It is a simple but absolute truth: Education not only transforms and fulfills the lives of students as knowledge expands their minds, but it also has the power to strengthen nations.
In the United States, educational opportunities for children abound, with many beginning their school journeys with preschool programs as early as age 3. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010, record numbers of prekindergarten and kindergarten students entered the nation's public school systems, and 49.4 million students attended public and secondary schools. More than 19 million students advanced to two-year and four-year colleges and universities in 2010, another attendance record.
"U.S. children are so incredibly fortunate to live in a prosperous nation where education is taken for granted, and high school, college and post-college expectations are on par with eating a hot dinner every night," says Sharon Saxelby, president and CEO of Friends of the Orphans, a Chicago-based charitable organization that transforms the lives of orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged children in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Contrast that with access to education and lack of opportunities for children in need in less prosperous countries and the glaring inadequacies are startling. World Bank estimates that 75 million children of primary school age around the world are not in school, often because they need to work so their families can survive. For instance, in Peru, 34 percent of children 14 and under are involved in labor activities, which often render school impossible.
Elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, children's access to education is equally dire. In Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, just more than half of primary school-aged children are enrolled and fewer than 2 percent of children finish secondary school. And in El Salvador, according to Unicef, 70 percent of children aged 16 and 17 do not have access to secondary education.
Unicef attributes these low numbers to a variety of factors, including inadequate teacher competencies, scarcity of teaching materials, poor physical learning environments, limited interaction between schools and communities, the need for children to work instead of attend school, and overall poverty rates, which dictate that limited resources will be directed to things other than education.
"Becoming educated is the most valuable thing a young person can do for himself and his community, especially in developing countries," Saxelby explains.
"Our philosophy of raising children in the countries we serve is to provide unconditional love, shared responsibility and education. Well-rounded children are able to transcend poverty and ultimately become productive members of their communities."
One of many examples of how education leads to a more prosperous life is Yadira, a young woman from Mexico who has embraced education despite many challenges. She came to NPH at age 13 following the death of her mother, unable to read or write, and was placed in third grade. She quickly thrived, and advanced to NPH's technical middle and high school, which provides vocational certification and university preparation. While there, she focused her studies on mechanics and computers.
Ready to move on, she began her university studies, setting her sights on law. Her studies enlightened her on her own rights as a Mexican citizen, taught her how to write legal documents and navigate the legal system. She even wrote a final thesis about social inequality with respect to legal rights in Mexico. She is continuing her studies and will make law her permanent profession.
"I have seen firsthand the difference people can make in each other's lives and hope to have the same impact on other people through my work in the legal profession," Yadira says. "I am thankful for all the opportunities I've been given and how my life has been transformed."
Saxelby explains that the relative cost of supporting these children as they pursue their educations is low compared to U.S. expenses, and their positive future outcomes and contributions are undeniable. For example, Yadira, who lives in NPH university housing, spends about $580 monthly on expenses. Of that, $267 is tuition and food is $205, with the remainder going toward materials, transportation and books.
"Investing in these children today is well worth it because of their transformations tomorrow," Saxelby says. "Education is power and all children deserve the chance to grow and learn."