By David Agren, in Valle de Chalco Solidaridad, Mexico
Luis Vergara Velazquez, 16, lives in Valle de Chalco Solidaridad,
Mexico, a sprawling municipality on the southeastern outskirts of Mexico
City founded by squatters. Most Chalco residents either eke out
modest livings by running small mom-and-pop businesses, hawking everything from
stationery to sodas, or commuting several hours on uncomfortable buses
to low-paying jobs in the capital. Luis plans on enduring
the same daily grind too after finishing high school, but
only for a few years and for completely different reasons.
He dreams of studying law at a prestigious university and
becoming “independent” – goals few teenagers in his hometown achieve
or even aspire to. But thanks to an assist from
the local Mano Amiga school, the ambitious grade eleven student
just might get there.
Mano Amiga (Helping Hand) provides thousands
of children across Latin America with a quality Catholic education
that enables them to pursue advanced studies. Run by the
Altius Foundation, a charitable organization founded by the Legionaries of
Christ, and supported by Catholic World Mission – among others
– Mano Amiga sends an astounding 85 percent of its
graduates to university, including private institutions, where they receive full
scholarships. The drop-out rate is virtually zero. Perhaps more importantly,
Mano Amiga works closely with entire families to break the
vicious circles of poverty in the areas it operates in.
“If you show up in Chalco ... and you say
to a child, ´What do you hope to be when
you´re older?´, he´ll probably say a gang member or a
narco ... or maybe do the same thing as his
father,” said Rene Lankenau, President of the Altius Foundation.
you ask the same child, ´Why not go to university?´,
it would be same for him as going to the
The idea of sending children from impoverished barrios to
university might seem “far fetched,” Lankenau acknowledged, but Mano Amiga
has been making it happen since 1963, when families from
Instituto Cumbres, a private Legionaries of Christ school, lent a
helping hand – hence the name Mano Amiga – to
the residents of San Antonio Zomeyucan, a poor community about
30 minutes away. Although the first school started with just
15 preschool students, close to 30 Mano Amiga schools now
operate in seven Latin American countries. Lankenau attributed the success
to Mano Amiga´s approach, which demands that families not only
contribute financially towards their children´s education – usually $5 -
$40 per month, depending on location – but that parents
also participate in personal and economic development programs sponsored by
“What we have seen is that having a
child in the morning, teaching him, having him do well,
etc. ... doesn´t work if when he returns home there´s
a disaster,” Lankenau explained, adding that family development is an
important part of the Mano Amiga mission.
“The Mano Amiga
model is a system for radically transforming the life of
a family in poverty.”
According to Elena Barrero, promotions director
for the Altius Foundation, Mano Amiga only works with “the
parents that are willing to make a 14-year investment.”
high school) is an enormous accomplishment in the society where
we work and for that to happen a commitment from
the parents is necessary – that they also believe in
Few of the children attending the Mano Amiga
school in Chalco come from homes where at least one
of the parents graduated from high school; principal Lilia M.Q.
de Garelli put the figure at perhaps two percent.
Mano Amiga school stands next to a graveyard for people
lacking the funds for a proper burial. On the other
side of the fence from the cemetery, children on their
lunch break kick soccer balls and play on swing sets.
A short, but steady line of parents also come by
to inquire about enrollment. Most of their applications won´t be
“If we built another school here, it would fill
up,” de Garelli said.
For preschoolers, the admissions process is
fairly straightforward, but for students attempting to enter at the
junior-high school level – a time when Mano Amiga accepts
transfers – it´s more difficult.
“When a child arrives from
another school and isn´t used to having discipline, the type
of training that we have here, it´s very difficult to
enter that environment,” she explained, pointing to a random entrance
application to make her point.
Academically, the child brought public
school marks averaging 9.2 on a 10-point scale, but when
tested by Mano Amiga, he only received a six. A
psychological exam also detected problems with “aggression.” He wasn´t accepted.
Principal de Garelli said only about two children enter at
the junior-high school level each year.
The low figure reflects
shortcomings in the Mexican public education system, which provides most
children with access to schooling, but often delivers poor results.
“I´ve worked in both systems and the level of the
public system is far below here,” said first grade teacher
“What we teach is much more in-depth.”
is also usually lacking in public schools. As de Garelli
provides a tour of her school, which was founded shortly
after Pope John Paul II visited Chalco in 1990, the
students in clean uniforms politely greet her and always stand
up when she enters a classroom. Most of the Mano
Amiga students, like Luis Vergara Velazquez, speak articulately – even
“When I see the other non-Mano Amiga kids,
they´re so grosero (badly-mannered),” he commented.
“There are people here
with no education laughing at you.”
Laughing aside, Luis plans
on pursuing his dream and heeding the advice of his
parents, who told him, “There´s you´re opportunity. Don´t lose it.”
By doing so he would achieve Mano Amiga´s prime objective
of “breaking the circle of poverty,” according to Rene Lankenau,
who proudly added, “The children of Mano Amiga alumni no
longer need Mano Amiga schools.”