Fort Smith, Arkansas — Partners in Benedictine Education, St. Scholastica Monastery's scholarship program, isn't just benefiting 34 girls at Colegio San Benito in Esquipulas, Guatemala. It is also supporting teacher education.
Two administrators from the Benedictine school visited Fort Smith in December to learn more about the American education system, both public and private, and get ideas on how to improve their own programs.
Mayra Romero, kindergarten program director, and Gloria Portillo, scholarship program director, also met the Benedictine sisters who sponsor the program during their 10-day visit.
The visitors' interest was bolstered by observing Fort Smith-area teachers who staffed the Guatemalan students' enrichment program during summer mission trips and heard about the missionary-led Skype lessons at a Franciscan orphanage where most of the scholarship students reside.
Romero and Portillo visited four Fort Smith Catholic schools, the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith, two adult education centers and a pair of public elementary schools.
"For many of the sisters and sponsors who have never had the opportunity to visit Guatemala, Gloria and Mayra gave a 'face' to the scholarship program," said Benedictine Sr. Rosalie Ruesewald, program director. "At each Catholic school, they met with students and teachers who had prayed for the scholarship students, contributed money and school supplies and exchanged cards."
The administrators came away impressed.
"We were received graciously everywhere we went," Portillo said. "We are all members of the family of Christ and felt that solidarity with everyone we met."
The sisters were delighted to meet Portillo and Romero and learn a bit more about their prayer partners, the students for whom they pray daily and with whom they exchange cards and letters.
"We had dinner with Gloria and Mayra every night and enjoyed making a connection with them," Benedictine Sr. Elise Forst said. "They told me that my prayer partner, Florecita, is doing very well in school and is a very good soccer player."
At each school they visited, Portillo and Romero were overwhelmed by the space, tables, technology and teaching materials. Colegio San Benito's school day lasts five and a half hours, but the school operates on split sessions, with primary students attending in the morning and secondary students attending during the afternoon. Portillo works in administration at the Benedictine school and a public school, where the personnel, space, materials and funding are woefully inadequate.
"The public schools in Esquipulas operate on a half-day schedule, and one teacher is responsible for two adjacent classrooms, each with about 30 students," Portillo said.
At St. Boniface School in Fort Smith, Portillo met Debbie Bentley, who is a prayer partner with 12-year-old Fatima.
"I am happy to meet the person who is changing Fatima's life," Portillo said. "Fatima has big dreams now thanks to the program. She was very shy, but now she shares more."
During their visit to the university campus, Portillo and Romero met Lois Yocum, director of teacher education, and Gray Langston, adjunct professor and missioner, who showed them classrooms where teachers could prepare lesson plans and rent computers, teaching tools for children, arts and crafts, and paints.
Karen Hollenbeck, Trinity Junior High School principal, said she was glad that the school's students were interested in the scholarship program. As a teacher, she also appreciates that Partners in Benedictine Education is giving 34 girls an opportunity for a quality education.
Portillo thanked the sisters who sponsor the scholarship program.
"It is amazing to see sisters like Sister Rosalie with so much energy and enthusiasm," she said. "In Guatemala, you don't see older people with the energy the sisters in the monastery have."
Romero enjoyed her first visit to the United States, saying: "The U.S. is a land of opportunity, and the opportunities it gives to people are fantastic."
[Maryanne Meyerriecks writes for the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Little Rock diocese.]