By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When children from Central America arrived by the thousands last summer on the U.S-Mexico border, the people of St. John’s Church in McAllen, Texas, knew what was driving the exodus: poverty, violence, and desperation.

Now St. John’s is leading an international project aimed at addressing root causes behind the perilous migration. The parish is planning to build a trade school in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, where girls and boys ages 12 to 15 will learn marketable skills in sewing, carpentry, and welding.

“This project will help generate income for the younger indigenous people that have fallen victim to starvation,” the Rt. Rev. Carlos Enrique Lainfiesta, Bishop Suffragan of Guatemala, wrote in a proposal in November. “The project will immediately address the crisis that the country is going through and help prevent emigration to other places.”

St. John’s is working with the Diocese of Guatemala to fine-tune plans and with the Diocese of West Texas to fund it. Bishop Lainfiesta expects to need $160,000 to acquire land near where the neediest residents live, build facilities, and operate the school for the first three years.

The idea for a school gained traction quickly last year when clergy from St. John’s approached Bishop Lainfiesta and received a warm response.

“He said, ‘I have had this plan for years but never had a way to do it,’” said the Rev. Nancy Springer, associate rector at St. John’s.

Startup funds are largely in place, thanks to an excess $150,000 in donations received last summer for local relief efforts among migrants detained and released at bus stations in border cities. McAllen was ground zero for the immigration crisis, and St. John’s served as an assistance hub. Twice a week, volunteers packed travel kits for kids and parents who lacked basic provisions and hadn’t yet reached their destinations. Funds poured in to support the effort.

Not all the collected funds were needed, however, after the crisis eased in mid-summer. That left about $50,000 at St. John’s and $100,000 at the diocese — almost enough to launch a new trade school. Donors who gave more than $500 have a choice whether to send their funds to the school or to another cause, or to ask for a refund. St. John’s is prepared to raise additional funds if necessary, Springer said.

Organizers hope the school will put a dent in the abject poverty that weighs on Santo Tomas Chichicastenango, a growing city of 150,000. Government statistics show 84 percent of its residents earn less than $2 a day. One in four earns less than $1 a day, which qualifies as extreme poverty by Guatemalan standards.

“If we can give these young boys some skills,” Springer said, “we can give them some hope so that the next generation doesn’t grow up in the same hopelessness that they’ve grown up in.”

Volunteers from St. John’s have firsthand knowledge of the acute needs and suffering in this mountainous region of Guatemala. For many years, the parish has been sending members on two annual mission trips to the region. One focuses on construction projects and distribution of cooking stoves to homes in remote communities. The other addresses basic medical and dental needs.

The school will train workers for jobs in the trades and for an emerging Guatemalan textile export industry. Locals hope employment opportunities will grow as the number of qualified workers increases and markets for finished goods expand in the United States. Representatives from St. John’s and the Diocese of West Texas plan to help the business arm of the school make connections in the United States to open sales channels.

The school’s curriculum will have a cultural aspect as girls are taught self-esteem, family planning, and abuse-prevention. On Saturdays, children will take Christian formation classes at the school.

If all goes according to plan, the school will be self-sustaining within three years as proceeds from textile exports and welding contracts help defray costs and keep the education tuition-free. If the school makes a profit, those funds will be shared among participating families. Construction could begin as soon as this summer.

Image: Chichicastenango market 2009 by chensiyuan, via Wikimedia Commons

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