THANKSGIVING 2016 A big thing happened this November. Well, a lot of big things happened this November but one of them was that I turned fifty. Among the reasons this was significant for me is the realization that very soon I will have lived half of my life in Guatemala! The Education and Hope family was thrilled that I had chosen to be with them on my actual birthday, and there was an epic celebration, complete with singing, dancing and a play. Everything was special but the play in particular pierced my heart; weeks later it’s still circulating in my thoughts. The fifth graders acted out their interpretation of the early days of Education and Hope, loosely based on a story a teacher remembers me reading to the first scholarship recipients. The play begins with my arrival to Guatemala, where somehow I am dressed to look like Julia Roberts with long, wavy hair, big sunglasses and tall boots, an image that slightly differs from the reality of the pixie-haired girl in flannel shirts and hiking boots. I suppose most protagonists get Hollywood makeovers.
Upon arrival I meet some kids working in the fields. After they introduce themselves, I ask if they are cold and then offer them warm sweaters from my giant duffel bag. Then I ask if they can read and write, and I pass out books. Finally, “Julia” provides the last gift, giant seeds for them to plant. The three get to work planting, but progress is slow; there are no signs of growth. Every now and then they adjust the amount of sunlight and water to find the right balance, but still nothing. Several times they are approached by passersby who stop to criticize their efforts, taunting, “All that work and no signs of change? You’re wasting your time!” The kids continue working, determined. Finally they see leaves peeking through the dirt. When they uncover their yield it’s not just any carrot but a gigantic one. Then all the actors came together on the stage, hands over hearts, exclaiming, “Julia, we are the fruits of your labor!” I cried so hard I couldn’t see straight, and I’m crying again now just putting these words on the page.
The significance of the naysayers in the play may have been lost on all but me, but this was the piece that split me open. While we enjoy a tremendous success rate within our program, not all of our students succeed academically. Many are tangled up in problems beyond our ability to solve, and every once in a while a teenager will end up abandoning school altogether. But the kids acting in the play could never have known of the critics I have encountered over the years, people who have made clear their disapproval of my choice to devote time, effort and resources on any child who might not be a sure bet to make it through school, as if only those representing risk-free investments are deserving of the chance to be educated. The weight of this judgement used to sting quite a bit, especially when I was starting out.
We work with a high-risk population of kids plagued by disadvantages; a promise of a clear return on investment is never possible. But my experience over these two decades has only increased my commitment to reach out to those on the margins who have been overlooked and left out, those who would otherwise not have a chance of a brighter future. Our impact on these young lives goes far beyond academics and I have never once regretted the decision to award a scholarship. Every child welcomed into our program is received because they have critical needs that require attention, whether access to education, nutrition, medical care, or the emotional support and attentive care found within community. Not all of our students will achieve academic success, but they will all come to know they are worthy of love and belonging.
Our willingness to reach beyond what is certain is something I am grateful for every day. Every seed deserves to be nourished and fed, regardless of the soil upon which it has been scattered. I only wish I could share with you the magic of transformation made tangible each time a student tells me, “Thank you for believing in me.” Or, “You’ve always been by my side”. Or, “Thank you for not giving up on me.” There is an unmistakable light that glows within a child when she knows that she is seen, when he knows his life is important to someone, when she feels unconditionally loved. We are indebted to you for the great generosity that sustains our program and brings this light to the world, in ways seen and unseen. The work of Education and Hope bears witness to the idea that when we move through the world with compassion and kindness, tenderness and empathy, great change is possible. When you sow hope and promise on rocky ground and do so with love, the yield is far greater than the mind can measure.
With heartfelt gratitude for your continued support and solidarity, Julie Coyne and all the families of Education and Hope
EDUCATION AND HOPE, PO Box 486, Norwalk, CT 06856 www.educationandhope.org
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