Guatemala is a country of beautiful natural resources, but where medical, nutritional and educational resources for the population are scarce. According to the Cooperative for Education, fully two-thirds of Guatemalan children live in poverty and the illiteracy rate in rural areas is as high as 75%. Socio-economic problems and 36 years of civil war in Guatemala accelerated the migratory process from rural to urban settings, and families poured into the capital, Guatemala City, looking for work and creating squatter communities. One such location is the Linea Ferrara, or railroad tracks, an abandoned rail corridor stretching through Zone 12 of the city and as far north as the Mexican border. Within five feet of the tracks, on either side, are wall-to-wall tin shanties with dirt floors. There is no running water. Unemployed adults and young children roam the tracks, gangs patrol their turf, prostitutes linger, and each person struggles to survive within the sub-culture of extreme poverty.
In 2003 a small cinder block room along the tracks was repurposed as a school by HOPE Worldwide Guatemala, a local nonprofit organization. They began teaching with 30 children. The school gained the respect of the primarily single mom “neighborhood,” and in two years expanded to include preschool through sixth grade, an attendance of roughly 200 children, and acquired accreditation from the government as a private school. The teachers labored with limited supplies in a dimly lit, humid and dirty environment, but provided a free, caring education for children who had no other opportunity to learn.
In 2005 Nancy Winfrey, a volunteer from North Carolina, began a partnership with Edgar Cuellar, the director of HOPE Worldwide Guatemala, to support the small railroad track school. Using her flight benefits as an employee of American Airlines, she began bringing school, medical and personal supplies to the staff and students. An annual volunteer service trip was organized and provided much needed construction work- replacing the roof, repairing interior walls, wiring the school for electricity and adding additional space. Volunteers painted beautiful murals, prepared classroom activities and purchased and delivered food to the hungry.
In 2007 Nancy and her friends became a North Carolina nonprofit organization called Friends of Guatemala, and early in 2008 received tax free 501(c)3 status. The organization continues to support education in the railroad track community by raising funds for textbooks and school supplies, and maintenance of the small school building. The organization’s signature project is providing the teacher salaries through a program called Adopt a Teacher.
Friends of Guatemala has partnered with the Apex Rotary Club, Elyria, Ohio Rotary Club, Orlando Lions Club, American Airlines Caribbean Employee Resource Group, The Classical Academies of San Diego, Fuller Elementary School, Apex High School, Triangle Church, St. John’s Baptist Church, Apex Methodist Church, Apex Baptist Church, Stop Hunger Now!, and Roper St. Francis Hospital in Charleston, SC.