Las Manos de Christine NGO: How Do You Spell “Opportunity”?

“Hello! How are you?” asks a little Guatemalan boy as I’m walking toward the elementary school in El Hato. “Hello!” says another boy standing in the door of the library. Before your mind can switch from “Hola” to “Hi there,” you realize that all of the children around you – working on computers and playing word games with volunteers – are speaking English. But these children aren’t enrolled in an elite private school; they’re learning in a rural public school with teachers and volunteers from Las Manos de Christine.

Las Manos de Christine is a small NGO dedicated to providing English instruction, educational programs, and support for disadvantaged Guatemalan children. Why teach English to Guatemalan children? “Education is really the strongest tool we have against poverty,” says Executive Director Salina Duncan. “And in the long-term, speaking English is one of the best ways to make these children competitive to get the good jobs that will help lift them out of poverty.”

The aldea of El Hato is a low-income farming community just north of La Antigua where approximately 250 primary and 30 básico school children at every grade level study English through Las Manos. Because the program operates within the local public school, children receive daily English classes as part of their regular curriculum, listen to stories during break times, take extracurricular art classes, and practice English after hours – all without leaving the school grounds. About fifty young adults also gather at the school after work on Saturdays to learn English during their scarce free time in a six- or seven-day workweek. Las Manos also provides a bilingual library where both children and adults from the community can practice their language skills.

Bryant Hand, founder and director of Guatemala City’s Oxford Language Center and La Antigua’s Oxford Bilingual Montessori Center, started Las Manos de Christine with his family in 2006 as a program to help the NGO Safe Passage (Camino Seguro) teach English to children living in and around the Guatemala City landfill. The family named the organization in honor of their mother, Christine, a lifelong educator. When Safe Passage had gained enough support to operate its own English education program, Las Manos shifted its attention to El Hato.
One of the goals of Las Manos is to partner with other nonprofits to add English-language and early-childhood-education components to their work. But ultimately, Bryant envisions communities taking over the education programs themselves “with teachers who grew up through the system and understand how to teach it, want to be there, and want to teach.”

Working within the public school is a big step toward that vision of sustainability, but it can also be riddled with political challenges. Establishing trust within the community can take years. Fortunately, Bryant was able to build on the trust that his friends, Earth Lodge owners Briana Havey and Drew Shankman, had gradually established in the El Hato community. For more than seven years, Earth Lodge has been providing the public school with nutritious snacks, backpacks, school supplies, and teaching materials. They also provide housing for some of Las Manos’ volunteers.
Connecting with this long-term history of trust has been critical for Las Manos. “Parents have had to trust us a lot to allow outsiders to come in and teach their kids things they themselves do not understand,” says Bryant.

Although Las Manos is able to reach hundreds of community children, the overall change in the community will be gradual. “To change an entire community will take a whole generation of families hearing how important it is to be educated, to compete, and to have goals for the future,” says Bryant. “The place to begin is by giving the children an education that gives them an opportunity to be competitive, gives them a future that has many different opportunities, and gives them choice.”

The Las Manos team has recently launched their newest project. In collaboration with the El Hato public school, they are piloting an early childhood program based on the ideas and experience gained in the Oxford Bilingual Montessori Center that Bryant Hand founded in La Antigua in 2010. The Oxford Montessori gives the parents in the community an alternative to the more traditional schools found in La Antigua, and will be a continual source for training, resources, and support for the Las Manos Montessori Program. They plan to have two new Montessori classrooms running in El Hato by January 2013. In the future they hope to use the program as a model for communities throughout Guatemala, helping nonprofits to use their resources to strengthen the public school system in each community rather than attempting to replace it.
If you would like to know more about these programs or just want to talk about education, Bryant can be found at the Oxford Montessori in the Centro Luterano on 1a Avenida Norte.

You can learn more about Las Manos de Christine on their website: www.lasmanosdc.org.

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