Disappearing childhoods

I feel like Mr. Holland in the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. Except instead of standing in front of crowds of cheering ex-students, I am watching a 13-year-old girl run to me with her report card. She has an A in math and all B’s in her other classes. She is so happy and so proud of herself. She is the tallest girl in her class. She had a hard time at the beginning of the year since she felt self-conscious about being the only 13 year old in a class of 4th graders, but she kept going to school and now her teacher says she is the best student of the class.

I am describing my neighbor and ex-student Yesenia. When Yesenia finished 3rd grade her parents decided that she was done with school. They couldn’t afford to pay the small fees of public school and the cost of a uniform. Her older sister of 15 years had already dropped out of school to make lunches for the younger siblings while Mom and Dad worked. Now it was Yesenia’s turn to go to work.

As missionaries working in a shanty town outside of Peru’s 3rd largest city, I knew that Yesenia needed to keep going to school if she was to have any future outside of getting pregnant at an early age and perpetuating the cycle of poverty that we see all around.

I spoke to her parents and they agreed to enroll her in our school here at the pastoral center where we work. Last year we had 23 children with similar stories studying with us. They were children who life had forgotten. Children whose childhood was disappearing as they started working in shoe factories and cleaning houses. Paired up with another NGO here in Trujillo, we were able to provide a qualified teacher, lunch, and plenty of resources for these children. After a year studying with us they were placed back in the public school system. I am happy to say that the majority of them are in school and amazingly, the top of their class, just like Yesenia.

Unfortunately, at the end of last year, our partner, who also financed the program, decided to stop working in this area. We assumed that the school would have to close down as we were not equipped to financially carry on the project. As we found other children like Yesenia, we felt God talking to us, asking us to help give these children a chance. We realized that it doesn’t cost much to run this school. This year we have 10 children with us. They are bright beautiful children and I wish I could introduce you to them in person.

Alejandro is 7 and already has run away from home. His mom is busy taking care of his 3 younger sisters and his step dad beats him. He was a problem at the public school and the teacher would yell at him so he dropped out. He was in 2nd grade! Now he is our little fireball. Within months of giving him love instead of anger, he is a transformed little boy. He loves to come to school, arriving before anyone else and helping out whenever he can. He is learning to read in our reading program.

Then there is another family that is a neighbor of ours. This a family that came straight from rural Peru: 3 sisters, 11 kids between them and no working father in the house. They live a 15 minute walk from the pastoral center, where there are the newest invasions [informal home settlements]. They don’t have electricity or water in their home. Every other day they fill buckets of water and haul them to their house. Of these 11 children, 6 should be in school but the family only had money to send 2. So we have the other 4 children. They were all placed in our first grade program and, like Alejandro, are learning to read.

The stories I could tell you go on and on. The harsh reality these little ones live would make you cry. Here, at the school, they are just kids. They have art and music. They get to play ball at recess, and they are learning! When I have an ex-student run up to me with their report card, I know we are contributing to these children’s lives, sharing God’s love, and  witnessing the reign of God that Christ said was among us.