SAN FELIPE, GUATEMALA
Considering she was only seven years old, Sonia Xinoco remembers a great deal about the night that defined her life: Men with guns rampaged through her home, houses were torched, her parents and 20 others were killed. Then, amid the wailing of the survivors, a gringo in a Jeep scooped her up and took her and her brothers away.
Fifteen years later, Ms. Xinico, a small woman with expressive eyes, is in her last year of law school. She credits the American who picked her up from the rubble in 1982 with helping make her dream of being a lawyer, almost unheard of for an indigenous woman here, possible.
"It's not just me he's helped," Xinico says, "There are hundreds of kids who are getting educated now in Guatemala because of Patrick [Atkinson]."
Mr. Atkinson's organization, God's Child, is the quintessence of grass roots. Working without a salary on a $260,000 annual budget and relying on housesitting stints for his own shelter, Atkinson's method is disarmingly simple: "If a kid in our project stays in school, we pay for his tuition, uniform, and help with a tutor.... The family, if there is a family, receives some money to encourage continued study, and there is pocket money for the student.... In Guatemala, education equals an end to poverty. The student can go all the way through university this way."
In a country where the majority Mayan population comprises less than 1 percent of university students, God's Child regimen is by all accounts urgently needed.
The free-market policies of President Alvaro Arzu have mandated cutbacks in education and health care. Lack of an effective police force is resulting in what one UN official called "near anarchy" in many parts of the country.
In the words of one aid worker in the highlands, "For many people, this is actually a more dangerous time to be working in Guatemala than during the [36-year civil] war [which ended last year].... There is no question crime is out of hand - kidnappings, assaults, everything."
Some officials concur with that analysis. "Few of the issues that led to the original conflict here have been addressed," says Jordan Rodas Andrade, vice mayor of Quetzeltenango, the second-largest city. "Namely, the land ownership issues for ... poor, indigenous farmers. And now former guerrillas and discharged government soldiers have to be reintegrated into society."
From a visit to the new God's Child "Dreamer Center" in the pueblo of San Felipe, one wouldn't know that lawlessness is driving many Guatemalans to clamor for a return to a stronger military presence. On a Tuesday afternoon, dozens of children were being tutored in two of the four-acre area's buildings. Luis Enrique, a rescued street child in his last year of medical residency, gave prenatal advice in the facility's clinic. In a half-completed meeting room, a "mother's cooperative" was organizing bulk purchases of food staples.
The Dreamer Center staff of mostly volunteers works with about 700 children and adults on any given day. Since 1983, Atkinson estimates he has helped raise 8,000 kids and has legally adopted 15. Of those, 50 percent have finished high school and 20 percent are in university.
Pete Miller, spokesman for Dreamer Ministries of Plano, Texas, says, "We were totally impressed with what we saw down there. [God's Child's] program efficiency is almost unheard of, something like 96 percent.... The results are incredible. The kids become independent leaders in the society." Dreamer Ministries has contributed funds toward the building of the Dreamer Center.
The six-year-old God's Child, which is nondenominational, has offices in Antigua, San Felipe, and Bismarck, N.D.
Trading in a 'normal life'
Atkinson has given up marriage, law school plans, and a lucrative job offer to continue his work. He has all kinds of stories of trying to leave the country and resume a "normal life" in the US. Once, he was called back by a student named Walter, expelled for thievery, who promised to reform if he returned. He did, and Walter kept his word. "For better or for worse, it has become the permanence the kids see in my physical presence that convinces them the future can exist for them. I don't like to think of the message I'm sending if I leave."
Mr. Enrique, the medical resident, says during his life on the street shining shoes, his conception of the future entailed where his dinner might come from. Determined from an early age, Enrique washed in a public fountain to make himself presentable for school. "I was fending for myself from age 5," he says. "The project has allowed me to have this dream, to actually think about what I might do 12 years later, after finishing university."