Jeremiah Maller, a native of Custer, postponed graduate school to help impoverished children in Guatemala through Project Victoria. He will speak about this endeavor at a presentation titled “The Mayan People of Guatemala” at the Portage County Library in Stevens Point Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 7 p.m.
Project Victoria (PV), which is entirely run by volunteers, provides free education and workshops through the public school, bus fare for students from remote villages, uniforms, books, and other school supplies. There have been 26 graduates since PV was started in 2004.
Project Victoria was co-founded by Maller’s friend, Chris Curran. Maller met Curran when they were both students at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. After college, Curran began working for a Spanish language school in Guatemala.
When Curran learned scholarship funding would be cut for some of the students he tutored, blocking their path to an education, he, along with Guatemalan citizens, created PV.
“The project means the difference between these kids growing up to work on large exploitative coffee farms for meager wages and earning a livable income in another profession,” said Maller.
A recent graduate, Gloria López, has gained employment at a bank in Ixcan, Guatemala. Another graduate, Angel Acabal de Quiche, has gone on to be a teacher at a private school.
Instead, Curran asked Maller to take over as international coordinator for Project Victoria. “I was having so much fun volunteering with the project and traveling that I decided to postpone (graduate school),” he said.
As the international coordinator, Maller is tasked with fundraising, developing a five-year plan for the project, and working to strengthen the relationships between families and PV staff members.
Maller attributes his interest in helping people to his upbringing. “My father would take me to The Salvation Army every week to cook a meal,” he said. “I think part of my interest in helping people who need it started at a young age here in Point. I have concluded that giving scholarships to young indigenous women is one of the most powerful and direct ways one can make a difference.”
Originally, the project focused on providing scholarships to girls from indigenous families who had been displaced and disenfranchised by the 36-year Civil War in Guatemala. Throughout the war, which ended in 1996, human rights violations were rampant. More than 200,000 people, primarily Mayans, were killed.
About 70 percent of indigenous families live in poverty. The Guatemalan government, still rebuilding Guatemala’s infrastructure, charges tuition for high school. “Indigenous families in Guatemala have a difficult time finding jobs that provide enough income for both food and education,” said Maller. “Education is the only path out of that poverty.”
The number of boys who receive scholarships through PV has come to equal that of girls. However, there has been agreement among Curran, Maller and the Board of PV to refocus the effort to provide education to young indigenous girls.
“When these kids get old enough to work, their parents want them to quit school, move to a bigger city to work, and send money back to the family,” Maller said. “In some cases, the girls are forced to quit school and get married as young as age 13.”
PV strives to keep the children in school by awarding scholarships that cover the cost of education with a little extra money left over for food.
In the future, they would like to expand PV to include a series of workshops on traditional medicinal plants. “Medication is another huge expense faced by these families,” Maller said.
He said he would also like to generate local funding for the project. All of the project’s funding currently comes from the U.S., the majority of which consists of donations from friends and family of individuals involved with PV.
Funding for the project has decreased somewhat with the downturn in the economy. “There are so many more kids in need than we have scholarships for,” said Maller. “This year we are trying to raise more money to be back at our original level of funding.”
The families and children are grateful for the support provided by PV. Last year, one of the children presented the current president of PV with a chicken. “It was a sweet and touching moment,” said Maller.
When Maller’s tenure with PV has ended, he intends to continue his education with an MBA. He would like to put the degree to use in nonprofit administration. “I would like to continue working in Latin America with education and literacy, helping children of indigenous descent,” he said.
Maller’s Jan. 8 presentation will include information on Project Victoria, including how members of the public can become involved. Additional information about the project is available by visiting www.projectvictoria.org.