September 07, 2015

Kelly Olson, a Witness to the Impact of the Fe y Alegría Model

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This post was written by Kelly Olson, a Former Jesuit Volunteer who lived and worked in Tacna, Peru, dedicating her time to supporting the Fe y Alegría school in this community. 

When I graduated from Georgetown University and applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I had no idea where and with what organization they might ask me to work. When they offered me a position at a Fe y Alegria school in the south of Peru, I was surprised and excited; I had actually heard of Fe y Alegria before in my undergraduate courses in international development. In my courses, Fe y Alegria was always celebrated as a unique and sustainable education program with a strong commitment to local involvement and inclusion. It was wonderful to realize I would soon be a part of a powerful popular education movement that was studied by students like me. I spent four years reading and analyzing case studies about successful development initiatives – now I would be experiencing it firsthand!

I spent two years in Tacna, Peru and was constantly blown away by the passion and dedication of my co-workers, many of whom had been teaching at my school longer than I’d been alive! They were so committed to their students and their students´ families – because that’s one thing that makes Fe y Alegria so special – the entire community is wholeheartedly committed to one another and to developing compassionate, curious, and civic-minded students.

 

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We celebrated the school’s 25th Anniversary in 2014 and I saw photos from the early years of the school: the classrooms were made of woven straw mats and the patio was dirt. Teachers told stories of having to end the school day when the sun went down because there was no electricity. Little by little, the school was able to grow. Parents labored on weekends to pour concrete floors for the classrooms and build cinderblock walls and, each year, modest tuition revenue and donations paid for bathrooms, a concrete patio, a library, computers, and classrooms for the “Education for Work” programs (such as electricity, computers, carpentry, and clothes-making). Learning more about the history of our school in Tacna, Peru – and the great pride they have in the history of the Fe y Alegria movement in the world – made walking on that ground almost sacred: so many loving, selfless, creative, and tenacious people had walked that ground – literally and metaphorically – before me, building upon the dream and hard work of Fr. Velaz.

While my official job responsibilities included teaching English to all 540 Primary Students and running an after-school tutoring and mentorship program for fifth- and sixth-graders who were considered at-risk, I quickly found out that being a teacher at Fe y Alegria is much more complex, and rewarding, than simply teaching. More than anything, my students needed accompaniment, support, open communication, and love. The example of fellow teachers taught me how to provide this in and out of the classroom (although it is obviously not an easy-to-master ability!).

Ultimately, I learned more and received more from my students and my co-workers than I was ever able to teach or give. The lessons I learned are innumerable but the two most prominent, the ones I carry with me every day, are the lessons of trying to love unconditionally and to respect the dignity of each person.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to work at Fe y Alegria and I consider myself eternally an advocate for this amazing model of popular education – I witness the success of these schools each day and I deeply love people whose lives are touched by Fe y Alegría.