Jackson Vela, 26, is that kind of youthful, energetic, handsome teacher that young girls crush on. It’s inevitable. When we walked into his classroom he was gesticulating and engaging his class in a discussion about computer science.
Dolly Beaver, the head of Angels of the Amazon and wife of Dr. Paul Beaver, who created the Tahuayo Lodge on the Tahuayo River near Iquitos, Peru, along with two environmentalists and I were visiting the brand new high school in the river village of El Chino. Until recently, most villagers only received kindergarten or elementary school educations. In the remote areas of Peru’s Andes and Amazon regions, basic infrastructure is lacking, and as a result, the government of Peru only provides for the first six grades, or elementary school. Particularly the women, who were limited by their options to lives of raising kids and supporting their husbands. This perpetuated the difficult cycle of agrarian poverty and severely limited the options for the people of the village. Today that that has all begun to change.
About 40% of El Chino’s 200 or so inhabitants are illiterate, although most of these are older generation. Here in Jackson’s eager classroom, the kids are dressed in their school uniforms and stand when we walk in. Most seem very happy to be here, and while shy, seem curious about these newcomers.
Dolly speaks to the group and asks them questions. Typical of this age group, the kids smile, but no one volunteers. Eventually I ask if anyone has a dream. With some prompting, Dolly is able to get the kids to talk about what they want to be. A few want to be policemen, nurses, doctors, one girl wants to be an engineer, others want to be mechanics. There’s lots of giggling.
These kids have wonderful hopes, but for many, at this point, without significant assistance (and in some cases far better study habits, says Dolly) these dreams won’t come true. Dolly teases them a bit about this, for she knows them all well. A number of them are sponsored by Angels of the Amazon and she has a vested interest in their success. For many, this extended education is a brand new experience not only for the kids but also for the families. Learning how to learn is just as much part of the change as building the new high school. Dolly spends time with a number of the sponsored children early in the morning to get them started or going over their school work when she visits the villages from America, all part of her deep commitment to ensure their success. Angel sponsors also take a deep interest in how well their kids are doing, send photos and provide support and encouragement which help the kids stay focused and interested.
Along with the new high school, twelve families in El Chino built a brand new Artesan Center with help from Angels of the Amazon, their own hard labor and funds from sales of their crafts to tourists. This process added to the series of changes that have been significantly transforming this small town, causing waves of responses from old and young generations alike. New income for women has changed the options for many families, who can now afford to send their kids to high school and beyond. Women in particular are enthusiastic about providing their kids with opportunities they previously didn’t have.
But not everyone is on board, says Jackson.
When he first arrived, “I had to start at ground zero,” he explained. “There had been no ground work. It was hard to get the students to ‘get it.’ There was no background in science, computers, physics. Big differences in grades and ages.”
On the wall in our room were the words “Sexual Reproduction.” I inquired about this, knowing that there were very conservative Evangelical Christian and Catholic believers in town. Jackson smiled and explained that while there was sensitivity, “you look at that age, and you approach it as a scientific question.” So many kids were approaching sexual maturity, and you had to deal with it. If not, suddenly you might have a pregnancy on your hands, and an opportunity lost.
“The biggest challenge with these kids are some parents, because they aren’t engaging or supportive,” Jackson explained. “They might have gone to elementary school, perhaps a little high school, or are functionally illiterate. In so many cases, the kids are on their own. The parents can’t help them at home. The homework doesn’t get done at all.” While isis most certainly not true of all kids, it can create a challenge where a child’s parents don’t see the real value of education because the parents themselves didn’t receive advanced training.
In the case of AoA sponsored kids, Dolly visits the houses and helps with the homework. Most of them are now offered a strategy to get the parents involved. “Sponsorship” by Angels of the Amazon means that Dolly carefully assess the individual situations of the children in the villages. Where the family situation, such as being a single parent or a financial struggle can prevent a child from attending school, Dolly finds a sponsor who commits to an annual donation. That donation creates the lifeline for that child to attend school. In addition, the regular communication that sponsors often provide in the form of photographs and even at times in-person visits is a source of untold joy and motivation for the children.
Jackson finds ways to give the kids credit for commitment. As an example, he points out that a girl who lives down near the Tahuayo Lodge finds a way to get to school every day either by walking or canoeing the forty minute distance, rain or shine. Other kids who live right in the village complain they can’t get to school when it’s raining. To Jackson the little girls’ commitment is worth a lot and it shows up in her grades.
The school had originally been located in town between the cantina and the kindergarten where loud music played, which created constant distraction for the kids. Today, it’s set well back in the forest, with plenty of breezes and a separate, clean bathroom. This environment, along with government provided teachers and a government sponsored monitor to ensure proper use of funds for learning, all help ensure a better experience. The Peruvian Government also provides breakfasts for the kids which eases the financial burden on the families and ensures that the kids are awake and engaged during school hours. Providing breakfasts for school kids, infants and hunger-endangered elderly is also provided at times through sponsors by Angels of the Amazons.
This new high school is a partnership project which demonstrates the successful collaboration among Angels of the Amazon, Be the Change Volunteers and the Peruvian Government. It is a seven year project to create a first rate high school for the villages up and down the Tahuayo River. The first three years have already produced three modern classrooms and a separate freestanding restroom building. The Peruvian Government’s collaboration provideded the accreditation for the school and the teachers.
Jackson smiles broadly. His own story is one of great patience. His first dream is biology, which is why he is so happy to be working at this small school in the Amazon jungle. After a while, he’ll be going back to finish his studies. His personal journey is a perfect example for these kids with stars in their eyes about becoming doctors, nurses, and pilots.
“It takes time and patience,” he grins. “I do this for a while, and go back and work. Eventually I will get there.”
A perfect school lesson indeed for the children of El Chino.