Pencils of Promise: Biking Borders and Building Schools in Guatemala


SEATTLE — Guatemala holds the highest illiteracy rate in Central America with 18.71 percent of people aged 15 and above unable to read. Secondary enrollment for children is 65 percent overall, but that number drops to a 59 percent completion rate for lower secondary education (9th grade). Two million children do not attend school at all, and the dropout rates are even higher among girls — especially those from indigenous communities expected to take care of the family or get married.

Many schools in rural regions do not have adequate teaching materials and supplies. More than half of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line and sending children to school is too expensive for a lot of poor families. Books, uniforms, fees and school supplies are expenses which many people cannot afford. As a result, children drop out in order to start supporting their family.

Pencils of Promise and Their Programs

The belief that is at the core of the organization’s mission is that every child should have access to quality education. To achieve this, Pencils of Promise (PoP) builds schools, trains teachers, provides scholarships and develops health programs. Their work has created a global community united in the goal of providing education to all. To ensure its sustainability, Pencils of Promise works with local communities, governments and education ministries in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. Since it was founded in 2008, Pencils of Promise has built 489 schools, supported 1,020 teachers and impacted a total of 95,873 students.

Pencils of Promise’s work is impacting 158 communities in Guatemala. The organization has three core programs: Teacher Support, School Builds and WASH. Through the programs, Pencils of Promise improves teaching methodologies by training teachers and providing materials, better sanitation infrastructure and education on hygiene. Pencils of Promise also offers scholarships to increase the retention rates of children in secondary education. To children with families who cannot otherwise afford it, the scholarship provides all the materials and resources needed for the child to complete a full year in school.

In 2016 alone, Pencils of Promise broke ground on 175 schools, supported 46 teachers and impacted 35,107 students along with giving 486 scholarships in Guatemala.

Biking Borders Project

With the same core belief in providing education for all, Max Jabs and Nono Konopka started their own fundraising project to support Pencils of Promise’s mission and work. Their campaign is to bike 15,000 kilometers from Berlin to Beijing in 10 months to raise funds for building a school in Guatemala. Clearly, behind some borders education is not as easy to attain as in the developed “West.” Jabs and Konopka firmly believe that education shouldn’t be restricted; in quest of this belief, they go beyond country borders to reach their goal and hope to destroy the borders preventing children from going to school.

The two friends just graduated from university and set out on this journey during the gap year before their master’s programs. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Jabs shared that: “Education has played a tremendous part in our lives. We both studied outside of our home country and we traveled a lot. We do know how fortunate we are to do it and that’s why for us it was never really thinking what kind of cause do we support, it was just how because we knew we wanted to do something for children’s education.”

The time spent in developing countries on internships and exchange semesters has been eye-opening for the two individuals. Konopka worked in pediatrics with children for an NGO in Mexico and witnessed the rural parts of Guatemala firsthand when he traveled through South America. “I know from firsthand experience how people live there and how kids cannot go to school,” he said.

Jabs and Konopka hope to raise awareness of the problem of children’s education around the world. Two months in, their experience has been overall positive, even with the challenges of wild camping, encountering wolves and bears outside their tent, bike maintenance and the dreaded two-hour packing that they do every day.

The Importance of Education

Children without education are often stuck in the poverty cycle. They generally lack vocational skills which then leads to high rates of unemployment. Education is one of the most powerful ways to reduce poverty as it gives children the opportunity to break that cycle and improve food security, health and gender equality. Educated children grow up into adults who have the means to make better decisions and improve the standard of living in developing countries.

Max and Nono’s goal is to raise €70,000 — the amount needed to build a school in Guatemala and provide education to 400 students for an entire year. These funds would transform the children’s’ lives and give them the opportunity to grow and develop into adults that have the tools to escape poverty. “Imagine what you can do with $75,” said Konopka, “what you would buy. You can go out to dinner or a night out or you can spend exactly $75 to send one child to school for one entire year. And that’s pretty much what Pencils of Promise promotes. What better way to invest your money?”

– Aleksandra Sirakova
Photo: Flickr


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