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Story Last modified at 10:37 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rotarians make good amigos
Group travels to Mexico to boost education and deliver books

For the Star


Natasha Girard reads to students after helping deliver books to their school in Colima, Mexico, during spring break as part of Project Amigo.
PHOTO courtesy Tonya Gamble


That's a word Emma Gamble used to describe the living conditions of people she met in Mexico over spring break. Gamble, a seventh-grader at Mirror Lake Middle School, traveled with her family—parents Tonya and Brad Gamble, and older brother Marcus—to Cofradia de Suchitlan in the state of Colima, Mexico, with the Eagle River Area Rotary Club March 5-13.

Club members and their families made the trip to support Project Amigo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lifting village residents out of poverty. One of Project Amigo's missions is improving literacy, which dovetails with Rotary's own objectives, according to the Gambles.

The Project, founded by husband-and-wife team Ted Rose and Susan Hill, has evolved over the past 25 years, from a small typing school into an organization that reaches out to hundreds of families at a time. It currently provides about 300 scholarships to students from elementary school through college, according to the Gambles.

"A lot of kids in Mexico don't have the opportunity to have an education," said Marcus, a freshman at Chugiak High School. "The government says it's public school but they don't provide much at all." Students must pay for bus transportation, school supplies, uniforms and registration fees, among other things, the Project Amigo Web site said.

Some of the Project's scholarship recipients are from a migrant worker camp, where families eke out a living cutting sugar cane.

"You see relief organization pictures on TV all the time," said Deb Mulcahy, one of the group members. "But when you actually see the tarpaper walls and the kids running around barefoot, it's an eye-opener."

"Education is the only way for them to break out of the cycle of poverty," Tonya Gamble said. "Otherwise they'd be working in the fields or in labor jobs that don't earn enough money."

Conspicuously absent from many rural schools are libraries. Rotarians delivered mini-libraries to children from 13 elementary schools around Colima during their stay. (They had purchased the Spanish-language books in partnership with a Rotary Club from Pihuamo, Mexico, and a grant from Rotary International, according to Tonya Gamble.)

Playing with the kids was part of the program, the Rotarians said, and it helped transcend the language barrier.

"We'd play hopscotch and we had chalk and balloons and we would play ball and soccer and stuff," Emma Gamble said. "The little kids were really fun."

Emma and Marcus were among the few Spanish speakers in the group and usually fell into the role of translator. Even so, communication was difficult, they said. Migrant children speak an indigenous language at home, and their Spanish is heavily accented. Other kids used slang terms or spoke in high-pitched voices, they said.

But youth is a great ambassador, and the teens and young adults on the trip were especially popular with the local children, Brad said. "All six of them were just invaluable," he said. "For the kids down there, it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun just interacting with us old folks."

The Americans received an education too, the Gambles said. Despite the apparent poverty, everyone they met was friendly and cheerful, they said.

"Seeing the living conditions in the migrant working camp but still seeing how happy they were" was one of the most surprising things about the trip, Marcus said. "It was almost like they didn't know how poor they were, and if they did, they were still happy."

Brad said he visited the home of one of the scholarship recipients that was a two-room, open-air hut housing eight people.

"The mother seemed as happy as she could be," he said. "She had her hands full, but she was managing to put her kids, one way or another, through school."

For more information, see Project Amigo's Web site at Scholarships run from $100 for an elementary school student to about $4,000 for a college student.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.