By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Members of a Winsted family are sharing their home and their hearts as they help three Guatemalan students whose mission is to improve the quality of life for their people and their country.
Tracy and Roxanne Felder and their two daughters, Leigha, 16, and Nichole, 13, have made room in their home for the three students who are part of the Guatemalan Student Support Group (GSSG), founded by Dr. John Bodoh, of North Carolina in 2003.
The GSSG program brings extremely poor Guatemalan youth to the US to receive a high school and college education, and then asks the students to pay it forward by returning to their country to use their education to bring about change in the poverty-stricken villages and towns where they grew up.
In mid-May, the Felders were asked by Holy Trinity Principal Bill Tschida if they would be willing to take one Guatemalan girl into their home for the school year. Later, the family was asked if they would have room for two more students.
“It was a family decision from the very beginning,” Roxanne said, with the whole family agreeing to make accommodations for three more people in their lives.
“Roxanne and I have always felt we have been blessed with many gifts and it is our responsibility to give back when we can help,” Tracy said.
“Personally, my job has provided me the opportunity to travel internationally to see poverty firsthand. I have actually been embarrassed trying to explain to people why we have three cars while they are struggling to save enough money so the family can upgrade from a bicycle to a moped.”
“As much as most Americans believe we don’t have extra money, in reality, compared to the rest of the world, we have so much extra,” Tracy said. “It is only fitting we help others when we have the ability.”
For the school year 2011-12, GSSG students Rossy Sical, Mirian Gutierrez, and Blanca Guarcas are living with the Felders while they attend Holy Trinity High School.
The students’ tuition and health insurance is covered by GSSG, but the Felders are responsible for all of the girls’ other expenses.
“It’s a great opportunity for any family,” Roxanne said. “You can be worried by the finances; however, people are always willing to help out where needed. There is so much sharing and caring that goes on. This is a great community. We are blessed.”
The Felders’ daughters have found adjustments haven’t been difficult to make, and the experience is definitely rewarding.
Leigha talked about many of the things that she has learned from the Guatemalan girls already, and improving her Spanish is one of them.
“You learn Spanish in school, but you don’t get a chance to practice it. But here, I have three mentors, ready to speak it and correct me, which is great,” Leigha said.
The hardest part of having three more girls in the family, according to Leigha, was sharing two bathrooms with seven people, but they have managed a routine that works for everyone.
Nichole found things were kind of awkward at first, “but we were all trying to find our boundaries,” Nichole said. “But now I love them. They are all like sisters to me. I will be sad when they leave because this house is going to be empty.”
The female population in the Felder home has doubled, but Tracy said things haven’t changed that much. He finds it funny that everyone asks him the same question, “How difficult is it to live with six women in one house?”
“There were previously three women in the house and now there are six women; it’s not much different,” Tracy said. “The key is communication, sharing, and everyone works together as a family.”
Roxanne also believes communication is the answer, especially when it comes to making sure she and Tracy are giving each girl the time she needs.
“We are direct with each other and say what is on our minds so it doesn’t fester and become an issue,” Roxanne said.
When the GSSG students arrived in the US for their first year of high school, they were unable to speak any English.
Now, the girls speak English fluently.
Sical is a senior this year, but remembers when she arrived in the US at the age of 14, the only things she could say in English were “hello” and “nice to meet you.”
Sical is spending time this year applying to five colleges in Minnesota and Michigan, where she would like to study to become a social worker.
She is prepared to return to her country after college, hoping “to help people for the rest of my life,” Sical said. “I can come and visit my host family or come here to get more help for my country, but it will always be for my country, no matter what.”
There are seven brothers and sisters in Sical’s home in Guatemala. Her family recently lost their house because her father, who teaches accounting, wasn’t paid a salary for many months.
“We used to have electricity and water, but now we don’t have any of those things,” Sical said. “We live far away and there are no buses. We have to walk an hour to get to town.”
Another of the Felders’ students, Guarcas, is a sophomore this year. Tears fill her eyes as she describes the many years she wasn’t able to get a visa because she was an orphan without the necessary paperwork.
“But Dr. Bodoh never gave up,” Guarcas said. “He told me he would find a way.”
Bodoh had three families in the US willing to adopt Guarcas, and he hired a Guatemalan lawyer to obtain a birth certificate, but that was as far as the adoption process ever got because of a “bureaucratic jungle and corruption in the legal profession,” Bodoh said.
When Guarcas was 18 years old, she no longer needed a legal guardian and she arrived in the US last year, attending school her first year in North Carolina.
Guarcas doesn’t know what kind of career she will choose, but said, “I would like to help people because many, many people have helped me. I want to give back for what people are doing for me.”
The third girl living with the Felders is Gutierrez. She remembers when she came to the US, being so afraid, “because I could only say, “My name is Mirian and no English.”
Gutierrez is a junior this year at Holy Trinity and wants to become a doctor. Every summer when she returns to Guatemala, she helps others by teaching them the English language.
She has five brothers and three sisters. Her father makes his living growing corn, and her mother washes clothes for people. When Gutierrez was younger, living at home in Guatemala, she would help her mother with the laundry, because the family needed the extra money.
Gutierrez learned about GSSG and recalls her first meeting with 60 students who came to be tested and interviewed. After that, each time the group met, the number of students got smaller, and she kept hoping she would be one of the few students chosen.
“My mom had already told me we didn’t have any money, so I wasn’t going to go to school (in Guatemala). I was only going to be in ninth grade,” Gutierrez said.
“So I was happy when everything happened. I was 15 and sent to Connecticut for my first two years of high school.”
When school ends, the girls will return to Guatemala and their families for the summer, which is part of the program to maintain their cultural and family ties.
Next fall they will return to the US to continue their education, Gutierrez and Guarcas in high school, and Sical as a college student.
The Felders will not be forgotten by these three young girls.
“People here treat you as their own daughter and they get nothing from us, only love, because we don’t have anything to offer them,” Sical said. “We don’t have any money, nothing to give back to them. When I go back home, I try to be a better person because I have been given so much and I can give that back to more people.”
Gutierrez added, “Like Rossy was saying, we don’t know how to pay them (Felders), but I know that God will bless them.”
Bodoh wants a better life for Guatemalans
Dr. John Bodoh of North Carolina, founder of GSSG in 2003, is a retired English teacher.
It was soon after he retired that he decided to go on vacation to someplace he had never been before.
He was reading an article in a magazine about a group that needed help delivering textbooks in Guatemala, and he responded to the ad planning to see an “exotic country that you never hear about,” Bodoh said.
But he ended up visiting towns and villages that have no electricity, homes with dirt floors, women who cook on open fires, and wooden beds with no mattresses.
“I saw these conditions and, as a member of the human race, I knew I had to get involved or I couldn’t live with myself,” Bodoh said. “There are no slaves in Guatemala, but the Mayans might as well be. They work for $1 or $2 a day.”
Bodoh said that some of the students who are part of the GSSG organization come from families earning less than $800 a year, and that is with three adult members working. Fifty percent of the population is unemployed, according to Bodoh.
After his initial trip to Guatemala, Bodoh returned for several months to teach third level English, and said he learned two things:
• teaching in Guatemala was like a drop of water in the ocean; and
• the quality of education is so poor in Guatemala, half of the population doesn’t even send their children to school.
When Bodoh returned to the US, he was convinced that the only solution to the poverty in Guatemala was educating students in the US, and then having them return to their country with the skills to improve education, start new businesses, and generate a new social structure, overall transforming the quality of life in Guatemala.
Each year, students are chosen using seven qualifications poverty, personality, character, intelligence, leadership potential, integrity, and honesty as guidelines to participate in a program that sends them to school in the US for four years of high school and four years of college.
After graduation from college, they return to Guatemala permanently equipped with the skills needed to help improve their schools, villages, and home life.
GSSG started with two students in 2003, and today it has 27 students living with host families in the US.
Two Guatemalan girls need a host family
Two GSSG girls, Loyda Bernardez and Yesenia Diaz, are temporarily living with a family in Maple Lake, but are in need of finding a host family for the rest of the school year.
Both girls are juniors at Holy Trinity and are hoping a family with children around their ages would be interested in having an additional family member.
“I would like to have a brother or sister in the host family to go places with and do things with,” Bernardez said.
Bernardez’ home in Guatemala is with her grandparents. She has lived with them for as long as she can remember.
Her grandfather raises corn to support the family.
Drafting is Bernardez’ favorite class at Holy Trinity. She is hoping to become a civil engineer and be able to return home to improve conditions in Guatemala someday.
Diaz lives in a village in Guatemala with her four brothers and five sisters.
She enjoys school at Holy Trinity and especially likes her teachers, who she said are always willing to help her.
Diaz is hoping to become a pediatrician so she can return to Guatemala and help the children.
To contact GSSG to learn more about providing a home for Bernardez or Diaz, call (919) 968-9052, e-mail email@example.com, or write to Guatemalan Student Support Group, 116 Berry Patch Lane, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
To learn more about GSSG, or to make a donation through its website, click here.