A Burke couple’s legacy lies thousands of miles south of the border where children enjoy otherwise inaccessible education.
Dave Megel and his wife, Anne Larin, have helped more than 1,000 Guatemalan children gain access to school with their nonprofit TEACH, founded about 10 years ago. The effort sprang from a church mission trip to the Central American country, where members of Fairfax’s St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church visited a sister parish, San Pedro’s Parish.
“We saw a group of children going to a school in the parish area [in Guatemala],” said Megel, a former Catholic priest who worked with at-risk teens in the Detroit area. “They were Mayan children and they were doing pretty well… Considerable money, coming from various sources had dried up and the school had closed…So I thought what could we do to help this [effort] without just giving them money?”
Now retired, Megel followed his ministry work with a career as a lawyer in the Washington area.
Larin, a former nun turned school teacher, who is also from the Detroit area, said the couple was enticed to start their nonprofit work after seeing the efforts in Guatemala made by the Rev. Thomas Moran, a priest from their parish who died a few years ago.
“When we went down in 2001 that first time, he took us around,” she said. “He was an inspiration.”
Megel said, “They wanted $5,000 for a year for about [two] teachers, and I thought that wasn’t bad and we came up with $15,000 and built more schools.”
TEACH gained nonprofit, 501(c)(3), status in December 2002.
Today, TEACH raises about $80,000 to $90,000 each year, supporting through partial or full funding nine schools: three primary, two middle and four boarding schools for students whose homes are too far away.
“Some of these places were very remote,” said Claudia Brown, executive director of TEACH and a member of St. Mary. “We’d take an hour truck ride. Then hop on a boat for a 15 to 20 minute ride across the river. Then meet the villagers for a 45-minute horse ride to the village [with the school]… The last trip [February 2013]–there’s a school and boarding house and we support the boarding house. We got there and there were all of the parents of the boarding children waiting to thank us… Some of them walked four to six hours just to get there and they still had to walk back.”
The schools, she said, are very simple.
“You would see a wooden desk and chair for each student, a blackboard and a teacher with books on her desk. But that’s about it,” Brown said. “The kids don’t have individual books.”
Guatemala was ravaged by a 36-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996. The war contributed to destabilization and lack of development and foreign investment, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Educational expenditures are low, about 2.8 percent of gross domestic product (U.S. spends about 5.8 percent of GDP), gaining the small nation a low rank of 149 out of the 173 countries compaired by the publication. About 76 percent of Guatemalans ages 15 and older can read and write. This percentage is much higher in urban areas than in the rural areas served by TEACH.
During her three visits to Guatemala with TEACH, Brown said she has seen a growing demand for education and an overwhelming desire by the Mayan communities to add more middle schools so that children can continue their education.
To promote these efforts, TEACH is hosting a fundraising gala Nov. 3 at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus, featuring political satirist Mark Russell, who volunteered to entertain with a standup routine after meeting Megel and Larin at a January show of his in Washington.
“There are areas down there where there are no schools or kids could not afford the basic needs like books to go to school,” said TEACH adviser Don Sodo. “They lack the resources to even get started. What TEACH does is provide[s] the resources to sustain an [education] program…
“There’s no challenge that you can put in front of Dave where he wouldn’t say, ‘We can do that… [TEACH] comes from the most selfless kind of commitment you can imagine. [Megel and Larin] both throw themselves into a cause.”