Local Lessons Help Guatemalan Poverty

Cincinnati residents are helping to break the cycle of poverty in Guatemala through education thanks to two brothers, Jeff and Joe Berninger, and their non-profit Cooperative for Education. From initial book deliveries out of the back of a '79 Toyota Corolla to raising approximately $2 million a year from funders all over the globe for textbooks and computers, the brothers have dramatically improved the lives of Guatemalan children from our backyard.

In 1993 Jeff took a hiatus from his systems analyst position at Procter & Gamble to his visit his uncle in Guatemala. He began teaching English at La Labor School and was surprised to learn there were no textbooks available.

“Jeff felt that a classroom without books is like a car without gasoline. The schools lacked the basic fuel to make things happen,” Joe says.  He is executive director for CoEd and the local counterpart of the operation.

Jeff contacted P&G and received a $5,000 grant for books for 350 children in four core subjects: math, science, social studies and Spanish. That delivery of paperback books from his Corolla was the first step toward improving the system, but it quickly became apparent that even those books would become obsolete after five or six years.

“Jeff needed to devise sustainability in the project. He concluded that he would give the books to the children with the agreement that they would rent them for the equivalent of $1 per year. It would be enough to help replace them and the project could be self funding,” Joe explains.

Jeff then turned his attention to expanding the project in Guatemala with the help of a bigger team and greater donations to make the greatest impact. His first step was to contact his brother Joe, who was living in Colorado and looking for something beyond being a marketing representative for IBM. He and Jeff began running the program out of their respective apartments, Joe in the States and Jeff in Guatemala.

Joe moved back to Cincinnati and CoEd was officially born in 1996. The organization now boasts a full-time staff of twelve here in Cincinnati as well as an office in Guatemala. He and Jeff had an extensive network of family and friends in the area, and knew that Cincinnati’s strong sense of community and unique missionary spirit made it the ideal place to begin raising awareness and funds.

Ed McCarter, CoEd board member and volunteer since 2005, agrees Cincinnati has the perfect recipe to make a global impact because of the residents’ giving nature and the mix of small businesses and international companies. “CoEd has been built by people spreading the word to friends and family. For some reason native Cincinnatians know everyone or know someone who does know a person,” Ed notes. “Spreading the word is easier here than in many other places. Churches are strong here and we have old established neighborhoods/communities.”

He and Glenn Chamberlain are just two of the ever growing number of people each year who not only donate funds, but deliver and interact with the children they are helping. Glenn has been with the project since 2000 and visited Guatemala 13 times. Glenn comes to CoEd through the Rotary International which is one of the project's biggest funders. He says that each trip makes him realize how fortunate he is and strengthens his commitment to the cause. “I raise more money and I look forward to getting others involved so they can experience these same feelings. When the next delivery tour comes around, I am anxious to go because I know I am going to have new experiences in a new part of the country. I will meet new people and, working together, we can make the world a better place.”

According to CoEd’s marketing coordinator Meredith Deitsch, once the delivery of computers and textbooks have been made, Guatemala’s ministry of education and CoEd’s Guatemalan staff monitor the progress of the schools and students.  “We create a self-sustainable textbook and computer program within the schools that are already functioning.  It’s taking the existing infrastructure and making the school system better thanks to the cooperative effort of parents and students who have made the commitment.”

She relates that this system has helped them distribute approximately 149,000 books in 170 schools, and contribute 88 cents of every dollar to the children. (In addition to direct contributions, CoEd also hosts Fall Fiesta, a silent auction fundraiser which last year raised $70,000 and a summer cookout that allows supporters to share their experiences and raise donations.)

Yet more than just giving access to textbooks and computers, these Cincinnati brothers and donors have helped to increase enthusiasm and retention in the schools. Their goal is to ultimately help the country achieve better economic outcomes and keep children in school despite the end of compulsory attendance at age 12.

“According to a 2005 independent study by Marroquin University, retention has increased from 70 to 100 percent,” Joe notes. “Basically, the rule of thumb is for every year that a student is in school they will make an extra 10 percent for the rest of their lives. We are hoping to improve the lives of each generation.”

Joe knows education will break the cycle of poverty and help Guatemala better compete with neighboring regions and the ever-expanding global marketplace.  This goal drives the staff, volunteers and founding brothers.

“We would love to have every child go to school with the basics. And want to expand CoEd to a level where it’s no longer just about the founders or our story. It’s about the mission,” Joe concludes. “We want to continue to impact the lives of people in Guatemala and the amazing, generous people that live here.”

Statistics at a Glance (courtesy of CoEd)

  • 93% of the rural population lives in poverty (1)
  • 64% live on $2/day (2)
  • A 36-year civil war left 200,000 dead and 1 million displaced
  • 90% of schools do not have books (3)
  • There is 70% illiteracy in rural areas (4)

(1) Pan American Health Organization, "Health in the Americas" (2002)
(2) World Bank World Development Report (2000-2001)
(3) Based on a CoEd study of school resource needs in rural and urban areas
(4) Guatemala: El Rostro Rural Del Desarrollo Humano, Edicion 1999, United Nations Office, Guatemala City


 Photography courtesy of CoEd







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