Diplomacy Through Education

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    Mary Ann Brinkmeyer didn’t know what to expect when she stepped off the plane in Guatemala City. The third grade teacher from Summit County Day School just wanted to help. She’d packed her carry-on bag with pencils and supplies for kids in Guatemala, hopeful the next five days would give her an unforgettable glimpse at the work Cooperative for Education (CoEd) does with school children in that country.


    "I wanted to bring more, but I just didn’t have room," Brinkmeyer says of the school supplies. She, like many others on the August Snapshot Tour, wanted to see for herself the 15 years of work CoEd has put into Guatemala.


    Brinkmeyer was one of 21 female volunteers on the August trip, and CoEd staffers say that’s a first for the Snapshot Tours.


    "It speaks volumes to Guatemalan schoolgirls to see women supporting education in their country," says CoEd’s Jennifer Sands. "The average indigenous woman in Guatemala receives less than two years of formal education."


    082911FEATURE.jpgThe tour began with a visit to a middle school just outside of Guatemala City and ended five days later in Antigua, the colonial capital. In the time between, Brinkmeyer and the other volunteers visited schools with computer labs, textbook programs and scholarship programs set up by CoEd. Brothers Jeff and Joe Berninger founded the organization 15 years ago after first coming to Guatemala as tourists.


    "The idea from the beginning was to have an organization that would be run by Guatemalans, where they would take part," says Jeff. "And we didn’t want this to be one-of giving."


    The Berningers say all the programs implemented by CoEd are sustainable for the schools and communities where they are implemented. Staffers provide training and resources to the schools, then work to make sure the communities have a sense of ownership in the efforts at each one. Staffers say nothing given to the efforts at CoEd is wasted.


    "We saw a need here, and we just had to respond," says Joe.


    On the snapshot tour were also a number of Cincinnati women who have been deeply involved with CoEd’s efforts for years. Some had ties to Summit Country Day School, others to Thomas More College and still others had found out about CoEd’s efforts on their own.


    "We have a scholarship student that we sponsor, and the first time we were down here, we met him," says Anna Kirwan. "His name is Alfonso, and he’s really nice."


    Kirwan and her sister, Mary, got involved with CoEd’s efforts through the influence of their parents. Both sisters have volunteered in the Cincinnati office and are considering doing further work with the organization. Anna is even considering a future career with CoEd.


    "I look at the kids in the schools, and they are so happy to see you," says Mary. "CoEd is the only place, the only organization I know of, where you really get to meet the people, and they invite you into their lives."


    082911FEATURE4.jpgIt’s a phenomenon not lost on the Cincinnati staffers of CoEd. The organization has brought close to 500 people on visits to Guatemala over the years. "The outpouring of support by women remains an important element of encouraging the girls by continuing their education and breaking the cycle of poverty," says Sands.


    Each tour is different and aimed at highlighting just a few of the 191 schools now working with CoEd in Guatemala. When groups arrive at the schools, the students often put on presentations about their heritage, skills they’ve learned and more. On this tour, participants often said the school visits felt like parties put on in the name of education.


    "What a great opportunity this has been to travel somewhere," says tour participant Christine Alger from Holyoke, Mass. Alger says she hopes to one day teach English as a second language.


    Brinkmeyer agrees with that sentiment, and so do the Berninger brothers. "Everytime I go on a trip, something touches me in a very special way," says Joe.