Our Founder’s Story
I am often asked, “How did you decide to start a nonprofit?” This question is usually followed by, “Why did you choose literacy as your focus and why Guatemala?”
My direct answer is that in 2012, Ray Kollar (who is my co-founder) and I were discussing the emergence of tablet computers in the field of education. We could see how these devices might revolutionize learning to read and write in developing countries. We both have a passion for education and significant business experience in technology. The intersection of these two variables, we thought, was going to present a unique opportunity to dramatically improve the level of literacy in underserved schools.
We really believed that we could make a difference. So, we embarked on a year-long market research project visiting schools in Guatemala and meeting with students, teachers, administrators and community leaders. We met with other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO)s operating in Latin America to see if we would be better off collaborating with an existing project. We had discussions with many leaders in the educational community. We even met with the Minister of Education, Cynthia del Aguila, to discuss our ideas and learn about the challenges she was facing.
Our due diligence made clear to us that there are tremendous issues with the educational system in the developing world, particularly in Central America, and the country with the worst performance is Guatemala. Guatemala ranks near the bottom of nearly every assessment of literacy and matriculation.
My passion for this country goes way back to 2006, when my children and I started doing mission trips to the Mayan Highlands of Guatemala to dig water wells and teach villagers about basic hygiene. Year after year we returned to see proud, hardworking people not looking for hand-outs but a hand-up. They provided the land and worked side-by-side with us as we brought fresh water and sanitation to their communities. The primarily agrarian communities were rich in heritage, culture and desire to better themselves, but bereft of any opportunity. Hopelessness ruled the day. Young men were noticeably absent as they had headed north to America to find a job or some way to help their families. Many were never heard from again. I saw small children at the well site all day. When I inquired why they weren’t in school, they just shrugged and indicated that the school had no supplies, books or materials. Teachers often didn’t show up. Most kids dropped out in 4th or 5th grade because they hadn’t learned the necessary reading and writing skills to do advanced work.
Literacy is a foundational skill. When young children don’t learn to read or write, it prevents advanced education, which translates to lower-paying jobs and smothers the opportunity to succeed. I knew that if this cycle continued, each successive generation would be left to struggle in abject poverty.
Incredulously, not much was being done about it. I made a commitment right then and there. I had played and talked with these wonderful children and lived in their community. The looks they gave me, however, as I stepped into the van, which would take me back to the United States — to a world so different from theirs — was life-changing. I can’t forget those children and I go back every year to renew my commitment to them. We can change this situation and make a difference in their lives.
I’ve seen first-hand the results of children without hope, who were given the opportunity to learn and did magnificent things. When my wife Carole and I were first married, we lived close to San Diego and spent time in Baja Mexico working with an orphanage. Colina de Luz orphanage has about 100 abandoned, medically and emotionally challenged kids that have nothing in their lives, except for a caring couple named Jim and Sue Drake. They are trying to make life better for these forgotten children and were looking for outside volunteers to help. We met Bricia, a precocious eight-year-old girl, who Jim and Sue were trying to get into school. The only schools available required tuition; so my wife and I paid Bricia’s tuition and the tuition of a couple of her classmates. We would receive report cards and regular updates on their progress. When we visited, we would see all that they had learned and how much they enjoyed school. Bricia worked hard and excelled through high school and we continued to support her as she entered the University. Bricia was very sick as a child and had spent time in hospitals with various illnesses related to poverty. She became inspired by the doctors and nurses who took care of her, and she vowed someday to be help other sick people. In March of 2013, we were so excited to see her graduate from Medical School to become a doctor. Bricia is now working in Social Services and finishing her residency and helps in the medical clinic at Colina de Luz.
This is what education can do and how it can change lives, communities and the world. We need more stories like Bricia and it is our mission now with Global Learning Exchange Initiative (GLXi) to start the process with early literacy and education; to give these kids the foundation they need to succeed.
So why is GLXi focused on early literacy and how is that going to make a difference in these communities? Through our research and active discussions with the Minister of Education, we know that providing kids the basic foundation of reading and writing is the most important first step to becoming an educated person and a solid contributor to the community. For every additional year that a child stays in school, their earning potential increases 10%! In Guatemala, only 60% of students who begin primary school complete 6th grade. We lose 30% of first graders because they can’t even do their letters. The kids are taught by rote and most of the teachers are not trained. Starting early makes all the difference and there is so much potential in Guatemala because almost half of the population is under age 15!
We decided an after-school literacy program had the best chance of success because we could write the curriculum, hire and train the teachers, provide books and materials and test our results. Our unique program, called Open Books, Open Minds, was written by Linda Henke, Ph.D, a renowned educator who has transformed school districts in the US and understands how children learn. Our passion for the children of Guatemala and the success of this program is contagious and the results prove it. After our first year in pilot schools, we saw our first grade kids finish the program reading at third grade level!
We actively test using international standards and make sure that we are achieving our goals. GLXi is this wonderful mix of a nonprofit with an educational focus, all wrapped up in a tech business environment, that demands a high level of success with minimal extraneous costs.
So this is just the first chapter of the GLXi story with many more to be written. We would love for you to join us on this journey and find a way to make a difference in our world. Read more about how you can get involved and touch these children’s lives. We need you and appreciate your interest.