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The Incredible Power of an Education
The school’s mission was to lift children out of poverty and transform them into leaders in the community

P. James McKenna, L.C. y uno de los médicos que le operaron, de la primera generación de la escuela Mano Amiga.
Fr James McKenna, LC and Dr. José Antonio.

Last January, I was admitted to the intensive care unit at San Jose Hospital in Monterrey, Mexico. A highly respected open-heart surgeon concluded that I needed double bypass surgery. After the procedure, the surgeon visited me with a second surgeon whom I had not yet met. This younger physician introduced himself as Dr. Antonio Heredia. Recognizing my name, he asked, “Do you know the Mano Amiga school?” I replied, “Of course, I was its first principal.” “We spoke often about you," he said. "I was one of the first students at Mano Amiga.”

At that moment, I was filled with emotion and reminisced about those first months of the foundation of the Mano Amiga Institute in 1974; the poverty of the children, our hope and belief in the school’s potential to change their lives. Now, thirty years later, one of those same children was a cardiovascular surgeon directly involved in saving my life!

My involvement in the foundation of Mano Amiga in Monterrey was one of the most significant and unforgettable experiences of my life. Most of the 300,000 people in the community that we would serve lived without electricity or running water. Their lives were full of misery and poverty: foul smelling and contaminated water, shacks made of cardboard, unpaved streets, and barely-clothed children running through the neighborhoods. Upon learning about plans for the school, one elderly man looked at me sadly and replied, “We have been promised so many things.”

The school’s mission was to lift children out of poverty and transform them into leaders in the community. We began the first school year in an eight-classroom building. Most children arrived in tattered clothing and without shoes. Within a week, three of the six teachers and the vice principal had resigned. However, we pressed ahead and by the second month one hundred and twenty students had enrolled. Uniforms were sold for about $0.50. The care with which the students treated their new clothes was incredible!

Using an old typewriter, we wrote personalized letters to parents, informing them of a meeting with their child’s teacher and me. Not one parent ever missed an appointment. For some, that meant foregoing a half-day’s work. The parents were astounded by and grateful for the way in which we treated them. Never had anyone spoken so positively with them about their children, nor taken an interest in their children’s lives at home. The mothers, in particular, shared with us their difficulties. One mother asked me if the school would stop requiring her son to play sports. She explained that he was often weak because she did not have enough food to feed him every morning. Her husband had left her and their four children, two of whom had disabilities.

Another instance that had a profound impact on me was at a school party when a second-grade child came running to show me a sandwich and exclaimed, “Look, it has meat in it! I am going to take it home and give it to my mother!”

After that first year, I took a position as the principal of another school. Nine years later, I returned to visit Mano Amiga. The area was unrecognizable. Not only were there cement houses, electricity and running water, but also neighborhoods of various socio-economic classes, shopping centers, and businesses. The construction of the school, with all of the additions I had told the first students about, a decade earlier, had been completed.

Shortly after I first left the Mano Amiga Institute, an impoverished child named Antonio Heredia enrolled in the school. Thirty years later, Dr. Jose Antonio Heredia recounted to me the positive experiences that he had as a student. He now has his own practice in a prestigious medical center and is considered to be one of the best young cardiovascular surgeons in Monterrey.

Antonio has maintained his involvement in Mano Amiga and enthusiastically supports its programs. He said that it was gratifying to operate on me, as he felt it was an opportunity to express his gratitude for what he had received from Mano Amiga.

Fr James McKenna, LC



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