Here’s a story from Latin America that shows how ideas, rather than money, transform communities.
My wife, Marilyn, is a professional nurse. Over the last 13 years she has traveled to Honduras twice annually. She goes there to share health information with moms from the poorest barrios in El Triunfo, and in the neighboring campesino community of Las Chacaras.
Early on, Marilyn was confronted with a stark reality: most children in these communities were not staying in school past sixth grade. The mentality has been, “We are poor. Our children do not go to secondary school.” Following primary school, boys were expected to work in the fields, and the girls to stay home. These girls often become pregnant by age 14. The fathers are either already married (and often fail to contribute to the child’s support) or young men with no commitment to the girl or her child. Many girls have three or four children by their early twenties and are considered old women by thirty.
Twelve years ago, a girl named Josie asked for help to attend secondary school. Marilyn and her teaching partner responded. This led to the development of a project that has enabled many kids from the poorest barrios to continue their schooling past sixth grade, some all the way into university.
This project is designed to partner with the parents to keep their kids in school. Through our church, Good Shepherd of the Hills in Cave Creek, Arizona, Marilyn raises funds to pay the up-front costs each year: uniforms, shoes, backpacks, and required supplies. The parents are responsible for all the (smaller) expenses during the school year: test fees, internet usage, copying, school materials, et al.
This responsibility has been a source of difficulty for many parents. It is always a topic of discussion in the bi-annual parents’ meetings which take place during Marilyn’s visits. These discussions are the context in which it becomes clear that ideas more than money lead to community development. False ideas (lies) enslave and impoverish people; truth sets people free.
In El Triunfo, the first false idea to crumble was that children from very poor families do not go to secondary school. Today, children finish secondary school and some go to college. This reality has changed cultural expectations in these families and in their communities. Now more and more parents believe that even poor children can, and should, stay in school.
But many of the parents have been plagued with the false idea that they are too poor to pay for their children’s school expenses, however small.
A couple of years ago Marilyn decided to introduce the idea of saving. Saving money is foreign to Honduran culture, even with the middle class. And poor families, in particular, believe they could not possibly save.
In a parent meeting Marilyn spun a tale. She told a fictional story about a mom who set aside a lempira or two every day in a jar. (One lempira is about five cents). She kept the jar hidden from her family to avoid pilfering. After a few months she had quite a few lempira. One day the father had a terrible accident while working in the field. The family was distraught, assuming there was no money to take him to a doctor (a common reality for poor families in Honduras). But the mom brought out the jar and used the money to pay for her husband’s treatment. The family was amazed at her resourcefulness.
The story was entertaining and well received. Lots of chatter broke out in the room. But when Marilyn asked them what they thought, a woman stood up and declared, “We don’t do that here!” But Marilyn decide to be patient. She believed the idea might eventually take hold.
The next step happened six months later at the next parents’ meeting. Local committee members used a simple chart to show the cumulative cost of a daily bottle of Coca Cola (a common purchase even among the poorest families.) The parents were shocked to see that in one year, they were spending $500—a staggering amount—on soda.
What if a family put some of that money in a jar? the presenters asked. Would there be money for school needs?
The obvious answer was “Yes!” But the lie that the poor cannot afford to save anything had not yet been replaced with the truth that everyone can save something.
On Marilyn’s next three trips to El Triunfo, the local committee members related stories of how they were putting aside small amounts of money by foregoing non-essentials like soft drinks or chips. But when the group was asked to share about how they were saving, or what other ways they were finding to meet their children’s school expenses, nobody had anything to say.
Marilyn was last in El Triunfo in November. During the parent meeting, she asked if anyone wanted to share something with the group about what they were doing to meet their children’s school expenses. She was not prepared for what happened next.
- A mother reported that she set aside a jar to put change into! When her daughter needed something for school, the money was there!
- A father stood up to say, “My son and I do odd jobs for the teachers at the school after classes to earn money for his school needs.”
- A mom said she joined a cooperative and puts money in regularly to save for future expenses.
- Another mom said “My daughter and her friends have formed a saving club. They do chores for people and save the money for their school needs.”
- A father said, “Instead of paying a lot of money using the internet we bought a small dictionary for my son’s Spanish class because he had to look up a lot of words.”
- Marilyn’s longtime friend, Orlinda, told the group, “In the spring I buy a small piglet for almost nothing. By Christmas time it is full grown and I sell it to someone rich who wants meat for the holidays. Then I have money for the whole school year.”
- Finally a father told the group, “I stopped smoking and drinking so we would have the money for our son’s education.” This was met with rousing applause!
Marilyn was elated that a seed had obviously sprouted. She realized that the practice of saving would probably be multiplied in the community; well over 100 people were present to hear these success stories.
Simple, yet powerful ideas–“poor children can go to school” or “poor families can save”—are the keys to sustainable development. El Triunfo is the proof!
– Darrow Miller