We have been here in Lima for two weeks now and it has been quite the experience. The food is delicious, the drivers are crazy and the culture is rich. The Emzingo Fellows spent a whole week on cultural excursions, meeting locals and taking part in their traditions. We all know that we only scratched the surface and will need to continue exploring until the day we leave. Though after a week of acclamation and fun, it was time to get to work.
Our field partner is called Perú Champs, a small non-profit of 10 or so volunteers, dedicated to helping children who were high-achievers in school, yet lack the funding to continue attending. Perú Champs keeps alive the dreams of not only the children, but also their parents, who know that an education is the best chance they can give their child for an economically secure future.
Today was a big day for this tiny organization. With their ability to secure 75% of the funding for those who have been awarded a scholarship, and the immense number of children who can no longer afford to attend school after their primary education, Perú Champs receives an endless number of applications. Today was one day in three this year where we held testing to accept new students into the program. Only one student in eight will score high enough on the entrance exam to be accepted. I noticed parents making videos on their phones of the school as they entered the campus, hopes as high as could be por sus hijos.
We were met this morning at the testing facility by a line of parents con sus hijos, who were both anxious and nervous for the exam. I wondered if many of the children understood its pressure and significance, all between the ages of 8 and 12. If you don’t rank in the top eighth, your parents will no longer be able to afford to send you to school. As a parent, do you tell them what’s at stake? On one hand, you want to be sure they take it very serious, but on the other, you don’t want to make them a nervous wreck and cause them to bomb the exam. Next month, when the results come out, seven in eight parents will need to tell their children that they can no longer go to school.
Anyway, today was the first time when Perú Champs administered parts of the exam using computers, using computer labs at an Innova School location, who fortunately allowed us to use their facilities for free. Not only do the children need to take the exam, parents also need to complete questionnaires regarding family income and other important info. The laptops were old and I would guesstimate between 30-50% of them didn’t work, some because they wouldn’t boot up, but mostly because they couldn’t establish an internet connection.
I was blown away by how quiet and patient the children were, as we frantically ran back and forth entering wifi passwords. As soon as I could get one on, another would lose their connection. Many had to take the exam on paper, and suddenly a pencil sharpener was a prized possession. We didn’t have enough pencils and the children needed to show their work. Mothers were emptying their purses, looking for a pen their child could use. Peru Champs' Lesson learned: Always make sure your contingency plan is fully prepared.
I made it upstairs where the real chaos was. Mothers as young as 24, to little abuelitos, were struggling with their computers and with the information we needed from them. I never realized how 2nd nature it is for me to recite my address, phone number and email address. “I have no phone, can I use my friend’s?” one mother asked me. “I live on this street, but have no address. Should I only put the street?” I overheard another asking a volunteer. I sat with an abuelita for 10 or so minutes filling out all the info for her as she gave it to me. I figured it was faster than trying to teach her how to use the simi-functioning trackpad. Throw my intermediate-at-best Spanish into the mix, and today was a real doozy.
As we pulled out of the parking lot at the end of the day and waited for a light to turn green, a young man, in his late teens I would guess, rode out into the street on a unicycle and began juggling three bowling pins. Talented no doubt; that obviously took practice. I couldn’t help but wonder though how far he had made it in school.
My partner and I have the whole day booked tomorrow to brainstorm solutions for three different objectives provided to us by Perú Champs: getting the top-performing Champs into Universities in the U.S. and Europe, designing an ESL Bootcamp/Summer school for middle-school-aged Champs and lastly, developing a plan for financial sustainability for the organization as a whole. We present our ideas to the team on Tuesday for their approval. Our experience today made it clear how critical success is to Perú Champs. We as an organization have our work cut out for us. We only need to remember for whom we’re working to push ahead. I included a couple of videos so you could see for yourselves.