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Mano Amiga Achieves Education Success in Latin America´s Poorest Communities

Niña del Colegio Mano Amiga

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.

“If you ask the same child, ´Why not go to university?´, it would be same for him as going to the
Mano amiga (grupo de jovenes)

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 the schools.

“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.”

“(Finishing 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 this sacrifice.”

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.

Her Mano Amiga school stands next to a graveyard for people
Niña Mano Amiga.
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 successful.

“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 Conchita Molina.

“What we teach is much more in-depth.”

Discipline 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
Alumno de colegio Mano Amiga.
in English.

“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.”



Related links

Altius Foundation
Immaculate Conception Apostolic School
Sacred Heart Apostolic School
Sacred Heart Apostolic School
Anáhuac Network of Universities
Canyon Heights Academy
Clear Water Academy
Dublin Oak Academy

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Sponsored by the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement, Copyright 2011, Legion of Christ. All rights reserved.

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