“It smells like Panama.”
This was Tim’s first observation as we exited Tocumen airport in Panama City. It was true, it did smell like Panama and it felt so good to be back.
Until this year, Gillian, one of our volunteer staff had been working in Panama and right before the school year started, she would host an “entrega” ceremony to present the students with their scholarships. This year, Gillian is working in Guatemala, but we really felt that we needed a presence at the entrega ceremony so Brooks, Lily, Tim and I decided to make the trip to Panama to meet our students for the first time and present them with their scholarships.
Tim and I arrived in Panama on a Wednesday night and spent the evening taking in the Panama City warmth. Thursday was spent running errands, making copies, and making sure we had all of our supplies ready for the ceremony. Brooks joined us for last-minute preparations on Thursday evening and then, bright and early Friday morning, we were on a bus out of Albrook Terminal headed for the other side of Panama.
In Panama, the vast majority of cities lie west of the capital along the largest highway in Panama, the Carretera Interamericana. As long as you get on a bus that’s going as far or farther west than your destination, you can ask to stop at any point. We headed for “El Cruce de San Felix,” the crossroads where the Interamericana meets San Felix, a town that borders the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.
Some of our students go to school in San Felix because, unlike many of the towns in the Comarca, they have a high school.
The bus ride from Panama City theoretically takes about five hours, but that estimate doesn’t count for the inevitable stops along the way. Lily was coming from visiting a friend in Costa Rica and, in the absence of good phone service, our plan was to meet her in San Felix around 3 pm. Five hours into our ride, we realized we were running at least an hour late. At 4:30, we pulled into the bus stop and I instructed the taxi driver to take us to “the most central place in San Felix.” He dropped us off right outside of the supermarket—Lily was nowhere to be found. We asked a couple of the storeowners if they had spotted her (it’s pretty easy to find a gringa (white girl) with blonde hair and blue eyes in the countryside of Panama). I started wandering down the road to see if Lily had landed in a different part of San Felix. As I walked, I stopped anyone who I thought might have seen her if they had seen “una gringa rubia con ojos azules” (a white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes). No luck.
Twenty minutes later, back outside of the supermarket, a bus flew by and Brooks jumped up yelling “wait, I see blonde hair and a blue scarf, I think that’s her!” As we chased after the bus we really hoped he was right, fearing that we might miss our rendezvous chasing after the wrong blonde. Ten minutes down the road, a black car pulled up next to us and out popped Lily, looking slightly disheveled, but otherwise safe and sound. We looked around, confused, until a man got out of the front seat, looked right at me and said “found her!” He was one of the men I stopped while I was walking around town—he saw her at the bus stop and decided to bring her back to the supermarket, where I had told him we were waiting. That’s the Panamanian sense of community for you.
One more taxi ride later, we arrived in Quebrada Guabo, one of the main towns within the Comarca. Doris, one of our volunteers in the Comarca, greeted us, showed us where we would be spending the night before the Entrega, and served us food. Suddenly I was able to put a face to a name I had heard dozens of times—one of the faces that makes Few for Change work while we are all in the United States.
The scholarship ceremony was scheduled to start a 1 pm, so with our 8:30 am breakfast the next morning, we planned on having plenty of time for last minute preparations. Around 9 am, as we were still eating breakfast, two young girls walked up. “That looks a little bit like Analida, doesn’t it?” “Um… kind of, but why would she be here so early?” We’ve only ever seen our students in the few pictures we have from other Entrega ceremonies—and some of them have grown so much since the last picture we’ve seen that they were almost unrecognizable. It turned out that the girl who came in was, in fact, Analida, who had seemingly arrived four hours early for the ceremony. We asked Doris why she had arrived so early and Doris said “hmm… I was telling people 11, but I’m pretty sure Ramon (our other volunteer) might have been telling everyone 1.” With people traveling for up to five hours to get to the ceremony, it appeared that we were going to need a new game plan.
As we debated between hosting two ceremonies and trying to have all the students together, more and more students showed up. It was an amazing feeling to see the 16 students whose applications we had read, pictures we had seen and lives we had followed from afar for the past few years. Some were extremely shy at first, while others began talking to us right away. Aquilino walked straight up to Brooks and gave him a big hug. We ended up starting the “first” Entrega ceremony at 11 am, by which point all but 2 or 3 students had arrived. The last few trickled in within the first few minutes. After everyone introduced themselves, we called each student up and presented them with their scholarship. We talked a little bit about Few for Change, how it was founded, what the program is and what the requirements are and then split up into two groups: parents and students.
Brooks and Lily took the students outside to play “yeehaw”, a loud and ridiculous ice-breaker game, and then have them write journal entries and reflections on the year past and the year ahead. As with any good ice-breaker, the students were initially really shy, and maybe slightly terrified, but after a couple of good “yeehaws”, they were laughing and enjoying themselves.
Meanwhile, Tim and I met with the parents and our two volunteers, Doris y Ramon, to listen to their thoughts on the program. The meeting with the parents was extremely positive. We asked for feedback, criticisms, what was working and what wasn’t. Most of their reflections about what “wasn’t working” were things from the beginning of last year that we managed to resolve by the end of the year. We knew the problems, we knew what solutions we tried to put into place, but we weren’t 100% sure whether or not they were working. It was great to hear that all of our hard work had paid off and that the parents seemed extremely happy with the program.
After this, we re-joined the groups and had a meal with everyone, allowing us to chat with and get to know our students, parents and volunteers. When the meal was over, the students and their families dispersed, some of them starting their four or five hour journeys home.
The strength, determination and passion that it takes for these children to continue going to school every day amazes and inspires me. Some of them walk 3-4 hours a day to class. Others live with relatives, friends or rent a room near their schools but are hours from their families at a very young age. I was very excited about was the fact that all of the students came to the Entrega (two couldn’t attend personally but their parents came as representatives). The fact that all 16 families were represented really showed me that Few for Change is being taken seriously in the Comarca. What once was a slightly thrown together group of college students raising money for scholarships has turned into a true organization and agent for change. Ramon, one of our volunteers, stood up at the Entrega and said “this money and help that is being given is not just for the student to study, but for the students to study, learn, grow and bring back what they learn to their communities. This scholarship is not an individual gift, but a gift to the community as a whole to help us create change in the Comarca.”
Since we started Few for Change, one of the main characteristics we look for in student’s applications is a desire to create change in their communities. To hear one of our volunteers state so clearly that this crucial mission of our organization was truly occurring with these 16 students was amazing. Talking to the students, it’s evident that they’ve taken this to heart. Karmen, a senior in high school, has already picked out a university that she wants to attend in Honduras. She will study agricultural engineering so that she can work in the interior of the Comarca, where farming is very difficult and slash and burn agriculture is commonly practiced.
Aquilino and Rubiela are also seniors and both are planning to attend university. All three of our seniors and their families asked if our scholarship would cover university. While we might not be able to cover full university scholarships, we will work our hardest and do whatever we can to ensure that these students get to achieve their dreams of being leaders and creating change in their communities.