When Katia Gomez was a college student in San Diego three years ago, she happened to sign up for a Global Brigades volunteer trip to Honduras—a place she had never even considered visiting—to spend a week digging water trenches in an isolated community. The experience left her aching to do more for the vast majority of uneducated girls and young women she witnessed in the third poorest country in Latin America. “It was one of those chance instances,” she says of this initial volunteer effort. “I had no control over where I was going, but it turned out to be perfect.”
Gomez returned for a similar one-week excursion to Honduras the following year, in 2010, to a central Honduran community called Pajarillos. This time, she had a plan. “I already knew I wouldn’t just do the project I was there for,” she says. She brought with her a yellow notebook, and during her breaks, Gomez interviewed every student, teacher, parent and young woman she could find to get a sense of what education was like in this remote region. What she found was discouraging: Just after sixth-grade, girls were dropping out of school to have babies; not a single person had ever graduated middle school or gone to high school; and the closest high school was a three-hour walk away.
“When I asked children, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I would not get an answer,” she says. “I realized it was a privilege to even have an answer to that question. These people are really trapped as to where the future can take them. Girls especially have barriers set in stone.”
Gomez spent the following summer creating Educate2Envision International (E2E), a nonprofit that would focus on creating first-generation high school students and particularly help girls stay in school and avoid adolescent pregnancy. She then returned again to Honduras, all alone, to establish a secondary school in Pajarillos. “I’m sure the community thought it was odd, one returnee, coming by herself to tackle this problem that has been in place for decades,” she laughs. They may have thought it odd, but Gomez said the people in the town quickly made her feel at home because they were eager for someone to help them build a school. “The community welcomed [me] from the get-go.”
With a small team of volunteers and partnerships, Gomez established a high school in Pajarillos, a town with a population of 400 and no electricity. The high school has a flexible schedule, keeping in mind that many of these children have to work in the fields or at home. In addition to the high school, E2E offers a series of programs for all ages, such as Girls’ Leadership Club for primary students and a Library program where local mothers can work. The intent is to educate the entire community while cheering on the first generation of students to go past sixth grade.
Once you bring in a high school, that is a symbol for success. The whole environment around education starts to shift.
Two years later, there are more than 100 students enrolled in the E2E high school, and Gomez says her rough surveys show that the girls she is helping educate are adapting quickly to a new mindset. When she first arrived in Pajarillos, the girls said they wanted to have their first baby at age 16 or 17; in a recent survey the girls all said they wanted to wait until their mid-20s. “This is a new generation of girls coming up,” says Gomez, who adds that low-self esteem in young women here is a huge issue. “It’s amazing to see them light up a room.”
Gomez has expanded her efforts to two more communities in Honduras, and after graduating this December from Boston University with a master’s degree in public health, she plans to return. As the 2012 Do Something Award winner, she will develop six more high schools in new Honduran communities with her $100,000 grant. “Once you bring in a high school, that is a symbol for success,” she says. “The whole environment around education starts to shift. Maternity rates drop—this is the second year for us where not one sixth-grade girl is pregnant. There is a shift in students’ and parents’ priorities. The high school is the catalyst.”
Most telling for the young residents of Pajarillos is that they now have an answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up? “A lot of them want to be social workers and nurses,” Gomez says. “Many want to be teachers and engineers.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.