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Gorgeous beaches, a bustling nightlife, elegance and comfort away from the monotony of daily life. When most people think of Cancun, Mexico, the popular tourist destination that sits on the Yucatan peninsula, they often invoke a tropical paradise. Yet, not very far from this escape is an impoverished community, Bonfil, in a rural area in Cancun’s state of Quintana Roo.  

There, six years ago, a local football team conducted a census where they identified 73 children between the ages of seven and 14 who had never gone to school due to a lack of birth certificate or the need to stay home to look after their younger brothers and sisters, among other reasons. A number of other children had never finished elementary school. In a community of 3, 000 people, these numbers were staggering.

In southern Mexico this is not shocking, but it is preventable.  Sonia Cejas, a community member and part of Vital Voices Global Leadership Network, decided that the children unable to attend school had the right to pursue their education. After consulting with the local public school, she was able to register 14 children who had the proper documentation. 

At her own expense, she then set up a small classroom in her backyard where she began to teach classes to the children who were not admitted into the school. Working with the National Institute of Education for Adults (INEA), she has registered 48 children who are on track to receive academic credit from Sonia’s La Escuelita (The Little School). So far, 11 children have received their elementary school certificate and are working to receive their middle school certificate.

Her backyard, the only school many of these children have ever known, is 11.5 by 23 feet and is run from 7:00 to 9:30 am so that the children are able to work if they need to. It uses whatever furniture and school supplies are donated and counts with one blackboard to instruct children and teenagers whose educational levels range from elementary to junior high.

Though the needs of this community may seem insurmountable, Sonia uses whatever means and resources she has to make a difference in the lives of those around her. Her community service began when she organized handcraft trainings for a small number of women who had no other source of income. Since then, she has also managed to secure medical insurance, medicine, free or reduced-cost medical attention, and legal help for community members.

Sonia and her supporters are currently working with Caritas, an international organization “committed to combating dehumanizing poverty that robs people of their dignity and to promoting the rights of the poor,” to move La Escuelita forward and secure funding to build an adequate teaching space for the children.

To find out how you can help Sonia continue to pay it forward, please visit La Escuelita’s newly launched website.