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Guatemalan community in need gets new school with help from contributors in Diocese of Wilmington

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Sharon Spence, a spanish teacher at Ss. Peter and Paul, shows a photograph of the new school in Guatemala. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

While the community in the Easton, Md., area was celebrating the building and dedication of the new Ss. Peter and Paul High School this past fall, at least one teacher at the parish’s elementary school also had her eye on a building nearly 3,000 miles away.

Sharon Spence, a Spanish teacher at Ss. Peter and Paul, is a member of the diocesan delegation to the Diocese of San Marcos, Guatemala, which has had a partnership with the Diocese of Wilmington since 2003. She first went to San Marcos in 2016, the first time anyone from Ss. Peter and Paul had participated.

She and three other educators who were in that delegation visited four different schools in the area. It is mountainous, “the complete opposite of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” she said recently from Easton. One of the schools was very overcrowded, and another was essentially located in the yard of a family home.

“The walls were no more than some tin and some wood. It was block and wood and whatnot,” she said. “And that was a school on someone’s personal property. The government had not provided a school for the community.”

New school in Guatemala has three classrooms.

Motivated by what they saw, they ventured to open a new school in the community, and this past summer, the dream came true. The school was blessed and dedicated, and its first students were scheduled to arrive last month.

The previous school had one teacher and perhaps 30 students in kindergarten through sixth grade in two rooms. Families paid the teacher.

Spence, who called the situation “heartbreaking,” said it was equipped with some beat-up desks that were donated by another school. There were no textbooks and few resources. The group of teachers from the Diocese of Wilmington decided then that this was the school they were going to help. Spence said they felt that was where God wanted them.

“That’s where he led us,” she said. “Of the four schools we saw, this was the most in need.

“It’s been a long five years to have it come to its fruition, but there is now a school.”

Spence said there were several obstacles along the way. Trying to work from the United States was one, and not just because of the language barrier. But they got past those and purchased the land after a fundraiser at Ss. Peter and Paul. The parish committee knew it had to develop an awareness of the need in San Marcos.

The parish also focused on more than education. They wanted to help out the parish of Los Santos Reyes, and on general health and wellness in the area. Ss. Peter and Paul’s first fundraiser brought in $30,000, which was used to buy a pickup truck for the priest at Los Santos Reyes, which serves many communities.

“Then we focused on the school. We were able to fundraise about $30,000 for the school,” she said.

The priest, Padre Rigo, did much of the work on scene, particularly with finances. Spence said community members who work in construction were selected for the project.

Spence has visited San Marcos eight times since 2016, attending meetings about the school and other aspects of the partnership between the two parishes. The students were in three temporary buildings until the school opened last fall. Each family with a child there had to make a small financial contribution toward the new building, and many of the women and children would cook for the construction workers or bring water to the site.

The finished product has three classrooms, “which is wonderful because at least the kids will be able to spread out. It has an actual foundation, the floor, the walls. It’s an actual building, which is more than what most of their houses are. This is a very poor community,” she said.
The parish has not sent a delegation to San Marcos since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Spence traveled there twice in 2021.

She saw the school in July, although there were no students there at the time. It was the first time she was there and didn’t teach any classes or see any children. She did leave a few crucifixes from Ss. Peter and Paul at the new school. She traveled in November with Dalila Rivera, the former president of the parish Hispanic community. Rivera is a native of Guatemala and encouraged the Easton parish community to donate money that was used for festivities after the school dedication.

The dedication was streamed live on Facebook, so others from Ss. Peter and Paul were able to see it.

Others who deserve recognition, Spence said, include Father John Hynes and Mary Jo Frohlich, who lead the Global Solidarity Partnership committee for the Diocese of Wilmington; Fathers James Nash, the pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul who approved the purchase of the land and the school’s construction; Father Glenn Evers, who has been to Guatemala several times; Karen McLaughlin, the chairperson of the Ss. Peter and Paul parish and school solidarity partnership committee and a teacher at the Easton school; and Charles Fitzgerald and Michael Brady, who are both parishioners. Fitzgerald manages the solidarity committee’s finances, and Brady spearheaded a water-filter program in San Marcos.

Behind the building, there are four small bathrooms, which she said is a big deal in that part of Guatemala. There is also a concrete structure that will be a kitchen funded by an agency called World Vision. Through that, the students will receive a meal each day paid for by the Guatemalan government.

“It meets a critical need that the children have,” Spence said.

As far as the partnership between Ss. Peter and Paul and Los Santos Reyes, Spence said the Easton parish is in it “for the long haul.” She hopes a delegation may be able to visit again this July.

Aside from the education and the parish needs, the other area of focus has been health and wellness. Along those lines, a project for Ss. Peter and Paul has been to get water filters to the area. Brady works with an organization called Water with Blessing on that.

The parish normally purchases 30 filters at a time and takes them to Guatemala. They hold workshops in San Marcos to teach the importance of using the filters for financial and health benefits. Local dentists, Spence said, have donated toothbrushes and toothpaste, and a dental team from the Eastern Shore has visited as well.

“It’s not just about education. It’s about the relationships with the people who are there,” Spence said.