Updated: Jul 11, 2020
El Centro Explorativo is a community education center, located in la Pista (or Ac’txumbal, meaning “hope for peace” in the native Ixil language), a rural town in the mountains of Guatemala. The majority of the community is indigenous and identifies as Ixil Mayan. El Centro provides children and families with free access to a library, technology center, tutoring, healthy meals, and an additional half-day of schooling after the public schools let out for the day. The center is locally run by passionate members of the local Nebaj community and provides educational resources to approximately 250 children each week. Located in Guatemala’s Quiche region, also known as the Ixil Triangle, the indigenous community that El Centro serves experienced extraordinarily cruel violence during the country’s civil war, violence that is now internationally recognized as genocide. From 1960-1996, the region’s mountain valleys served as an operations base for many guerilla groups. In response, Peace Corps volunteer Greg Van Kirk founded El Centro Explorativo with a mission to make education accessible so that the community could lead its own empowerment.
According to the US AID, the average Guatemalan child receives about 4 years' worth of education throughout their life, with only 3 out of 10 students graduating from the 6th grade. Literacy rates in the country hover between 75-85%, but in rural communities, those numbers drop an additional 20%. Although education is technically free in the country, public schools are understaffed, and children are typically only provided with a half-day of schooling. Moreover, books and school supplies are prohibitively expensive for many children, 56% of whom live under the poverty line. As a result, so many children are stripped of the education that is their right, and the cycle of poverty remains unbroken across generations. (source)
El Centro Explorativo is working hard to address this injustice. The following is an interview with El Centro’s incredible lead educator, Virgilio:
Why did you start working with el Centro Explorativo?
I believe that what motivates us is to be able to help. This is what I’ve learned from having had a difficult childhood. When I was 10 years old, my dad left, and I was alone with my mom. We had to make a lot of compromises; I needed to work and fight so that I could study a little bit. I had never had a book in my house, so it was difficult to work during the day and to study at night with no one there to help me. So I understand how difficult it can be and I feel that the same is happening for many kids. So it’s for the same reason that I work at el Centro Explorativo, to work with kids and to help them. I really enjoy what I do.
What have you learned while working at el Centro?
What I have learned is to have passion -- have passion and love what you do each day. If someone is paid a lot of money and has a good job, but doesn’t like what they do, then there is no purpose; you aren’t happy with what you have made and it isn’t worth it. For me, I like to share with students and to help them with their problems, personal, social, or with school too. There are families that are separated and I want to be able to support children, and sometimes I can only help a little bit, so that they can perhaps overcome these challenges. And any amount of help means a lot. I’ve learned that supporting children from a young age is very important.
I think you’re right, that loving what you do is very important. I see this at el Centro. It seems to me that all of the teachers at el Centro, you included, love to teach and love what they do. I remember opening the gates to the school, and this being clear because all of the students wanted to be at school right away.
Yes, it’s incredible because when we open the doors and the students are already there saying, "it’s already afternoon! What’s happening?! give me the keys!" And I say, "Sorry kids, I’m sorry. Tomorrow I’ll get here earlier." And they say, "It’s already late, we want to work, we want to study." And I think, "wow, they love this. How great that they love these programs." It’s really great and really beautiful for them and for us too.
What are some techniques that el Centro uses to empower youth?
The techniques that we use are varied. One technique is “exploratoria.” We call it this because the student needs to investigate a question, their homework, or something else. It’s important that the student investigates something for themselves, and that they don’t repeat something that we have said or that one of their classmates has said. This leads us to the other technique, which we call “constructivista.” The student needs to come up with their own ideas while investigating, which means forming new thoughts through exploration.
The other method that we want to teach students is self-control. We want to teach them to have patience and to do things in a timely manner, to be organized too, and that these behaviors have rewards. At El Centro, we reward students with bananas, sweets, or prizes. It’s not easy to implement all of these techniques, but ultimately students have been successful in learning to investigate, which creates for each student a curiosity to learn and a desire in themselves to find the answers to their questions.
Can you tell a story of a student who was particularly impacted by the programming at el Centro?
We support all of the students; there is no difference between them. For us, they are all welcome. For us, there is no difference in race or religion. One example that comes to my mind is one of our students named Amelia Katarina, her parents told her that they didn’t have money to buy materials and to pay for her tuition. She was 14 or 15 at the time, and at this age needed to be in a more advanced level of study. At El Centro, we only have the resources to support basic education. We at el Centro exist outside of the government school system; our mission is to reinforce what students learn in formal school. So Amelia’s parents told her that she couldn’t study because they didn’t have the money. This made her very sad. She arrived at el Centro and hugged me, and I said “Why are you crying” and she said, “Profe, excuse me, I trust you a lot and in my house this happened and I can’t continue studying.” And of course, we don’t have the funds to support students in their education outside of our programs. But I spoke with Miguel and Ricardo, who collaborate with el Centro Explorativo and we decided to take a little of the money that we use to buy materials and another part from food, and in this way, we could pay all of Amelia’s tuition and also buy her a backpack and some materials for school. She was very happy to be able to continue her studies. She is a person who was very impacted by our programs and we were able to succeed in supporting her.
How do you see the future of your community?
The future of my community is a little bit difficult. What we want is to work today so that we have a future with the community. The association doesn’t have a future if we don’t have sustainable projects. This means that we need to find a project, for example, a bakery or a cafe, that we can then implement with our students. When there is a sustainable project, there is a better future, for us and for the community. We could bring these opportunities to students so that they can learn and prepare themselves to be successful in the future. This is how we help both students individually, and the communities to which they belong. There is a lot of work to do from now until then. It’s like a plant, a maize plant. A plant needs care starting when it’s little, a lot of care, to feed it so that it grows. When it grows, then, the grass, the suitcase, or other small things that could kill it, cannot kill the maize plant because it is already big and will not be affected very much.
How is the current situation for you right now?
The situation right now is difficult because of Coronavirus, because we can’t teach at el Centro Explorativo. I’m at the Centro only a couple of days, and no more, to maintain the Centro and to see if I can call some students, but very few families have phones. When I can manage to communicate, I let them know that they can come to exchange their books quickly. Other times I go to their homes to speak a little bit with them. We are having a hard time because our friends in the US who donate have not been giving funds, and this is very difficult. Without this support, it is very difficult to buy things like materials and other things that we need. But we are here working and I hope and know that we will be able to make it through this difficult and critical moment.
Yeah, I think that together we can do something, I hope.
Yeah, it’s true, it’s definitely true. And thanks to you also for your project from before, of art. The students are very fascinated to continue with this project but we now don’t have paint and other things that we need so it’s a little difficult, but as always, thank you for the support.
Of course, always. Some background for those reading: over the summer of 2018, I had the privilege of working with Virgilio to help found an art program at el Centro Explorativo. We were thinking a lot about how to make the program sustainable. I remember one project, it was unfortunately right after Volcan de Fuego erupted and many people, mostly indigenous people, lost their homes and families. But we spoke with the students and led them in a watercolor class, asking them to paint their visions of the future for those who had been affected. They painted hillsides full of new wildflowers regrown, blue skies, helicopters with water. We chose a couple of the paintings, with students’ permission, to turn into stickers and then sell. The proceeds were then split; half to volcano relief and the other half reinvested into the students’ education at El Centro. We hope to continue with more projects like these, where we can keep finding more sustainable funding sources.
Why is childhood education so important in La Pista?
Educating children is important because we know that kids can learn and build habits easily and that they can succeed in making change. However, working with adults is very difficult because they won’t learn things very quickly and there are also habits that are more difficult to learn when you are older. So it’s important to work with small children because they can learn new habits easily. For example, I see that this is the case with reading. It’s incredible, sometimes there are students who arrive and wait their turn and then are outside reading. They’re lying outside in the grass, reading, and they aren’t playing. I say, wow, how amazing. Because I didn’t have this habit that they have, and that you have, in the US. But for us, it is difficult. We don’t have books at home. When I was 15, a teacher gave me a book and I read it 20 or 30 times until I was bored. And I say, to the students in their homes, how great. How great that they have this habit. Childhood education is very important because it determines our habits for the future.
We have done several exchanges with the students, and they say to me, there are still no new books. And I say, sorry, we don’t have any, but we will look for some new books. But what can I do?
What can other people do who are also interested in having an impact in this area? How can they get involved?
I think that they need to like what we are doing. If they have confidence in us, then they can get involved and see our needs and where they can help us. Our doors are always open to visitors, to the people who want to support us and to be with us. They can arrive and visit us, support us, and they are very welcome. There are people who have visited for one day, one hour, half a day. This has been great because they always support us with new ideas. And it is good to have more ideas and to share experiences with us to improve our work.
Thank you so much. It was a really important and incredible experience for me to be able to teach at el Centro.
Do you have any other advice for other people who, like you, might want to help their community, or advice for kids who might be fighting for a better future through education?
Firstly, it is a great joy to have people who want to get involved and support the community. Knowing that this earth needs support and love, not discrimination or hate. This is what we need, people who want to support and help. To be able to support the community and get involved wherever you can is very important because it’s an art, it’s a small contribution to society that can have a big impact. For students, it’s important to participate in different programs. Only in this way can students grow with a lot of intelligence and good habits, those that they have learned in these different programs.