Had lunch today with one of my BuildaBridge Institute classmates, Nancy Perez, 27, of Guatemala City in Central America, and heard a story I’ll be thinking about for a very long time.
Four years ago she founded an all-volunteer organization called Sonrisas, which means “smile.” It works with children who live in hard neighborhoods ruled by gangs. They come from large families where the younger children are raised by older children. This happened when she was in her early 20s, just out of college with a degree in architecture and a full-time city government job as an urban planner.
“I had been a Christian all my life. I grew up in a Christian home. It frustrated me because I wasn’t out there doing service,” she said. “I didn’t know what, where or how to get involved.”
About that time friends of hers started helping a local pastor, Johnny Sagustume, who despite being confined to a wheel chair, was feeding meals to children who worked in local cemeteries. “His wife prepared healthy meals for them,” she said.
Ms. Perez started playing with the children and was amazed by how much this meant to them. “I knew it was meant to be, that God had set this up,” she said.
A year or so later she won an Italian government scholarship for students in underdeveloped nations and earned a masters degree in urban development from 700-year-old Sapienza, the oldest and largest university in Rome.
Back home Central America she began to use her artistic talent — “I like painting, music and dancing” — to teach the children in the cemetery. She and her friends had no experience in teaching. They showed up every Saturday and did their best to share values and form relationships with them. They coordinated with local artists. They helped the children write a play which they presented at Christmas.
Everyone involved had a busy life, either holding jobs or going to school full-time. Still they set objectives and worked toward them. “We all do double tasks,” she said. Now, instead of one-day workshops, they teach four-month courses that allow the students to achieve something.
Meanwhile, Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt, president and co-founder of BuildaBridge, was becoming known among people who work with children in Guatemala. He and others from BuildaBridge, including board member Ronald W. Hevey, at the invitation of local officials, had taken the BuildaBridge program inside a local prison to help transform young lives.
One thing led to another and Ms. Perez learned about BuildaBridge and decided to come here to participate in our annual institute, a week-long training program on how to use programs we have developed on how to plan, create, implement and sustain programs for children in dysfunctional communities and societies.
Before she came she already knew what she wanted to do. She wants to strengthen and articulate what she and her five-member volunteer board are doing with 110 children so they can replicate it in many high-risk neighborhoods.
“We have a vision. We want to created a workable model we can repeat over and over,” she said.
She wants to work toward ending the class system in Guatemala. “Our higher and lower classes are very segregated. Some people don’t even know about the poverty we have,” she said. “I don’t think we can make progress as a nation if we don’t come together as one people, one community.”
BuildaBridge has been very helpful, she said, helping her develop ways to not just teach artistic skills. She now sees ways to use the arts as a metaphor for life, a way to teach skills that allow children to develop hope and skills to implement their hopes.
When they get older and the gangs try to recruit them, we want to give them values and skills so “they won’t choose that life because they have experienced other things.”
Being here for the institute is much more than a training course that sends her home with a head and notebook full of ideas and skills. It is the beginning of a long-term mentoring relationship with BuildaBridge. So stay tuned for more of the Nancy Perez story . . .
— Henry J. Holcomb, BuildaBridge volunteer Artist on Call and board member
Nancy Perez participating in a BuildaBridge Institute exercise