During Guatemala’s violent, decades-long civil war, an estimated 200,000 people were killed. Among them was Brenda Lemus’s father, Bernardo Lemus Mendoza, a prominent academic and intellectual who spoke out against the government.
“There were many people who were fighting for their rights, who were being repressed,” Brenda Lemus said. “My father (fought for) … their right to an education and access to work. He was persecuted, he was exiled from the country many times, and he was ultimately assassinated.”
Lemus’s father grew up in poverty in the small rural town of Purulhá, several hours outside of Guatemala City. Despite the odds, she said he managed to graduate school and eventually become the financial director at the San Carlos de Guatemala University.
During the peace process, the Guatemalan government wanted to dignify the memory of those killed by the state. To commemorate Bernardo and his love of literature, the government donated 180 books to his family to start a library in his hometown. In 2011, the Bernardo Lemus Mendoza Library opened in Purulhá.
Lemus relocated her family there and dedicated herself to getting the library off the ground. Today, it serves as a beacon of hope and a center of learning for young people living in extreme poverty.
From the start, Lemus saw how the community was struggling in many ways.
“The community’s youth had a lot of needs, especially in education,” Lemus said. “But all the books that were given to us … were about the armed conflict. None of them were for kids or young people, and there were no schoolbooks at all.”
Children would arrive at the library looking for books so they could attend school and do their homework. Many families couldn’t afford school supplies. So, Lemus got schools to agree to donate books, and she started giving them to children in the community.
She also saw that students needed notebooks for class. Some were writing on crumpled, old, torn pieces of paper.
“It made me think about when I was younger, going to school and hiding my notebooks because I didn’t want to do my homework. I had everything. And yet here were a bunch of kids who had nothing, holding on to a rotten piece of paper to be able to take notes,” Lemus said. “That filled me with compassion for these kids. I wanted to help them as much as I could.”
Realizing that young people in Purulhá were growing up under similar conditions as her father had, Lemus wanted not only to address their needs but to help them break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
In 2012, she co-founded Yo’o Guatemala, a nonprofit whose name means “together we go.”
She began providing after-school programming and noticed many students had trouble focusing.
“I had to repeat the subjects often until one of the kids said to me, ‘Please, don’t repeat it to me again. I just can’t concentrate because I’m so hungry,’” Lemus said. “We realized that many of our kids were malnourished, some chronically, and it was impossible for them to focus on anything else.”
Her organization started a nutrition program for more than 40 families suffering from chronic malnutrition and has since expanded, providing extensive literacy, health, and community building programs.
“My goal with all of this is to make sure the kids in this community get a proper education, eat well, and get ahead with the same opportunities as if they were my own kids or yours,” Lemus said. “We are dignifying the memory of my father, and we are dignifying the lives of the children of Purulha.”
CNN spoke with Lemus about her efforts. Below is an edited and translated version of their conversation.
CNN: The assistance you provide is constantly evolving, depending on the community’s needs. How are you helping girls to access education?
Brenda Lemus: In Purulhá, girls stop studying very early, get pregnant, get married, and the cycle repeats itself. It’s a cycle of poverty that seems endless; it’s like a spiral that takes them to the bottom. We want to break (that) through education.
Parents usually reject sending their daughters to school because they help mom at home. The girls don’t perform the same as boys in school because it’s different: The boy goes to school, and when he leaves, he goes to play soccer. The girl goes to school, and comes home to cook, take care of siblings, wash clothes. And so she drops out of school because she doesn’t do her homework. Of course she doesn’t do her homework because she has too much of a burden at home. The girls have the entire burden, and it isn’t easy.
We currently have 10 girls in our residency. The girls come on Mondays, leaving on Fridays. They spend weekends at home. We are in charge of everything with respect to them during that time. And we give the opportunity to the girls who are much more vulnerable when it comes to dropping out of school. I’m convinced that by giving the girls an integral educational opportunity, with quality, we can break the cycle of poverty.
CNN: What is your focus with the “Mi Nino Bonito” program?
Lemus: We began a daycare program for children. We receive them very early because most of their mothers work in the local market. We give them a warm breakfast. We give them all the stimulation that they should have according to their age, but we teach the children to be independent.
They are usually the youngest in their house and the last in the food chain, so they have to fight for a piece of bread. We teach them to wash their dishes, to clean up if they spilled. We give them pediatric check-ups with vitamins, taking care that they don’t get sick. They become very independent children who then excel.
CNN: How does your eco-brick program work and what’s its significance?
Lemus: The eco-brick program has a special magic because it is the education of the children, by the children, through garbage. Children whose parents are unable to buy them school supplies have the opportunity to recycle materials such as non-recyclable aluminum or single-use plastics, encapsulating them in PET bottles forever.
The children collect garbage, clean the environment, recycle, and they receive school supplies as the tradeoff – for 10 eco-bricks, they have their full list of school supplies. If they deliver five more bricks, they get to take a brand-new backpack. With (the eco-bricks), schools are built in other parts of Guatemala by volunteers who come from the United States.
The value and dignity of the hard work they do is instilled in all the children. They provide their community with cleanliness and sanitation through recycling; this gives them dignity. The children come here in hopes of being able to finish their studies without dropping out. But they earn it with pure, hard work. This has allowed youth to have better opportunities for more dignified paid jobs.
Want to get involved? Check out the Yo’o Guatemala website and see how to help
To donate to Yo’o Guatemala via GoFundMe, click here