A Gift For Life
Pam Cline Novak ’65 Inspires Guatemalan Girls Through Scholarship Program
When I first met Merlyn Ortiz Salguero, a teenage Guatemalan girl, she seemed destined for a life selling bananas on a street corner in her village. I knew I needed to intervene. Merlyn was one of a growing number of extremely impoverished girls with great ability and a fierce hunger to study for a better future.
She is also probably the brightest girl I had ever worked with in all my years of teaching. Thanks to the organization I established called Spirit Education Foundation, I was able to offer her a scholarship. Today, after her high school essay won first place in state and country competitions, and second place in an international one, Merlyn has a full-time job as an assistant auditor for a bank while studying at the nearby university.
Merlyn’s is but one of many girls’ stories in Guatemala – my passion and home away from home. I firmly believe that education is the only way out of poverty, and giving these girls the chance to live, to grow and to thrive through an education that once seemed unattainable, not only reflects Wittenberg’s ethos, but also the mission of Spirit Education. Each girl also agrees to provide a scholarship in the future, thus continuing the living gift.
These girls grow up knowing girls are of little value, so it is always amazing for me to see the rapid transformation in these girls after they join our program. When they become a “becada” (“scholarship girl”) with us, they have “proof ” that they are special. They often tell me that just knowing people believe in them enough to give them a scholarship gives them tremendous value as a person.
The becadas as a group have also become a real power! In November 2009, three graduates in one high school were first, second and third place. Another was valedictorian in her program. We now have three girls working very hard in systems engineering, a course in which two thirds don’t make it through. These are determined girls on a mission toward a fabulous future! In a country where 75 percent is considered wonderful, our girls have an average GPA of 86 percent.
Believing in holistic education, Spirit also includes self-esteem growth through “Chiquita’s Cocoon,” dental clinics, fertility cycle instruction (unknown in the region), etc. Each trip I make presents another facet of life to be addressed, and some of these benefits spill over into the community as well. The road to these special moments, however, came out of a traditional path following my graduation from Wittenberg. I initially started my educational career as a teacher in an elementary school, recycled myself and eventually taught in business schools in the United States and in Australia. While in Australia, a young Fijian girl asked me to help her get a U.S. scholarship. I didn’t know how to help, but I wasn’t willing to let it end there. I soon realized women around the world need an extra hand. And so, after several years of research and perseverance, Spirit Education Foundation, a 501(c)3 public charity, was born.
Spirit works by matching “godparents” with “becadas.” Godparents agree to sponsor a girl until she finishes high school with the hopeful option of continuing with her university education. Becadas agree to maintain excellent grades, study English through the Spirit program and write to their godparents regularly. The result is a relationship of support and caring that grows over the years, including a hoped for meeting between the two.
I pledge to godparents that every penny of their donation will go to the girls. Spirit is a program for poor girls, not administrators. To do this, I rely heavily on volunteers, proceeds from locally made Mayan jewelry and other goods that Spirit sells, as well as my own financial contributions and fundraising efforts. In addition to travelling to and from Guatemala several times a year to select new girls and celebrate their successes, I also work hard to promote the work of Spirit Education, to fundraise and to look for new godparents.
I’m not a fundraiser; I’m a teacher, but I do it because when I see the smiles of our girls, as they reach for a bright future, it’s all worth it.
Pam Cline Novak ’65