Donations Fuel Diplomas at Mano Amiga Schools

MEXICO CITY — When the first Mano Amiga school opened in 1963 in Naucalpan, a poor neighborhood in Mexico City, students had to wear plastic bags on their shoes to reach the school because there were no paved streets.

Today, roads allow for cars and public transportation. Homes have electricity and plumbing. Increased commercial activity has helped create economic stability.

Since Mano Amiga means “helping hand,” it seemed to be an aptly named school. It has not only helped the students but indirectly the community as well.

The first Mano Amiga contributed to the economic development of Naucalpan by educating the youth. According to Luanne Zurlo, director of the World Education and Development Fund in New York, founded primarily to support Mano Amiga schools, the schools educated the poor, allowing for employment or better jobs. In turn, businesses invested in Naucalpan, creating more jobs and prosperity.

Humberto Trevino was hired to oversee the foundation of new schools. As director of Federation Mano Amiga in Monterrey, Mexico, he provides financial, administrative and pedagogical direction. Alejandro Fabian, Trevino's assistant, helps create Mano Amiga models based on the educational needs in each location. He helped develop a standard curriculum for Mexico and is forming a school model for El Salvador.

According to Zurlo, less than a quarter of all Mexican adults have graduated from high school. In comparison, more than 90% of Mano Amiga students graduate.

Mano Amiga schools throughout Latin America educate economically challenged students from pre-kindergarten through high school. There are 17 Mano Amiga schools operating; just a little more than half are in Mexico. Others are in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and El Salvador.

Mano Amiga is a not-for-profit educational organization initiated by members of Regnum Christi, an apostolic movement associated with the Legionaries of Christ. The schools are partially supported by wealthier private schools.

Families whose children attend schools such as the Cumbres Institute, a prestigious school in Mexico City, contribute resources to support Mano Amiga schools, said Legion of Christ Father Juan Sabadell. Mano Amiga schools use the same curriculum as the private schools, including The Treasure of Our Catholic Faith, a textbook series for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade produced by the Legionary and Regnum Christi school network.

Social Education

Father Marcial Maciel, the Mexican priest who founded Regnum Christi and the Legionaries of Christ, addressed the Legion's social outreach in Latin America in Christ Is My Life, a book-length interview with the priest. Social education and service to the neediest are mandatory in the higher-end schools, he said.

“Our focus in social issues is to apply the broad principles of the Church's social doctrine,” he said, “trying to jog the consciences of the lay people, especially those with greater possibilities due to their political, economic or social status.”

Each Mano Amiga school has a chapel for prayer where Legionary chaplains offer the sacraments. During the last four years, a school in Monterrey has had one or two religious vocations each year to either the priesthood or consecrated life out of a graduating class of approximately 70.

Mano Amiga schools depend on local and international fund raising for support.

“At first I worried about finances,” Trevino said. “Eventually donors, seemingly sent from heaven, would give the money needed. I then understood Mano Amiga to be God's work, not mine.”

The needs are ongoing, along with the desire to reach more families with more Mano Amiga schools.

Schools raffle valuable items, such as donated cars, or sell lottery tickets for cash prizes. Some donors sponsor Mano Amiga students through Adopt a Child scholarship or padrino (godfather) programs, whereby a monthly donation is deducted from the donor's credit card. Local companies, such as the cement company Cemex and the industrial conglomerate Grupo Alfa, also make financial donations. In addition, the local phone company Telmex has supplied computer terminals for a number of the schools.

Approximately $50 per month is needed to educate a student, though pupils typically pay much less, owing to difficult economic situations. The schools typically charge a dollar a day. Scholarships are available for those who cannot pay the full tuition.

Ana Marith Garcia Perez of the Cualcan Mano Amiga in Lerma, Mexico, completed her high-school education through the Adopt a Child scholarship program. Later she studied marketing at Anahuac University in Mexico City and today is an international business development officer for Buchanan Lumber Sales in High Prairie, Alberta.

Some Mano Amiga schools have been funded by donors seeking to remedy the destruction from natural disasters, such as the major earthquakes that have struck Mexico City. The government offered land and buildings for reconstruction. The Legionaries, in conjunction with Anahuac University faculty and students, then built a Center for the Integral Development of the Community, which includes a Mano Amiga school.

Today there are such centers in Mexico City, Acapulco and Merida, Mexico, as well as in El Salvador. Catholic World Mission, a religious nonprofit organization based in Hamden, Conn., raises money for the centers.

More English

The quality and level of education attained by most citizens of developing countries remain far below that of developed countries, Zurlo said. Mano Amiga schools include more English classes than are available in state schools.

She believes the discipline provided by qualified teachers at Mano Amiga schools creates a learning environment superior to state-run schools. As a result, Fabian said, “Thirty to 40 students are studying in the better universities of Mexico on scholarship.”

One Mano Amiga school in Leon, Mexico, offers a bilingual curriculum in English and Spanish — a model Trevino and Fabian desire for all Mano Amigas. Schools with more funding have extra English and computer classes as well as an indoor gym. Nursery through kindergarten classes average 25 students per class. Primary and secondary schools average 35 students per classroom.

Fabian said secondary schools have vocational training for beau-ticians, tailors, steelworkers, carpenters, mechanics, electricians and computer technicians.

Mano Amiga schools aim to involve the community. They offer parenting classes that teach morality, family management and strategies to reduce the risk of drug abuse. There are adult literacy classes as well as workshops that train women in sewing skills, for example.

Breakfast and lunch are provided for students. Some mothers help in the kitchen in exchange for a tuition break for their children. Sports and cultural events such as soccer competitions, carnivals, Christmas pageants and open houses involve the entire community.

Concetta Pilsner writes from New York.

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