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Tales: Riviera Maya: Keeping Kids in School offers real opportunity to reduce generational poverty

Editor’s note: Bruce Bouchard, former executive director of The Paramount Theatre, and his partner Maureen McKenna Padula have traveled from Rutland to the Riviera Maya for the past three years. This series covers adventures, food, and testimonials from Vermont to the tropics. This is the last in the series as they Rutland travelers have now returned home.

I met with Gayle Collins, board president of Keeping Kids in School (KKIS), at a genteel beach club, where a number of mostly senior women meet weekly for Monday “Ladies Who Lunch” sessions. (Stephen Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch” sung by Patti LuPone plays in the background as I write.)

Gayle Collins is a lifelong educator from a far suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She taught English and library science. She retired after 35 years and was a a pioneer in the U.S-to-Playa movement. She’s been coming here for nearly 20 years! She is also a warrior for underserved Mexican children in this region, through her commitment and board presidency on KKIS, a not-for-profit dedicated to advancing educational opportunities for children of poverty. 

The vision of KKIS is “improving lives through education by keeping kids in school.” 

The mission of KKIS is as follows: Education reduces poverty, improves lives, and builds better communities.

For many families in Mexico education is not affordable. Keeping Kids in School does just that by removing financial barriers.


Courtesy KKIS
Education reduces poverty, improves lives, and builds better communities. KKIS Keeps Kids in School by removing financial barriers for the Riviera Maya students it serves. Its success is made possible by donations of time and money from individuals and corporations who share values and vision. KKIS programs combine financial assistance, community connections and educational support to produce an 86% high school graduation rate.

“We also help students develop their language, life and work skills. Our success is made possible by generous donations of time and money from individuals and corporations who share our values and vision. KKIS programs combine financial assistance, community connections and educational support to produce an 86% high school graduation rate vs the standard of less than 50%,” stated Collins.

The beginning of Collins’ involvement is interesting; she was bored and ready to “make a difference;” and in her words she “fell into” the KKIS endeavor, first as an initial volunteer and later as the board president. She attended a not-for-profit charity meeting to pursue volunteering, and by way of introduction, she announced that she had been an educator for 35 years.  Following the meeting, she was approached by a 2nd grade teacher in a Playa del Carmen school who told her that on the first day of school, out of a classroom of 36 kids only three showed up with supplies. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine how the kids feel who don’t come to school possessing the basic minimum to support learning — school supplies like pencils, pens, notebooks, rulers, etc. They start the school year grappling with shame, stigma and diminished self-esteem around their family circumstance. Collins responded immediately and she was quickly fully engaged.

KKIS programs offer student support from kindergarten through university. Together, these programs keep kids in school and give them tools to thrive, fundamentally changing their lives and that of their offspring. Staying in school helps ensure higher paying jobs, which means financial support will not be needed for the next generation.

The overarching factor that drives the KKIS programs is a grinding set of financial obstacles for working class Mexican families. These statistics may surprise you – so take this in: The average wage for a Mexican worker, is $10 U.S. per day! Third-World realities! And the cost of high school (yes, there is a cost) is $650 per year!!

These obstacles in many instances are beyond family finances, understandable, and keep children from continuing in school. Many families need children at young ages (14-16 sometimes younger) to join the work force (selling trinkets on the beach or menial help in bodegas, and in low-level service industries) to support of family incomes. How many of these children, provided the opportunities, might well have become working professionals or in trades made possible by finishing high school? The sorrow and heartbreak of generational poverty hits hard. The programs below are merely thumbnails, should you be interested, for more information, please visit: kkisproject.org.


Courtesy KKIS
KKIS Board President Gayle Collins

Scholarships

In the current school year, direct financial assistance has awarded scholarships to 100 public high school students in nine different schools, and 40 university students in 16 different universities.  As the KKIS programs grow one can see that there is a huge possibility for growth allowing these numbers to increase exponentially!

School supplies

As detailed above, the supplies program, assisted by sponsorships and individual contributions provides free school supplies for a full academic year.

Over the span of time that KKIS has been serving this community thousands of students have received a full year of supplies. To quote Gayle Collins, “In the last year alone we distributed over 2,500 bags of school supplies to Playa students!”

Conversation Club

A unique endeavor within KKIS is this program to assist students, by working with volunteer English speakers to increase their pronunciation and confidence. While English language is not part of the school curriculum in schools, eager students turn to other means to learn English:  Netflix with translation, slow English via the internet, and the memorization of English song lyrics. Every week, KKIS’ English Conversation Club in Riviera Maya pairs students from local high schools in Playa del Carmen and Tulum with volunteer English speakers to have immersive conversations. 

Community connections

KKIS has brought inspirational speakers to schools, advisors to our high school scholars, negotiated contracts with four universities granting students deep discounts on tuition and introduced students to businesses in the community.

I am proud to now be involved in this organization and am planning to consult on various fundraising endeavors. This superb endeavor has opened my eyes to the plight of underserved children and lost potential. In America, we know generational poverty, but nothing of this depth and scale.

If you have further questions, ideas or inspirations, please email me at bouchard.brucebb@gmail.com.

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