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Escuela de Panama

After some doing the opportunity to volunteer at the Panama School finally would happen. My heart raced with excitement as this was the main reason for my trip and for a long time I felt like all the efforts to bring the backpacks was for nothing. Alas Ruth escorted me on the micro-bus a short distance down the mountain and over to another…Where we got out and walked for the next 20 minutes up a dirty mountain side road that to most would appear impassible by vehicle but they do it…

Ruth is an intern at La Mariposa and a very vivacious volunteer supporter. The trouble with a lot of organizations is they don’t see the effectiveness of short term volunteers so they tend to brush them off as not very important. Ruth’s philosophy is I have projects and you want to help let’s get to work! Which for, the volunteer makes, them feel important and like they are making a difference by helping do something and they don’t feel ignored. I admire Ruth’s philosophy. She made me feel like even if I only spent 5 minutes on a project it was the most important 5 minutes ever.

As we walked that rainy morning she shared the history of the Panama School and many of its current problems along with what La Mariposa is doing to help.

Over one hundred students are enrolled in this remote volcanic regional school. Children do not attend class all day like in the USA, they attend half days; some children attend morning session others afternoons. They discovered if they fed the children a meal each day more children would attend. That can be a huge relief to an impoverished family.

The school nestled high in the hills seems to be in the most unlikely of locations but, upon arrival to the school you quickly realize it is smack dab in the middle of the community.  Over the coming days I came to observe families and large groups of people always milling about in the driveway of the school, which made me realize that school is the center of town.

Several buildings make up the property; the first building is the schoolhouse which houses three classrooms and a nook of a library. The building was painted the week prior by World Vision. It was nice to see that they actually do service work somewhere I have been, before now I only ever read about them online. The second building is a kitchen, which was donated by some wealthy wives of ambassador types, is lovely yet modest and only recently has had power installed. The stove has needed replacement a few times because the acid rain and volcanic ash that eats away at the metal. I learned that the mothers of the students take turns cooking the meals for the kids. Sometimes cooking meals can be a challenge as there is no water and if water is not brought up the mountain little is prepared. On a later visit, Paulette shared she would love one day to produce enough food from her garden to feed the children regularly. Imagine that. 

The school has two huge problems at present:

1.       Maintaining the water supply as there is no running water or sewerage. The water has to be trucked in most of the time La Mariposa takes care of this for the school.

2.    The volcanic ash and acid rain is destroying anything with metal on it. Like the roves, the stove pipes the metal window frames and more. Zinc is the only material that the ash doesn’t eat through so slowly things are being switched out for zinc, which is expensive.


That very same volcanic, ash, will tear at my heart in a later visit as I get to know the children at the Panama School. The same ladies that build the kitchen also donated flush toilets. As I stood in front of these pretty little potties, I could feel my heart pound and my blood boil, my face getting hot with anger. I was so pissed off! I couldn’t believe that after numerous attempts to explain that this was not a good idea as there is no water or sewer and never will be they built them anyway, using the excuse ‘they just look prettier.’ –Are you kidding me! What a waste of extremely valuable resources all for ‘pretty potties.’ Bluntly, it is one of the best examples of how the rich are so removed from reality that they just dump money on something without paying attention to the true need. A donation is wonderful and always appreciated but it is ineffective if the resources are tossed on to some item no one will ever benefit from. I still want to get in the face of the American Ambassadors wife and shake my fist in her ‘pretty little potty’ face.

One of the many things I admire about Paulette is her courageousness to take on projects even when La Mariposa may not financially be in a position to do so and find a way to correct these ridiculous mistakes and to always be there when the rich only have assed finished the job. For example the potties, seeing it and having spoken up prior to there, having been built she asked for donations and built LATRINES. When one of the buildings was virtually falling over the edge of the mountain she raised the money to buy the concrete and get the man power in there to reinforce the buildings side wall with a massive concrete wall and staircase. She has recently taken on restoration of the library and been rebuilding the bookshelves, she originally had built, color coding all the books she had donated, and is putting plastic bins on the shelves to protect the books from the ash and rains. She has also worked toward educating the teachers and students about proper borrowing of books in an effort to make sure the books remain intact and in the library.

Ruth and I watched from a massive water barrel on the playground as the children played football. Some were barefoot or in clothes that didn’t fit right or the zippers no longer functioned, while others were in nice uniforms and shoes. Uniforms used to be a big deal but the government quickly realized that kids aren’t going to go to school if they can’t afford the clothes so that rule as been bent. Which is good, in Guatemala that rule is enforced and is destroying the education system. We watched them playing football using a Coke bottle with sand in it as there is no soccer ball or football, which made me smile at their creativeness and sad to know that in America we have dozens that are barely used in all our schools. 

I noticed a swing set just beyond the circle of kids and realized it was missing the swings…I stared at it for a minute before saying to Ruth are the swings gone because of the ash and rain, why not get some rope and a piece of wood or a rope and an old tire…I showed one of my teachers in my class what I meant later and am hopeful that something will come of it. Growing up that is what we had and I loved it!

I noticed a water fountain next to the classroom and inquired if it is drinkable or just another ‘pretty’ unusable piece. It is connected to the water barrel behind me but the water is a bit questionable maybe for hand washing or the kids to drink because they are from the area. They actually truck water in daily to the school from La Mariposa, some days they can get it right up there and others it is more difficult for a lot of reasons that I understand as I come to now life in Nicaragua.

One of the biggest things that will actually keep a child out of school is the water issue. Families tend to live together for example mom and dad, grandparents, nine children and sometimes the adult children have a wife or husband and maybe even a baby or two. What often happens is the mom and dad go work in the market and fields selling and harvesting while the grandparents look after the kids and house. This means that the grandparents have to go and collect the daily water supply a half an hour or more walk away for a young empty handed person. People don’t have cars here they are too poor, and many don’t have oxen so this means they pull a cart all the way to the bottom and fill up and pull it all the way back up. This process may take them all day to get done which can mean the little ones have to stay home from school helping the grandparents with the daily chores.

As the children return to their classrooms after recess it was time to start looking for the potential spot for our donation. We observed each room slowly…the children were curious about the two white girls outside and were frequently distracted by our presence and giggled or smiled at us as we passed. The third and final classroom we observed was the best fit it was smaller and the teacher seemed to have control over her room. The students were quietly studying only peaking at us a little bit when we came in.

We made our way into the room and introduced ourselves to the teacher explaining what we were doing there and would like to do. The teacher was thrilled, explaining that she usually has 26 students but the rain has kept the kids away and today only had 19 and didn’t expect the attendance to improve until the rains stopped…We said ‘hola’ to the children and they looked up at us curiously with their big dark eyes some saying ‘hola’ back some not saying anything and many squirming and giggling. The teacher lets the students know we have something fun in store for them and that we would be back tomorrow to share it with them. Everyone was sitting up and excited as we walked back out the door waving they all waved back.

As the door shut behind me I knew I found the perfect room to work with and the perfect group of kids and was excited for tomorrow myself. My next worry was getting that foolish 70lb suitcase up to the school…

As Told By Jules: Journeys in Central America and beyond


melvin said...

Hello Jules, I absolutely appreciate your post with very beautiful pictures.
have a good day.

Jules said...

Hey thanks Melvin appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to read my blog...sometimes I wonder if I am talking to myself. Glad you enjoyed the blog and pictures. It was a wonderful trip and an amazing experience!