What I learned from cutting the ribbon at a PoP school inauguration

Olivia Wittels
Senior Marketing Coordinator
June 22, 2015

Last Monday, I attended my first PoP school inauguration. As we drove towards the school, located in a small community called Siete Vueltas, the landscape outside started to change — with the windy roads came palm trees and vast sugar fields; the breeze got significantly warmer and the temperature continued to rise until I was sweltering even with the air blasting and windows open wide.

About two hours later, we pulled up to the community. From the outside, the school appeared an unassuming structure. But upon entering the courtyard, we got a better view of this beautiful PoP build, a two-story school with six brand new classrooms.

The courtyard was filled to the brim with parents, children, community members and teachers — young and old, it seemed like the entire community had gathered to celebrate this momentous occasion. All of the teachers, along with many of the students, were dressed in traditional Guatemalan garb.

The inauguration ceremony began and for brevity’s sake, I’ll just say it was long. It opened with a prayer, followed by the Guatemalan national anthem. Then one by one, various members of the community spoke about the significance of the build.

The backdrop to the whole event was an enormous banner hanging from the school with the words “un sueño hecho realidad” pinned up in glittery red letters.

The speeches were different, but each shared that common theme of the school as a “dream come true.” What I found especially pertinent, however, was the fact that while many of the speakers mentioned what the school meant to them and the community, they also addressed the obstacles they faced before it was built.

They spoke about the fact that various organizations had come to Siete Vueltas and promised to help them, but had never returned. In turn (and rightfully so), this particular community was initially hesitant to trust Pencils of Promise. But through the persistence of various individuals, the community was ultimately convinced into supporting the build and PoP’s assistance.

The leaders of the community pressed on until we arrived at the end of the ceremony. Marlon, PoP’s Projects Coordinator, handed off the keys to the school director; the only thing left was cutting the blue ribbon to officially inaugurate the school. I had situated myself on the ground, kneeling and prepared to capture this momentous occasion on my phone. Quite suddenly, however, I was handed a pair of scissors and shepherded to the door, which is when I realized that the community wanted me to open the school.

Marlon (R) getting ready to hand off the keys to the teachers at Siete Vueltas. The school’s Director, Elizabeth Navichoc, is pictured on the far left

Various important people had spoken during the ceremony, including the Mayor, town leaders, mothers, teachers, the class president, a man from local ministry of education and incredible PoP staff members.

I was a bit taken aback that they wanted me, red in the face and profusely sweating through my PoP shirt, to perform this tremendous honor. I wish I could say I cut that ribbon with grace and style. But to be perfectly honest, it was a rather awkward experience — I stood there for a solid minute, scissors in hand, unsure of when exactly I was supposed to make that inaugural snip. Hundreds of eyes stared at me with eager anticipation, until I finally glanced at a teacher who nodded at me through her enormous smile; one snip and it was over.

The least awkward photo of me cutting the ribbon.

On our drive back to the office in Xela, I thought about why the community had asked me to officially open the school. And after two hours of said contemplation, I still had no answer. Which is when I realized that there was no real reason, because that particular moment wasn’t about me at all.

At the end of the day, the community of Siete Vueltas isn’t going to remember the girl with sweat dripping down her face. Instead, they’ll remember the inauguration as a day that changed many of their lives forever, and for better.

A school inauguration is so much bigger than one individual person, thus me cutting the ribbon really had nothing to do with me — ultimately, that the community chose to include me in the ceremony was indicative of the communal effort that it took to build the school in the first place.

In New York, we’re constantly talking about our #PoPFamily, all the wonderful people and supporters associated with the organization. However, I don’t think it was as clear to me until I awkwardly cut an inaugural ribbon just how large the global Pencils of Promise community has become.

I’ve realized that this sense of community is what makes PoP such a unique and special organization. From a small town in Guatemala to our office in NYC, the driving factor behind this organization is one that radiates inclusivity. PoP doesn’t just build a school and leave a community to fend for itself; from the onset of any project or program, we include the community in our efforts and, as I saw firsthand, the communities include us in their joy, celebration and passion for education.

One (of the many) selfies I took with the students at Siete Vueltas, who were ecstatic about their new school.

It takes a tremendous effort for this type of inclusiveness to be successful and after visiting Guatemala I would be remiss to not acknowledge the mammoth role that our in-country teams play in making our work possible. I also think it’s a testament to how legitimate PoP is as an international organization that a majority of the communities we work in welcome our support; there’s something to be said about the fact that we’re not viewed as outsiders pushing our own agenda.

After being in the field for a week, I see that the value of community — ingrained in PoP’s founding principles — along with our unwavering belief that anyone can be a change maker, are not only sentiments expressed to our supporters, but also genuinely felt and exemplified by rural communities thousands of miles away.

Pencils of Promise is a truly global organization not because we work in other countries, but because we work with them, and that inclusivity, to me, best encompasses what PoP is all about.


Check out #PoPFieldTrip on Instagram to follow our adventures in Guatemala, Ghana and Laos.