes for high school. For the girls too? “Why not?” She says. Jackmer is one of many children being sponsored by Dolly Beaver’s Angels of the Amazon. The AoA sponsorship provides for the school fees, the physical and other expenses that families sometimes find out of their economic reach. It’s AoA’s commitment to ensure that not only do these kids get the financial support, but that Dolly herself, when she is in Peru, makes the occasional surprise visit to check on the children’s progress and show how committed she is to their success. The kids love it, and so do the parents.
Dolly herself is barely larger than some of these kids. She translates my questions for the mother. Micheli, Jackmer’s mother, says that she believes education could improve every family in El Chino, the villagethat supported the new high school built with BE the Change Volunteers and Angels of the Amazon support. In addition, cooperation and backing were provided by the Peruvian government. From all these sources came the new building, teachers, breakfasts and financial aid for El Chino’s children, as well as kids from further afield.
But not every family is behind the idea. Education isn’t always seen as valuable in families where there has been no education attained, nor any of the benefits of an improved life that a better education can bring. Without a history of advanced education, not all families see the value. Dolly realizes that introducing such changes takes time and patience. As other families witness what happens when their neighbors’ kids successfully complete advanced degrees and are able to get work that pays well, and perhaps at some point even return and work in the village, she knows that this will strongly influence future decisions to send kids to school. For now, there is a mixed reaction.
About seventy percent of the families want the girls to aspire to something better; the rest want them to stay home. History has been littered with young men who get caught up and trapped in the big city, and their education is lost. Sometimes young girls come home pregnant with an unplanned child. Parents want the “good old days,” but there were never any. Only a cycle of agrarian poverty, illiteracy, abuse and barely subsistence lifestyle. And no hope. That’s why Angels of the Amazon and its partnerships with the government and other organizations have been so powerful in helping break these cycles by opening peoples’ minds and hearts to new possibilities, but without doing so too quickly as to lose the heart of the culture.
Unlike in the homes of strongly supported children, here, Dolly often finds the reluctant parents unwilling to discuss education. They’re afraid to know how their kids are doing, for the change that is being forced upon them. Part of this is that the parents are incapable of helping the kids with homework. For these sponsored kids, this is where Dolly comes in. She will sometimes show up at 6:30 am to ensure these children are preparing to attend school. Homework has to be finished, and sometimes that has to competes with farm work or fishing on school days. On days where there is no school these children assist their parents in every aspect of their lives. There is always work and school work to be balanced, with subsistence taking precedence if food is scarce. This is why sometimes Dolly might find herself delivering an occasional food basket, especially if doing so better ensures that a child can focus on school work rather than fish.
The government provides a free breakfast, sometimes their best meal of the day. In addition, knowing that at any time Dolly might show up to push them out of bed or check on their homework is a motivator. They don’t want to disappoint Miss Dolly. Typically the mothers won’t speak up about the kids’ education if they don’t understand the lessons. However they want to hear about it. They can often be shy, and usually the fathers leave it to their wives.
Each sponsored child enjoys the support of both the parents and of Angels of the Amazon, and the education is not forced upon them.
Here, as Dolly listens to Jetmer, the kids’ sweaty bodies press up against my hips hard in a happy hug in the moist afternoon air. They are delighted Dolly is here and eager to show off their progress. As we sit and listen to the kids read and talk about their work, small black flies bite our ankles and legs.
Next we visit the parents of Billy & Willy, sweet faced boys who crowd around Dolly and lay their books into her lap. Their young father, Guimo, who stands against the wall of their house, comments that education “is their inheritance.” This is what he tells the other parents. I tell him that this is the smartest thing I’ve heard any parent say. The mother already has one success story- a son who is an accountant in Lima. That son was also sponsored by Angels of the Amazon.
As we approach each house, Dolly calls out “school police, school police!” The kids inside squeal with laughter and run to get their school books.
At each house, Dolly brings out photos, a letter and gift card, and sometimes on special occasions like a birthday, a few dollars from their sponsor, and translates the English note for them. The kids invariably forget the dollars and are far more engaged with the sponsor’s photo- someone they know, like and want to see again. It’s a delight for the sponsors to know that their contact is so valued.
Later we visit Llerme, Norma Torre’s sister, both daughters of Adolfo the shaman. Llerme has two lively girls who are eager to share their work with Dolly as the abuela walks around with another baby on her hip, this one being slowly weaned from the young mother who is inside the house. As the sun makes its way through the trees towards the horizon, Dolly questions the girls and has them read.
Each reviews pictures they drew or colored, and like the boys, all pages are graded either with a number or letter system. These girls are no more interested in their brand new crisp American bills than the boys were, and are eager to see the photos and hear what the sponsor wrote to them. Dolly insists on querying them about their artwork to hear their creative thoughts and ideas.
When Dolly and I had visited the school previously we had heard a number of the kids claim they wanted to be doctors, nurses, pilots, police. The simple truth of this is that the kind of money it would take for them to complete that training is considerable. But that’s not the real initial hurdle. What Dolly periodically sees in some students is their lack of discipline around homework. She cites the number of times she goes to family homes and sees the work not being done, either due to not understanding the subject or just not being dedicated to their own progress. At other times the problem lies with parents at times can’t help their children but don’t seek out others who could. However there are plenty of other cases where illiterate parents are intensely involved in helping their kids get educated, and the children themselves are not only eager to learn, but hungry for more.
Dolly’s direct personal involvement along with AoA’s scholarship (which provides books) and the Peruvian government’s provision of good teachers and a solid daily breakfast each school day all go a very long way towards breaking the inertia around education.
What really makes the difference, however, is that Dolly is engaged. Watching these kids leap to find their homework books- for each visit is a surprise- so that they can show her how they are doing and be told encouraging things about their work- is proof positive that what we measure will grow. With many parents desperate to give their kids a chance but too illiterate to help with homework, Dolly’s intervention and steady care provides the very flame under their bottoms to keep them focused, as if one were needed. In so many cases, these kids are already on the train that left the day they started school. They want more. It’smore the parents’ fear that holds kids back, not the kids themselves.
However, there are those few whose learning habits have to be built. Learning how to learn is just as essential as showing up for class each day and being attentive. Taking good notes, finishing assignments, and learning how to ask questions- good ones- and develop a healthy curiosity are all part of the learning process.
Improving the culture around illiteracy, which feeds poverty, abuse and despair, takes time. AoA began with the mothers, and continues working through them to educate, improve health and hygiene, create better diets, build the economy and uplift family life in the area.
One child at a time.