Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way


Christopher Stanfill
Senior Director, Learning & Evaluation
November 26, 2019

In early 2017, the Pencils of Promise (PoP) team in Guatemala traveled to the community of Cantón Xolacul in Quiché Department, roughly a four-hour drive from PoP headquarters in Quetzaltenango, for a school build scouting trip that was anything but typical for the team. In this particular community, a handful of teachers had rallied together to provide access to a public education for more than 50 students with learning and physical disabilities. This informal learning environment served students from all across the region, requiring family members of these students to travel significant distances to bring students to school. Aside from these challenges that presented themselves, this committed group of teachers, students and families worked together to showcase the power and importance of education, regardless of the lack of resources and formal learning space. 

Photo description: Guatemalan countryside
Photo credit: Lauren Nicole Smith

At the time of the scouting visit, classes were being held in a home that was rented out by the organization Mayan Hope as a support to the students. PoP was asked to become a partner and assist in the building of a four-classroom structure that would create a public education space that was consistent with other primary schools in the region of Quiché, a place in which PoP has partnered in the building of more than 100 schools. It was also around this time that PoP’s team in Guatemala was placing more focus on infrastructure and programming support in the southern departments of Sololá and Suchitepéquez, placing a proposed school build project in Cantón Xolacul outside of the planned project scope for late 2017 and 2018. Nonetheless, the teachers from this school for kids with disabilities pressed on and continued their advocacy for an improved physical learning space. 

Four teachers from Cantón Xolacul, including the principal, traveled to PoP headquarters in Quetzaltenango, on their own time and money, to meet personally with PoP’s Country Director, Jorge Bolom. Through an impassioned conversation, the school principal held Jorge’s hand and asked for help — moving them both to tears. As a result, Jorge organized PoP leadership and his infrastructure and community engagement teams to rally behind the cause and commit to helping this community receive the school they rightfully deserved. Adjustments were made in planning and resource allocation, including members of PoP’s infrastructure team working far beyond expected weekly hours due to the length of travel required to Quiche. Challenges continued to present themselves, yet the team pressed onward.

Photo description: Members of PoP’s Guatemala team (from left to right) Marlon Alvarado, Cesar Romero, and Edwin Cosme De Leon
Photo Credit: Elisa Weissenberg

Land purchased by the local government for the school in Cantón Xolacul was not connected to electricity, sewage systems, or running water. Additionally, due to the fact that this school would serve several communities and act as a central location for students with disabilities throughout Quiche to receive a quality education, PoP’s typical model of partnering with a single community to provide 20% in labor and/or materials was not feasible. Yet, the collective group of committed individuals pressed on and Mayan Hope contributed the 20% in support of the larger goal. The four teachers, who all served as the passionate origin of this project, worked tirelessly to support hired contractors during the build process. And PoP, along with teachers and the municipal government, created the needed systems — electricity, sewage, and running water — to create a quality learning environment. In Jorge’s own words, “when we talk about quality, it means a lot. More than walls. It means water… a shower… wheelchair accessible bathrooms… desks… whiteboards for teachers… cement paths in front of the school making it accessible for everyone.”

Photo description: The final product, Escuela Oficial de Education Especial, pictured in the evening and well lit by the new access to electricity
Photo credit: Pencils of Promise Guatemala

Just recently, roughly five months after the project began, an inauguration ceremony was held at Escuela Oficial de Educación Especial, a project made possible by the Schaeffer family, to officially welcome 56 excited students to a new school where they’d be encouraged, supported, and educated by arguably the most quintessential example of a dedicated group of teachers. It was also Jorge’s birthday.

Photo description: Students, teachers, and community members gather for the inauguration of Escuela Oficial de Educación Especial
Photo credit: Elisa Weissenberg
Photo description: Students participate with a teacher in the inauguration ceremony.
Photo credit: Elisa Weissenberg
Photo description: Two students enjoy the inauguration festivities.
Photo credit: Elisa Weissenberg

PoP’s service delivery is centered around one central theme: access. Communities who partner with PoP have an unwavering commitment to education and are positioned to reach new levels of excellence and quality. The teachers from Cantón Xolacul never lost sight of the opportunity their students deserved and believed that a quality learning environment would enable these students to reach their full potential. A potential that begins with safety and security at school. A potential that encourages those in their community to believe in them. A potential founded in the belief of themselves.