Have faith: TEN FE is Thomas More professor's effort to empower, help educate Guatemalan children

CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. - In Spanish, ten fe translates as have faith. One local educator took inspiration from the phrase to make a difference in the lives of poor children in Guatemala.

Julie Luebbers, assistant professor of Spanish at Thomas More College, founded The Endeavor for New Futures through Education (TEN FE) to help underprivileged children in Guatemala attend school.

It started with a visit to Guatemala in 2012. While in the Central American country with a group of students, Luebbers met two siblings ages 10 and 12, who were orphans living on the street. She said the children were covered from head to toe with dirt, but incredibly gracious and appreciative.

She bought them lunch and gave them some money, but had to leave shortly thereafter to catch a flight home. Luebbers said after that, she couldn't get the children out of her head. She said she knew their first names and had photos of them, so followed up with a colleague in Guatemala, Don Romeo. She explained Romeo, a pastor, found the children sleeping in a church hallway and took them under his wing.

"It started with these two kids," Luebbers said. "We wanted the opportunity to send them to school and help provide them food and shelter and help Don Romeo take care of them."

When free isn't free

It is difficult to know exactly how many Guatemalan children are missing out on school. An article in The Guardian cited figures from Viva, an umbrella organization for charities that help street children:

"1.5 million Guatemalan children "are consistently out of school – about a fifth of what the country's pupil population should be."

In 2011, UNESCO estimated one in 28 Guatemalan children are missing out on school.

Although school in Guatemala is free, students must purchase a uniform costing about $75 per child. Luebbers said poor families simply can't afford the apparel--not to mention the basic necessities of life--so they send their children to work in the fields instead of sending them to school.

TEN FE pays for the uniforms and helps families with food staples so children can attend classes instead of working. 

"How are they going to get out of poverty and escape this life that they know if they don't a least have a basic education," Luebbers said.

TEN FE received approval from the State of Ohio and the IRS as a non-profit in February 2012. Luebbers said  the organization started by helping seven students, including both orphans and those with families.

This year, the number grew to 19. The children range in age from six to 16, with many of the older students entering at second grade level. Many speak a Mayan dialect, so they must learn Spanish in order to benefit fully from the Guatemalan education system.

"They're teaching some of the 15-year-olds the equivalent of "see Jane run," Luebbers said. "So for somebody to go back and go through that, I think it just shows you that they really value education or they wouldn't be there."

Two dreams, one goal

Luebbers' vision for TEN FE goes far beyond the current services the organization provides. The plan involves a two-fold approach. She said Romeo's life-long dream is to build a reputable school with no requirements or expensive fees that would prohibit poor families from sending their children.

As Romeo himself and all three of his children are educators, Luebbers said the family would operate as well as teach at the facility.

"TEN FE is now the hope of our children for the future and it helps provide for a more well-rounded upbringing of students, especially the orphans," Romeo said.

Her own vision would be to build a community center where children could go after school. 

The center would offer activities for children including computer training. She said in many cases children have nowhere to go other than the streets in the evening and the center would provide a safe-haven to keep them out of trouble.

"There would be one building that would serve as a grade school during the day, for kindergarten through sixth grade and then it would be a youth center after school where kids come and have a meal, which may be their only one of the day," she said.

After scouting out locations and speaking to contractors, Luebbers estimates the cost to build the facility in Guatemala to be about $95,000. While the project is a fraction of what it would cost to build in the U.S., Luebbers explained raising the money seems daunting.

"Even though it doesn't sound like a lot of money, it's a big mountain for me, but that's our goal," Luebbers said. "It may take three years. It might take five years, but that's our goal and that's our vision. I really want to see it carried out and come to fruition."

TEN FE is currently funded through private donations and small-scale fundraisers. If funds fall short to cover monthly expenses for the children, Luebbers personally makes up the difference. She explained she and Romeo are determined to do whatever it takes to make their dream a reality.%page_break%

Bringing lessons to life

As the department chair of foreign languages at Thomas More College, Spanish professor Cari Garriga said students are extremely supportive of TEN FE and have gone out of their way to help the children. As the college incorporates service learning as part of its curriculum, Garriga said she hopes students will be able to travel to Guatemala to support TEN FE and put their Spanish education into practice.

"We are kind of surprised by the reaction the students have just from hearing about it," she said. "They'll give money and they all want to go to Guatemala to help."

According to Luebbers, most children who are orphans are tuned out on the street at age six to fend for themselves. As Luebbers' lifeline in Guatemala, Romeo continues to help to bridge the gap between wanting an education and actually getting one. His hope someday is every child who wants to go to school will be able to live their dream.

If you want to help TEN FE

Luebbers encourages those who are interested in either volunteering or donating to visit the organization's website at www.tenfe-guatemala.org.

"I would love talk with any one if they had suggestions or ideas something that we could do in the community that would raise awareness," she said. "I just think that would be phenomenal."

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