CONAFE, educating for a better future
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
According to information from the INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadísitica y Geografía), in the municipality there are 284 marginalized and vulnerable communities. These communities do not have basic services such as electricity, sewers, potable water or schools.
Most of the time, these communities are on the very outskirts of the city. The municipality of San Miguel includes more than 500 rural communities, some of which have no more than 200 inhabitants, and for that reason do not have a school. Nevertheless, through the CONAFE (National Council for Promoting Education) education is provided to the children of these communities, and from them success stories emerge every year.
The CONAFE, a department of the Secretariat of Public Education, was formed on September 11, 1971, with the goal of bringing education to marginalized communities, bringing them the educational tools needed to face daily life situations with better academic training. Scores of enthusiastic young volunteers (Community Educational Leaders, LECs) are the mainstays of the CONAFE. With few resources but with a great desire to keep studying through high school or for a professional degree they move into these marginalized communities and teach the children.
The CONAFE has nine delegations in Guanjuato. One of them, which coordinates San Miguel de Allende and Comonfort, is located in Fraccionamiento Ignacio Ramírez. José Luis Chávez, coordinator of the institution in the city, commented that for this school year they recruited more than 140 volunteers, who are already working in 80 communities.
The LECs know from the beginning that they will be placed in the most remote communities, where they will have to teach the children in multi-grade groups of preschool (4–6 years old) and primary (6–12 years old) and secondary (12–16 years old) school. The volunteers also know that food will be provided by the inhabitants of the community, and they will offer them a place to stay. Some have to teach their lessons in borrowed bedrooms or improvised classrooms that can flood during the rainy season. Some of them will resign, but others with a stronger heart and full of passion for teaching will weather the storm and in the end will get a scholarship to continue their professional education. The volunteers receive a stipend of 1,427 pesos monthly, which is used for transportation. If the LECs volunteer for one year, they receive 30,000 pesos to continue their studies, or 60,000 pesos if they work for two years. They decide how to use that money; it could be used for studying a trade, such as cosmetology, electricity, computing or cooking, or to further their academic training at a university.
Children motivate the teachers Mario Alejandro Soto, an 18-year-old volunteer, has been enrolled in the system for a month; he decided to volunteer because he has a great social spirit and had the idea of helping those most in need, he told me during a break from his training course. Soto is teaching at Puerta del Aire, a community on the road to Jalpa; he teaches 15 primary school students in a small classroom that is actually a bedroom in a house. Soto said that after the first week living there and teaching the students he wanted to resign, because he missed the comforts of his home and his family. “I was homesick and depressed in the classroom. The class was about to finish, and a student was talking to me, but I did not pay attention until the moment that I heard Hugo saying, ‘professor, if I keep studying and try my best, someday I will be like you, right?’ That touched my heart and motivated me to stay,” said Soto, who wants to be a mechanical engineer.
“I had to cook for the children of the family I am staying with,” comments Gabriela Palacios, an 18-year-old young woman from Ojo de Agua de Potrero Comonfort. She decided to volunteer for CONAFE because 7 of her 10 siblings have volunteered and now have professional degrees. She is also in the CONAFE because she wants to attend the university and her family cannot afford the tuition. As a volunteer, she said, the changes in her life have been significant. She was sent to Santa María de Guadalupe, where once she had to cook dinner for the children, because the parents of the family that she is staying with went to Querétaro to sell potting soil, and at 11pm they still had not returned. She had not cooked before, not even at her own house, but the children were hungry, so she cooked dinner for them.
Palacios also commented that many young people now are rebellious and materialistic, but this change in her life has been for the good because she has come to realize that she can be happy just with a bed in her bedroom and the information she needs to plan her lessons; she does not even need electricity, she said.
Celebrating Independence Day
La Vivienda de Arriba is a community located on the new road to Guanajuato, home to approximately 30 families and 150 inhabitants. When I visited the community, in a small yellow classroom I encountered Sandra Ivón Sánchez working with her multi-grade group, made up of nine students who are between 6 and 12 years of age. They were making tricolored ornaments to decorate the classroom and celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
The teacher told me that she loves working with the children, who have inspired her to study pedagogy. The most complicated part, she said, is that she has to move to a different house every week; she stays with the families of her students. “That is good, though, because I get to know them better,” she commented. Some of Sanchez’s students also talked to me. Juana, a sixth grader who is encouraged every day by her parents to keep studying, said, “My parents say that if I study I can get a better job.” With that goal in mind she will attend the Los López secondary school next year. She is worried for one of her classmates, who wants to study but is always thinking about her boyfriend.
Juana wants to be a veterinarian. Arely Stephania is in second grade and loves math. She already knows the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and she says that her teacher is the best. Alonso Ramírez, in the fourth grade, said that he loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian; at home he has two dogs, one cow and five goats. Volunteers from the past María Concepción Téllez was a LEC teacher in 1996, in La Morita, a tiny community near Comonfort that at the time had only 29 inhabitants. The classroom, according to Téllez, was a crude structure made of stones, without mortar, and a straw roof. There were puddles in the classroom during the rainy season. Téllez sent a touching letter to Guanajuato’s governor at that time, Vicente Fox, and a few months later the state government built a decent classroom, and the LEC received a recognition from the governor because of her hard work.
Téllez, who has a degree in administration and works for the local government, told Atención that the best experience—besides the scholarship—was that at her young age she realized that young volunteers can change the course of the city, making lasting changes in the lives of others. Téllez said she learned the value of responsibility, endurance, humility and teamwork.
Téllez said that she shared her knowledge with the children, who along with their families taught her to value what she already had at home. She also realized that “there is no dream that can be more enjoyable than the satisfaction of helping others before thinking of oneself.”
Rancho Nuevo de la Rosa is the farthest community on the fringes of San Miguel, in the vicinity of Juventino Rosas. Martha Elizabeth Ramírez Torres volunteered there for one year. It was complicated, she said, but she made it. She remembers that her food was just the basics and the only drinking water came from the river. Ramírez also remembers during the rainy season her partner’s classroom was full of leaks, so she had to teach outside. Ramírez worked with CONAFE for two years, and now she will receive a scholarship to study psychology in Querétaro.