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Legacy: Retired Canadians Open Preschools in Guatemala

 

Susan and Richard Schmaltz with children of Camino Seguro in Guatemala

Susan and Richard Schmaltz with children of Camino Seguro in Guatemala

Susan and Richard Schmaltz arrived in Guatemala in 1999. Richard had served as a school principal for more than 25 years in Ottawa, Canada. A specialist in early childhood education, Susan worked as a teacher, founded two preschool programs and taught at the college level. With their children in university, the couple took early retirement.

Past age 50, Susan and Richard Schmaltz began the work they were born to do.

AHB reached Susan Schmaltz in Ottawa.

Ruth Dempsey: When did you start your early childhood program?

Susan Schmaltz: In January 2001, we opened our first classroom to 15 children. They didn't speak a word of English and I didn't speak a word of Spanish. It was the experience of a lifetime. Language was never an issue.

RD: Where did the name Planting Seeds come from?

SS: I have always thought of a school as a garden. It is a space of growth and beauty, where caring individuals nurture the young, helping them to become all they may become: physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

RD: How do the children learn?

SS: The children learn through play, engaging and interacting with the world around them. Each child progresses at their own pace. Teachers create hands-on learning activities that students use to develop strong critical and problem-solving skills and to learn how to get along with others. The teacher works as a guide and facilitator.

Primarily, we serve children of Mayan decent, who are raised in extreme poverty. The curriculum nourishes pride in their identity and culture. For example, the teacher might set up a traditional Guatemalan market in the classroom where the children learn about popular foods. Cuisine is central to a host of fascinating Mayan customs and ceremonies that children role play at the centre.

RD: This teaching approach requires lots of materials. How do you manage?

Children perform a Mayan ceremony at their preschool graduation in Guatemala

Children perform a Mayan ceremony at their preschool graduation in Guatemala

SS: With a limited budget, we decided we would have to design and build our own classroom furniture. Building projects include reading lofts made from bamboo poles; sand and water tables; paint easels and child-sized furniture for the various roles; and play areas.

Construction teams come from across Canada and the United States. About 20 volunteers, aged 13 to 80, come for a month each year. The quality of the furniture is amazing. The team includes a few skilled carpenters. The rest come from every imaginable walk of life.

This saves us thousands of dollars, not to mention the satisfaction volunteers derive from the experience. I have seen grown men cry on seeing children happily rocking on the wooden horse or playing in the sandbox that they created with their own hands.

RD: What about classroom space and funds to pay salaries?

SS: Over time, our program morphed into two partner NGOs, Oneness Through Service Guatemala (Canada) and our partner Planando Semillas (Guatemala). To date, all the money to operate Oneness has been raised through family and friends. We pay some of the teacher salaries and some are paid by our partner organizations.

For example, in Guatemala City, we partnered with a well-known American NGO called Camino Seguro. They invited us to set up two preschool classrooms and, later, a six-room daycare. Camino Seguro provided the space and teacher salaries. We designed the programs, trained the teachers and provided learning materials and supplies.

Ten years ago, we built a new preschool in the mountain village of Sacala. Rotary International funded the construction of a second preschool in the neighhbouring village of Tioxya. Oneness funded both programs, including the salaries.

RD: How are teachers trained?

SS: For several years, I trained the teachers using a translator Madeli Quinones, who was my Spanish teacher when I first went to Guatemala. She was also the first teacher I trained in the Planting Seeds methodology. Eventually, we became co-trainers. With support from Oneness, Madeli attended Rafael Landívar University, graduating with a gold medal from the master's program in Early Childhood Education. Currently, she is president of the Guatemalan Early Childhood Education Association and executive director of Plantando Semillas.

For years, Richard and I dreamed of establishing a teacher education facility to ensure the Planting Seeds methodology continued to thrive long after our departure. But where to find the funds? Then, unbelievably, we learned that Allan Leboldus, an Edmonton dentist had left $250,000 in his will to enable us to carry on our work. His wife, a former teacher, had died some years earlier. Each year, Dr. Leboldus sent us a generous gift in her memory.

In 2013, thanks to this amazing gift, we were able to put in place a long-term program dedicated to the formation of teachers. To date, we have trained over 130 teachers in the Planting Seeds methodology.

RD: This educational approach is now approved for use in the Guatemalan public school system. Is that right?

SS: Yes. Five years ago, the government of Guatemala introduced an accreditation system based on a number of criteria. About 30 organizations won accreditation in the first year. When we received our official papers from the Ministry of Education, we were surprised to find the Planting Seeds methodology had been approved for use up to Grade 6 anywhere in Guatemala. Needless to say, we were delighted.

RD: Oneness also sponsors an annual teacher conference . . .

SS: That's right. Each year we offer the conference in a different city or village, attracting over 100 participants from area public schools. Planting Seeds educators engage participants in a series of hands-on workshops. Teachers always want more inservice, but funds are limited.

RD: Today, the program operates at 20 different sites, including Guatemala City, San Lucas and several remote mountain villages. How involved are parents and the community?

Children with their teacher at their preschool in Sacala, Guatemala

Children with their teacher at their preschool in Sacala, Guatemala

SS: Parents have played a significant role in many of the schools: becoming members of the board of directors; donating land for school use; and helping to construct school buildings.

Some assist teachers in the classroom, accompany them on field trips and clean classrooms at the end of the day.

Parents serve a breakfast and prepare daily snacks for students.

In these poorer communities, parent involvement is vital for the quality and sustainability of programs. For example, in Sacala Las Lomas, where we were unable to purchase land, one family allowed us to build a community school on their land. And while the school was under construction, they allowed us to use their one-room house for 15 preschool children.

Since its inception, over 1,200 children have attended the Planting Seeds program with an attendance rate topping 95 per cent.

RD: Lately, you have passed the baton on to a new generation . . .

SS: Yes, in May 2017, Richard and I officially passed the torch to two committed and inspiring young people: Shannon Moyle from Ottawa (Canada) and Maclane Phillips from Chicago (U.S.A.). Their dream is to raise funds to extend the program to include a strong parent education component. The program is now known as Planting Seeds International.

RD: So, 18 years on, what has it all meant?

SS: The experience has been fulfilling beyond anything that we could have imagined. This was not the retirement we dreamed of, but looking back, we cannot now imagine our lives without this piece. The experience has been transformative on so many levels.

First, working with some of the poorest of the poor in Guatemala has been a life-changing experience. The stress and concerns of our own lives fall away before the beauty and simplicity of theirs.

As we know, each country's hopes rests with the young. If children are taught from their earliest years to love themselves and care for others, change is possible.

Certainly, we hope some of the seeds we have planted will bear fruit. In time, we are confident that the young people of Guatemala will spin their own magic, forging a way forward in freedom, peace and love.