El Puente de Esperanza celebrates 18 years of service and looks to the futureBy Mary Stone
“Are these kids for real?”
That was Juneauite Mary Miller’s comment after spending 3 months volunteering at the Querétaro, Mexico group residence currently assisting 13 teenagers and young adults to obtain an otherwise unavailable secondary education in central Mexico. In the remote villages surrounding Querétaro—populated largely by those of indigenous Otomí descent—making it through a junior high education is a great success, but making it through high school and the dream of college is merely that—a dream. Most of the families cannot afford the expenses of higher education for their children (books, uniforms, fees); in addition, many impoverished families struggle with the effects of alcoholism, unstable homes, and a lack of education. The odds are definitely against these kids.
But Jean Jasmine—long-time El Puente volunteer, CCS Juneau employee, and now El Puente de Esperanza volunteer coordinator—sees only great opportunity and success. She quietly grins and says, “You gotta’ see these kids. Yes, they are for real!”
Many in the Diocese of Juneau will remember El Puente as an active ministry that involved Diocese of Juneau volunteers, including many teens, who traveled to Querétaro, Mexico on summer mission trips between the years of 1995 and 2003. Sister Judy Gomila was instrumental in leading a number of groups. Fr. Jean-Paulin Lockulu, former youth minister Jesse Heine, and then-Diocese of Juneau Bishop Michael Warfel made trips to Querétaro as well.
I recently sat down with Jean Jasmine, who currently divides her time between Juneau and Querétaro, and got caught up on the progress of El Puente de Esperanza—The Bridge of Hope—in recent years.
El Puente de Esperanza, I.A.P. (Instituto de Asistancia Privada—Private Assistance Institute) was founded in 1995 by Hoonah resident and Sacred Heart parishioner Conchita Walker. Conchita and Jean met while both were volunteering in an orphanage in the village of Colón in the state of Querétaro. The orphanage served youth only through junior high school age; after that, they were expected to find other means of support for their education or to return to their home villages. Unfortunately, this often meant returning to a life of poverty. Conchita recognized the need for an organization that would support these young people through a high school and college education, so in 1995 she created the El Puente de Esperanza, I.A.P., charitable organization to help fill that need.
The local bishop leased a large, abandoned facility to El Puente in the city of Querétaro, and the program had room to spare. Walker, after seeing the additional need of village women who traveled in to the city each week to sell their handmade items—their children in tow, sleeping on the streets—decided to open the doors of El Puente as a place of refuge for these women as well. At that time, El Puente had an abundance of volunteers and facility space, and the organization was able to provide quilting lessons for indigenous women as well as childcare, remedial education and recreational activities for their children. Following Walker’s retirement from El Puente, this ministry continued under the guidance of Sr. Mary Jane Ranek and became supported by her religious order: The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.
Today, El Puente occupies a much-smaller facility in the heart of the lovely Spanish colonial city of Querétaro—‘the second-most safe city in Mexico,’ says Jean. With room for 20 residents, but less than adequate funding, El Puente currently serves the needs of 13 young people and supports them while they complete their high school and college educations. Students are identified by their local teachers, church and village leaders as having the skills necessary to handle the challenges of academic rigor and relocation; for most, this will be their first experience of both living away from home and of the big city. It’s not uncommon for the attractions of home, family and manual labor jobs to win-out over academic pursuits. In addition, the students must be willing to accept the challenge of communal living with other teens and young adults while observing the strict rules of El Puente: no drugs, no alcohol, and no romantic relationships. They also must maintain an above-average academic GPA, and assume the shared responsibility of cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, fundraising projects, and summer Outreach programs in rural communities. Full-time staff member and Director Leonor Noriega Ultrera spends most days at the El Puente residence, as does administrative assistant Olivia Vizcaya, but the evenings and weekends are often supervised by volunteers or by the students themselves.
Although financial support for El Puente de Esperanza is a constant challenge, the program remains successful and has been awarded the ‘Queretano Triple C Award for Trust, Responsibility, and Engagement,’ given by the government of Querétaro. They’ve seen 54 students through to their high school graduation, and 13 of those have gone on to receive Bachelor’s degrees. (Annual costs are listed on their website as totaling 96,000 U.S. dollars; annual support for one student runs close to 6,000 U.S.)
A typical day at El Puente begins at 4:30 a.m., when students rise to begin their morning meal preparations. Breakfast is at 5:00 a.m. The students walk to school and university (funding for bus passes is an unaffordable luxury right now) and begin classes at 7:00 a.m. They return home to El Puente at 1:30, prepare and eat lunch, and begin the afternoon residential programs led by volunteers and staff. After an hour of household chores and maintenance (which foster a sense of order that many did not learn at home), the afternoon program of lessons and recreation continue, including academic tutoring, individual counseling with a psychologist, classes in spirituality, self-esteem, respect for personal boundaries, life skills, the avoidance of and breaking of addictions (both emotional and physical), music and art. These chores and classes help give the students the moral compass and the self-confidence they need to succeed in the middle-class world they have entered, and are primary reasons for the success of the El Puente program. At 6:00 p.m. the students have homework time, followed by meal preparation, evening meal, chores, and lights-out at 9:00 p.m.
Although rooms in their facility are limited, Jasmine hopes to encourage adult volunteers to visit and volunteer at El Puente and to get to know these amazing and hard-working young people. El Puente currently has space for one live-in volunteer, and, during the months that Jean is in Alaska that number would increase to two. One of the past challenges with volunteers has been that they come to Mexico wanting to improve their Spanish. But, says Jasmine, it’s important that their students have as much practice and exposure to English as possible. That’s a priority, and can make a huge difference in a student’s future employment success in Mexico.
If you’re interested in learning more or helping out, visit their new website at http://www.elpuentedeesperanza.org, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch your local parish bulletins for potential future events to help support El Puente de Esperanza.
And for their graduation gift? Recently Jean took a group of El Puente graduates to the coastal city of Puerta Vallarta for their very first glimpse of the sea. Congratulations, graduates! May this be the first of many firsts as you cross the bridge to a bright and hopeful future.