Educational foundation sees school closure as opportunity

Published: Thursday, April 11 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

MEXICO CITY — When leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the closure of its Benemerito de las Americas High School in Mexico City in preparation for converting the facility into a missionary training center last January, one education-based nonprofit organization realized drastic change was imminent.

For the last 15 years, those associated with Foundation Escalera have gone to Mexico’s poorest villages in search of students and awarded them scholarships to attend Benemerito with the overall goal of helping to gradually change a cycle of poverty. Since 1998, Escalera has sent more than 1,200 students to the LDS Church-owned high school.

Then amid the announcement, Escalera realized its new opportunity to do more.

“This is a turning point. Benemerito’s closing is an opportunity for us,” said Andrew Christensen, the foundation’s executive director. “We’ve had major challenges in getting these students from backgrounds of extreme poverty to travel up to 600 miles to be educated in one of the largest cities on earth. It’s been a huge transition. Now we can take that scholarship money and use it to find more regional and local solutions.”

By taking a closer-to-home approach, Escalera projects an ability to send 2,100 more children to high school over the next three years — almost double the amount of students sent over the last decade, Christensen said.

Foundation Escalera was founded in 1998 by Bryson Garbett, president of Garbett Homes. The Salt Lake City-based company has built more than 3,500 homes, according to the company website.

In 1997, Garbett and his wife wanted to take their children to Disney World. But prior to going to Florida, the couple learned of a group planning a service trip to Mexico to help a village. The parents asked their kids if they would rather see Mickey Mouse or serve a village in Mexico, and the kids selected Mexico.

Their lives would never be the same, Garbett said.

“What I saw in Mexico will never leave me,” he said on escalera.org. “Parents were desperate to provide an opportunity for their children so they would not have to live the same life of constant struggle. I could not forget that desperation.”

When they returned from Mexico, Garbett established Foundation Escalera. The English translation of "escalera" is ladder. This name symbolizes the organization’s belief that education brings opportunities that lift children from poverty, Christensen said.

Overall, more than 12,100 students have been served through scholarships or the construction of schools and classrooms. Ecalera’s ultimate goal is to send 30,000 Mexico children to school, Christensen said.

The foundation targets students living in rural, mountainous villages who would not otherwise have an opportunity to obtain an education. Daily survival is a higher priority than education, said Christensen, who added that more than 700,000 middle school graduates will fail to reach high school this year because they don’t realize it’s within their reach.

“We have become experts in recruiting kids from extreme poverty,” Christensen said. “These are kids who come from families that earn less than $2.50 a day. Spanish is not their first language. These kids don’t even have school on their radar.”

Foundation Escalera reports that 100 percent of all public donations go to directly fund school projects. For more information on how to get involved or donate to Foundation Escalera, visit www.escalera.org. To watch videos about Escalera or student success stories, visit the foundation's YouTube channel.

"Perhaps one day we'll send them back to Benemerito as missionaries," Christensen said.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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