Alleviating Poverty in Guatemala, One Child at a Time

Alleviating Poverty in Guatemala, One Child at a Time

One NGO’s approach to sustainable social development through education

In the early 90s, two brothers visited Guatemala and fell in love with the country and its people, and learned of the ingrained poverty there locking away the potential of the Central American nation.

Jeff Berninger was compelled to step outside of his career and volunteer in the Guatemalan school system where he quickly realized children lacked the most basic of necessities.

Textbooks were a luxury few children had known, and their interest in learning waned quickly through repetitive instruction. Far too many unmotivated children dropped out of school, disinterested and unmotivated.

In 1996, Jeff and his brother Joe stepped outside their successful careers to take on the challenge of ingrained poverty in Guatemala by providing textbooks to schools in the rural regions most often neglected after limited education resources were allocated in Guatemala City.

Today, the organization they founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, Cooperative for Education (CoEd), has touched students in approximately 200 schools and is considered a leading development NGO in Guatemala.

The organization’s mission is “to help Guatemalan schoolchildren break the cycle of poverty through education,” and with each new textbook program or computer lab brought to a school through funds raised by CoEd, another small step towards breaking the cycle of poverty is realized.

Make no mistake, educational development in Guatemala through CoEd, is not simply charity but rather a sustainable program that begins with partnership between the organization and communities committed to taking ownership of the educational needs of their children.

“When we’re choosing which communities will receive our programs each year, we look for principals, teachers, and parent groups who know that education is important for their children’s future,” says Joe Berninger.  

“Leaders who understand this are key to the success of a textbook, computer centre, or literacy program and CoEd programs work in conjunction with these strong community leaders to build local capacity and improve the quality of education.”

Sustainability is a key component of the CoEd philosophy. Communities must be committed to funding the program after the organization helps get it into place by raising the necessary funds to pay for the materials, and to replace or update as necessary.

Essentially, this amounts to CoEd “renting” the materials to the community. New funds raised don’t go to funding existing programs; they create new ones.

Berninger says the organization “incorporates sustainability into all we do.  If a program doesn’t have the potential to make long-term impact in Guatemala, we don’t do it.”

“This is the way development should be, but you don't see this very frequently,” wrote Tim Magee, executive director with the Center for Sustainable Development in a Sept. 2010, assessment of CoEd effectiveness in Guatemala. 

“Usually donor funds are used up in programs and need to be continually replaced by new donor funds to maintain the program. This is not the case with CoEd.”

Magee, who has worked with more than 100 NGO’s in Guatemala, says CoEd’s sustainable model and efficacy place it in the top 5 per cent of developmental organizations there.

The success of the program tends to make life-long supporters out of the people who become involved. Recently, a donor from North Bay, Ont., who took the first plane trip of her life to see her donations to CoEd in action, told Axiom News she had been transformed by the experience.

She intends to personally raise $5,000 over the next five years to fund programs through CoEd, on top of personally sponsoring a student.

Her story is but one out of hundreds every year that helps alleviate poverty in the mountains of Guatemala, one child at a time.

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Kristian Partington

Kristian says he's been a storyteller all his life, and from an early age he thrived in the creative process of putting pen to paper. With Axiom News, he says he finds as much power in the conversations he has with sources for stories as he finds in the stories themselves.

"It's the questions we ask that catalyze great conversations, and more often than not I come away from the conversation somewhat improved. I like to think the person on the other end feels the same way. From that point on, the stories sort of write themselves."

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