Apoyate en Mi, or Lean On Me, was the school that our group had been placed to teach. Going into the school, we were told that the students were extremely poor, most homeless, and all suffered from countless hardships. We were told that the students all had lice, so we were not supposed to hug them (I don't know anyone who has worked with children and not wanted to give them all hugs and squeezes). Hearing these warnings repeatedly (these were only about students-there were warnings about EVERYTHING) I think caused quite a bit of apprehension for all of us traveling to this school. I don't know about the other students in my group, but I had drawn a picture in my head of this bedraggled group of children, caked in dirt and crawling with insects, wearing dirty clothes, smelling badly, and being overall dirty. Imagine my surprise when we first were greeted by the students as they departed the school bus, all of them appeared taken care of, their hair done, in matching uniforms that looked neat and clean, and with no apparent signs of the children we had been warned about. Oh those children!!! They walked off the bus and into the school yard, and either shook our hands or hugged us and were just so polite!! Here we were, this group of Americans lined up for them to greet like some sort of receiving line, which I'm sure was intimidating to these poor kids! They handled it like pros. Students in America don't necessarily even GREET their teacher every day, let alone shake their hands or hug them. These students are taught to be respectful, upright citizens, and they are held to these expectations. They know that once they enter the school yard that they are safe and loved, regardless of what their life may be like outside of school.
The doorway into the schoolyard. The entire school is
surrounded by a large concrete wall, and the enormous
door is heavily bolted and locked at all times.
The kids were so happy, it was amazing to
see such bright smiles and outstretched
arms regardless of what circumstance they
may be facing each day.
A little bit of background about this school: it is completely run off of donations. The man who runs it, Giuseppe, is the most incredible man with the largest heart I have ever known.
Giuseppe opened this school to give students a chance for the future. These students are the ones who most likely would not have a chance at a decent future without some kind of help. The students do not pay to go to school. They do not pay for their uniforms (which I think there are 3), food, supplies, or transportation. The school has a bus and a driver, and he drives around the entire city early in the morning to pick everyone up, then takes them back home at lunchtime and returns with the older students (7th grade and up), and then takes the older students back home in the afternoon. The students are fed 1 meal and 1 snack while they are there, although the snack is big enough to be considered lunch. As we were told, for some students this is all the food they get, therefore the school does its best to provide nutritious, substantial food. The drink that is served is a warm, coffee-like drink, but it is actually a nutritional supplemented drink to give students the extra nutrients that they need. The students are allowed second helpings as long as there is enough to go around.
Back to Giuseppe and his large heart, his story is one that is similar to many men in Guatemala. Due to poverty, many turn to means of escape, which is often drugs and/or alcohol. There are many gangs, as well as drug trafficking. Many students had lost parents or other family members to gang violence. Giuseppe was going along the same track, into drugs and alcohol, gangs, when he realized how he was throwing his life away. I'm not sure if there was one incident in particular, but he was able to overcome this lifestyle and change for the better. He vowed that he would do all he could to keep that dangerous lifestyle away from as many children as possible. He originally wanted to open an orphanage for boys, and bring in those who either had no parents, or were in a situation where they should not be in their current home. I'm not sure why that didn't work out, but I know he wants to open a second school that would be more of a home than just a school. Giuseppe makes sure that every single student know that they are loved and safe, once they are inside the school yard. Life outside of school may be horrific, but they always know that they are loved. No judgement is passed against any student, and all are treated with respect and care. He does have strict standards, but they are not different than any other school rules. No visible piercings, no romantic contact with others at school, look presentable, and being respectful to others. Giuseppe brings God into the school, and talks to them every morning about how they are loved. They pray before breakfast everyday, and that the Lord for the opportunities they have.
Giuseppe lives at the school. Upstairs is a small apartment area where he stays, and which also is home to Enyo, a boy of 17 who needed a place to stay. Enyo's father threatened to kill him when he discovered his son reading from the Bible, so Giuseppe took him in and gave him a small room in his already sparse apartment. Seeing as the school is run on donations, and all that money goes to daily operations, as well as supplies, teacher's pay, and whatever else, I doubt that leaves much left over for Giuseppe. Not only that, but 3 nights a week he goes out into the street and feeds the homeless. He asks for nothing in return for these wonderful services, and is providing such an opportunity for so many people to receive his blessings. He is an inspiration to me, and I wish there was a way to have his works recognized and supported.
I could write a novel about this man and his school, but I'm not doing it here. Maybe one day...