Tears came to Juan Carlos Santos’ eyes when his friend Andy Moir decided to help build a school in the small Guatemalan village of Puerto San José.
As a teacher, Santos endures “meager” facilities and classroom supplies in a country where public schools only educate to about a sixth-grade level, Moir said. Beyond that, parents must pay tuition to further educate their children. And most cannot afford to.
Moir, a semi-retired businessman and State College native, used to take high-end clients on fishing trips for marlin and sailfish.
Inviting websites tout luxury excursions with photos of happy fishermen, well-appointed lodges, blue water and fabulous sunsets over beautiful tropical landscapes.
That facade hides the fact that Guatemala is among the poorest countries in Latin America.
In Guatemala, Moir said, “people have not even the bare essentials to survive and very little hope of realizing their dream without outside intervention and investment.”
On his many trips, he said, he “fell in love with the people” of the impoverished country and, in finding a way to help them, he has found greater purpose in his life.
Grace of God Academy, a school for all ages with two teachers and about 60 students, opened in January, funded almost entirely by Moir and his family.
At Grace of God, a nondenominational nonprofit, students learn English as a second language and computer skills in two-hour classes that are offered six times a day, six days a week.
The children arrive early each day — in their best clothes despite difficult living conditions in houses with dirt floors and often no running water.
Moir said Santos tells them, “Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to look poor.”
They are eager to learn and, in addition to English and computer education, Grace of God has provided the village with a water purification system that helps families save roughly $40 a month on bottled water. A second school and orphanage are in the works, and clean-environment practices are taught and promoted.
To date, Moir’s family has given about $450,000 in capital expenses, but he hopes to get 3,000 or so people to donate $5 a month to cover the $15,000-a-month operating expenses.
The mayor has given land for an orphanage and another school, and the next phase, Moir said, will cost about $100,000 for improvements and additions to the existing facility, which has grown since having received temporary accreditation from the Guatemalan government. In fact, by January, enrollment is expected to double.
“It’s important to give back, to keep your mind and soul active,” Moir said.
The families themselves have given back, too. Parents of all the children have volunteered to help build, so there’s no labor cost, Moir said, and with the exception of about 1 percent for administrative fees, all of the money raised goes to the school, clean water systems and to environmental programs.
Moir, his wife, Lisa, and children Stacy and Matthew have provided the foundation — the building, computers, operating expenses, the accreditation and even a garbage truck that soon will be delivered to the village.
But “We want to make it sustainable,” Moir said. And that sustainability will come with donations and through involvement of the whole community.
“Money drove me most of my life but I think it’s important to have purpose in our lives,” Moir said. His purpose has become helping “the beautiful people of Guatemala.”
“There are a lot of ways to give, a lot of good causes” he said. “We have a cause here.”
To learn more about Grace of God Academies or to donate, go to www.graceofgodacademies.org.