Julio César García González is the founder and director of the Asociacion Bendicion de Dios, an educational association located in a municipality of the department of Sacatepéquez, Guatemala. According to the official census of 2002, it has a population of 15,848 inhabitants. Alotenango is located south of the department of Sacatepéquez in the middle of the volcanoes of Fuego and Acatenango and Agua. San Juan Alotenango’s population consists of 27.8% of Ladino population, and 72.2% of indigenous population. Coffee is one of the most cultivated crops in this area due to its height. The area is also known for growing other crops, such as corn and jocotes. In an interview with Latina Republic, Julio shared the story of how he built this dream, a school that would become more than a school; a place where students and their families would find a second home and where students could envision a future where they could become professionals. “We want to transform families, and transform a past where a girl’s education was not valued. We teach our students the value of education with the value of love. It is a place where we build dreams, where we transform lives,” told Julio. Asociacion Bendicion de Dios offers highly ranked education from kinder through high school. They are much more than educators. They help support single parent homes, contribute to building houses, bring doctors to the town, provide food, clothing and help support their families and neighboring towns when environmental disasters strike. Below, Julio tells the story of this transformative organization, and the incredible accomplishments that this visionary leader has helped accomplish in Guatemala.
Bendición de Dios
We are an organization that has 17 years working in San Juan Alotenango, Sacatepequez, Guatemala. We are located in the community of San Juan Alotenango, 15 minutes from Antigua, Guatemala. In our home-school of 540 students we can tell you 540 stories of courage and survival. These students and their families are a profound source of inspiration to all of us.
The organization began its work with the dream of a Guatemalan. Using planks of wood for desks and without notebooks, we launched our school with the primary purpose of breaking the chains of poverty and ignorance through education.
When I started working with volunteers inspired by the same mission, I was 18. Today, I am 55. I started by working on social life projects in Guatemala. I had a big dream then, but was not sure how I would accomplish it. My name is Julio Cesar Garcia Gonzalez. I am the founder and director of Bendicion de Dios and this is our story.
When visitors come to our school today, they all ask the same question, “How is it possible for a Guatemalan man with 3 children, a family, to complete this project?
The truth is that the birth of the school required miracles, tests, help and provision. For me, personally, it started with the support of my wife who at the beginning of this journey, had two jobs. When I approached her with my vision to educate children to break poverty patterns she told me:
“Look, I will feed, clothe and educate our children but I won’t give you anything. You will have to figure out how you make it work. Let’s give your dream one-year. If in a year it has produced nothing, you will come back home and look for work.”
A Difficult First Year
The first year was filled with challenges. I sold clothes as a street vendor, and my lunches consisted of a toast with atole. Many times I walked with worn out shoes because I had no money to replace them. The pursuit of this dream entailed sacrifices on my family. I have 3 children, and at the time, they felt like I did not have enough time for them because I was helping children in the community. Years later, my son now helps children in his own community and has his own foundation. My daughter is a psychologist who works with women experiencing severe domestic problems. My youngest son is an engineer with a great heart. While I wasn’t able to always be as present in their lives as they would have liked, I’d like to think that I planted a seed of compassion in them, and they have produced fruit.
An Experience That Changed my Life
At that time, I had an experience that impacted my life. In my efforts to help with social projects in Guatemala, I would visit the neighborhoods and take pictures with my very simple camera. The families would see me coming and they would hide. Little by little I gained their trust and soon started mentoring students as part of an accelerated education program.
One day, when we were celebrating the students’ birthdays, one of my students, a boy who received a ball for his birthday, seemed down. I remember asking him: “Hey son, is something wrong? Don’t you like your ball?”
He said, “Professor, this is the first time I received a gift for my birthday.” This confession killed me. I remember asking myself, where are we? How can this be? Antigua is 15 minutes from Alotenango, and Antigua is a small Europe. This experience moved me and made me think, inspired me to change those realities.
The History of Our Organization
I can tell you that I sold clothes when I started and I continue to sell clothes today because it helps me to raise funds to support our schools.
Our organization was majorly blessed through the support of a Dutch foundation.
When I had a month and a half left to finish my first year, I had overcome many trials and countless times when I considered throwing in the towel. Miraculously, a group of people came to learn about my project and among them were 2 Dutch visitors who liked what we did.
They asked me, “When will you be celebrating an anniversary of your work?”
I told them, on July 15, and asked, “What are you planning to do?”
At that time, I was providing remedial education lessons to 32 children of different ages.
An Encounter That Changed my Life
That moment changed my life, and changed the history of the organization. It was the year 2003. I started the project in it 2002.
To celebrate the first year we made an antorcha, a celebration where I invited my students and all their siblings. I tell you that 33 children resulted in 230 guests. Somehow, we had enough for everyone. There was food, coca cola and piñatas.
Through this antorcha, people realized that we existed and asked about our work.
By August, I already had 150 children in our educational program. I think the most important thing is that I gave them was love, attention, affection and courage.
The Dutch organization ended up buying the building where we are. In September of last year following a long term evaluation of our work, they donated the land of our building to us. Today, the land and buildings belong to Bendición de Dios. The organization donated the building and land worth almost 2 million quetzales (approximately $260,000).
After 15 years of working with them, they saw the value, commitment and fruit of our work. Today, we continue to operate with high standards. We know that if we do our job well, they will recommend us to others. If we don’t, we will go broke. What we do is work through a lot of transparency, and infused with a lot of love for what we do.
Currently, we have 540 students distributed among children from 5 to 18 years old, approximately. We have graduated 28 students who had never dreamt they could have different professional paths than their parents. We know with certainty that our educational environment helped to change their stories and their lives.
This is especially true for our girls. The community’s attitude regarding a young girl’s role in society has been difficult to break. Culturally, in this community, there is not much belief in a woman’s education. This is something our organization wants to break. We encourage our young women to reach for the same opportunities as we do our young men. We are succeeding. Of our graduates, 17 are women.
Values We Live By
I believe that the most important thing for our organization is my approach to our mission: “Use the heart as the first point, compassion as the second, the dream as the third point, and love what you do.” For me, those four virtues are the links that move and build Bendición de Dios.
If one day you visit our schools, the first thing you will find is human warmth.
Details on Our Schools
In 2008, the Dutch group supported us to open our first school. We have a nursery school with 120 children, morning and afternoon. We offer double shifts.
In the afternoon, we also have double shifts for elementary school, and 3 years ago we opened a high school, our own high school for our own children.
At the departmental level, including Antigua, our school ranks eighth place in educational quality.
When hiring teachers I look at their heart. I may interview 20 people and the question I usually ask myself, do I feel anything? If I feel something when they express something to me, I recommend them to the directors of education.
My teachers are all university students and all are young. Most of my workers have 4-5 years of being with us because we give them security and treat them as people have to be treated. With love, affection and recognizing his work.
Our current Director of Education is an alumni. I met her at the age of 12, she was a recipient of a scholarship and now she works for me. Glenda has more academic degrees than I do.
Glenda’s Story – From Student at Bendicion de Dios to Director of Education and University Graduate
“Growing up in Alotenango, as a young girl was very difficult. I studied in public school, and when I reached sixth grade, I heard my classmates talking about their future educational plans, while I had to keep quiet. I knew more education would not be possible for me.
To avoid listening to these stories, I would go outside to play. The expectation in my home was that after sixth grade I would join my family to work in the field, because I have smaller brothers, so I would have to help at home.
But I remember that one day while I was at recess, my teacher called me into the office where I met professor Julio, along with Karla and Ana María. The Bendición de Dios organization gave me the opportunity to continue my studies, although it was difficult because my parents didn’t want me to. They didn’t think education was important. But professor Julio convinced them. That’s how I started my basic education.
When this stage was over, another obstacle came because my dad didn’t want me to continue studying. Once again, professor Julio talked with them and that was how I was able to continue with my teaching career, which for me was a dream that I had longed for all my life.
I graduated, and currently work in Bendición de Dios. I have a university degree in teaching pedagogy. My life has completely changed. Not only mine, but that of my whole family and those around me since they have now understand that education is important. My brothers are also studying.”
Job Opportunities after Graduation
The job opportunities have so far, been better for our young women because they continued studies at the university. Young men have a much harder time understanding that as men they have many more opportunities than what they have experienced at home, and they should not think so much about getting married or ‘”juntarse” living together so young. Two of our young men graduates are already married. Women seem to be more sensible, and look for more opportunities, and they are taking advantage of them. Something that we have talked about a lot here is that marriage is not for children or youngsters, but for mature people who know how to think, and know how to make decisions. For us the most important thing to change the way they think about their future options. We want them to embrace studying, to travel, to enjoy themselves, to grow, and then make a home.
How we Enroll Students in Our Program
We conduct families’ socio-economic studies when considering who to enroll in our school. We visit the houses, and then we have a team of 5 people who do the evaluation of the child. At the beginning, the Dutch organization asked us to admit 20 percent of students from more affluent means. They believed it would be good to mix students’ backgrounds. But since last year we lowered the differential percentage to 5 percent. We did so, because every year we have about 120 children that we are unable to enroll and are turned away due to lack of space.
We are looking for boys and girls from families who work in field work. We prioritize enrollment for children whose parents who have not gone to school, and whose salaries do not exceed 1500 quetzales (under $ 200 per month), and who are economically disadvantaged. I don’t believe in labeling any family as poor, because the rich can have a lot of money but be poor at heart. So we work with economically disadvantaged families, not necessarily poor families.
When talking to the parents about the types of graduates I hope their children will become I tell them the following:
“When your children graduate, if they want to be doctors, I want them to be the kind of professionals who give medical attention first, and then charge. If they choose to go into law, I hope they will accept clients who do not have the resources to pay. We want to prepare these types of professionals. ”
We have a program called Programa de Amor, The Love Program, where high school students split into 3 volunteer projects; some go to visit the elderly, others go to give tamales or bread once a month to homeless people in Antigua. The third group is responsible for cleaning the community. The program rotates students within the 3 projects.
For me, value creation is more important than academic skills. If you focus on academics without values, what is the use of education? Empty hearts are worth nothing.
Our Schools are Sustained Through Donations That Create Scholarships and Through Padrinos, Sponsors.
Donations and sponsorship go to the common fund to help meet everyone’s needs because we are a family. With the resources donated by the sponsors, we give a daily meal to all children, a strong meal, not all meals, because we do not want to take away the responsibility of parents to give their children something daily. Even if it’s a tortilla with beans.
Feeding Our Students
In some cases families cannot provide any food, so we have to be attentive to how the children are feeling, many accustom their stomachs to wait for our food. We tune in to identify students who are hungry.
Parents Contribute to the Operations and Maintenance of the School
In our schools we don’t hire cooks. The moms cook for us year-round. We have no maintenance or cleaning crews. Our students’ parents help us with everything.
The building was unpainted for 7 years. The administrators of our schools told us that we had no money to paint the schools. In these pictures you will see moms and dads working in our building. We have not paid a single penny. They have donated their time and efforts to beautify their children’s school.
What I want and pursue in the end is that the families we serve become empowered so much that they see all the projects as their home, as their family. That they get involved and fight knowing that this project is for a lifetime. The building and everything we do is for them and the next generations.
The Community and Living Conditions
Many families live 3 to 4 to a bed. The parents’ salary averages in 25 quetzales daily, that is less than 4 dollars a day. They live in a bamboo homes, small houses made of laminate, or they make their little houses, with plastic and cardboard. Most homes have no floor.
As for diseases, they get sick from colds, and intestinal infections. Four times a year we do jornadas medicas, meaning four medical visits to all the people because in Alotenango we have 1 government health center but the attention there is not great. In town, there is a doctor but the sad thing is that the doctor charges 100 quetzales per consultation (almost $13, which for our families this is very expensive, because they earn less than $ 4 a day). There is no medical insurance for anyone. For the lucky one, yes.
When they get sick they take a home made tea, which they prescribe themselves. Sometimes, I play a doctor with the medicines we have. I have contacts with medical organizations and this helps us to help the families.
In terms of giving birth, about 70 percent of our mothers deliver their babies in their homes with the help of a midwife.
Dads work in the fields, some work as masons, others as carpentry assistants, truck assistants, and 70 percent work in the fields.
The Mothers in Our Community
Many moms marry very young so the community has widows, about 10-14 percent are widowed moms and the rest are young moms who married very young and in many cases, husbands leave them for other women and leave behind their sons or daughters.
We are Encouraging Them to Delay Marriage
One of the great challenges we have is that they rush to marry without first setting themselves up financially. We do not want them to replicate the economic problems with which they grew up in their homes.
How Single Moms Survive
Some moms make tortillas to sell, other moms wash other people’s clothes but that type of work is very scarce. We have 377 families with whom we work.
Forty-percent are moms who are alone. We help them more. We give them bags of food monthly. It is not much but it’s around 125 quetzals that we give them (a little more than $16).
We also have a home building program. We have built 200 houses in Alotenango so far.
We call them little houses. They are actually a block room with a bathroom. But for them, it is a palace.
Approximately, 75% of our families still have latrines. Some have running water, but sometimes they have water only once a week.
A 20% of our families does not have access to water and 20 percent are without electricity.
I hope that in the near future one of our students will become a local mayor and change outdated ways of thinking and provide opportunities that don’t exist for everyone.
We want Alotenango to become one of the most thriving towns in the department.
Volcano and its Dangers
The Volcano of Fire erupted on June 3, 2018. The volcano is 8 kilometers from our town. For nearby villages it represents a much larger danger. For us too, but to a lesser extent. Last year, we suffered a fairly large catastrophe. A village completely disappeared under the burning lava. My families were mostly affected in their way of making a living. Coffee fields were lost, corn, beans were lost, too. The saddest loss for us was the loss of one of our girls, a 5-year-old girl who had gone to visit her grandparents when the volcano erupted.
That day, we all did all we could to help. Our association supported and contributed as much as possible. We collected food, beds, and ponchos. We emptied our warehouse to support our neighbors. People who knew about our work joined the efforts and together we provided 2,500 lunches, and we built 6 houses for affected families.
When we look back we ask, well, how did we do it? My team of teachers and directors, moms, dads and students, we gave everything to help our neighbors.
Dulce (left, pink leggings) was burnt during the volcano eruption last year. She was a student in the town of San Miguel Dos Lotes, but following the volcano’s eruption she came to Bendicion de Dios, liked it, and decided to stay. For me, it was wonderful to see how my children accepted her, they carried her backpack, helped her to do the homework, and to date this girl has found in us a home where she can fight and where she knows she is loved and appreciated with all our hearts.