Equipping Students to Break the Cycle of Poverty

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A short, young boy in a school uniform bounds up the dusty hill that runs through the slum of Río Azul. He extends his hand.

“My name is Oscar. How are you?”

Oscar is one of the star students in an English class taught by Dave and Angie Ziel, missionaries based in Costa Rica with ReachGlobal. The Ziels climb the steep slope to Faro de Esperanza (Lighthouse of Hope) Church in Río Azul every Tuesday afternoon to teach English to kids ages 7 to 12. Trekking up the trash-ridden hill to the church, Angie points at the ominous clouds overhead, recalling her and Dave’s weekly race up the hill to beat the imminent downpour.

Faro de Esperanza is a dimly lit room with a tin roof  and a small whiteboard hanging from barbed wire at the front. The church building might not look like much, but to this community of mostly single mothers, Faro De Esperanza provides a glimmer of hope. The community training that the church offers helps Rio Azul residents break the cycle of poverty.

Teaching English, Offering Hope for a Better Life

The Ziels initially became involved with teaching English after meeting Gilbert, the pastor of Faro de Esperanza, and discovering a shared passion for his vision.

“He had a vision to become a resource for the community by developing skills in computers, cooking, music, and in whatever else would be of use to them,” Dave says. “For adults, skills that would help them make a living and for the kids, skills that would keep them advancing in school.”

The ministry, which also hopes to start teaching weekly cooking classes for the women of the community, revolves around the idea that impoverished people need to break that cycle themselves.

“People need opportunities,” Dave says. “For some people it’s not going to matter what opportunities they have. They want to stay in the life they have. There’s a cycle in poor communities where there are ministries or government organizations that give and give and many of the people are content to receive. If that cycle continues, as population grows, the situation just gets worse.”

The Ziels believe that offering opportunities, such as free English classes, will combat this cycle and enable the ambitious members of the community to succeed.

“Teaching English will give kids the skills to promote what they’re doing in school so that those who have initiative have another edge to get out of the cycle,” Dave says.

Although English instruction is part of Costa Rica’s national curriculum, many kids in Río Azul will drop out of school before they finish because they can’t keep up or because their families need them to work. In addition, many of the schools lack the small class sizes and the one-on-one interaction needed to develop good English. This one-on-one interaction with the students is so important to their English education that the Ziel’s must turn kids away from their classes in order to keep the class small enough for interaction.

“Each class, we do group interaction between the teacher and the whole class and also one-on-one interaction,” Dave says. “We practice introducing ourselves each week to each kid and they introduce themselves back to us and ask us how we are.”

In addition to greetings, the Ziels work on telling time, occupations, and naming body parts.

“We’ve seen kids catch on with what we’re talking about quick,” Dave says. “We’re not certain about the level of knowledge that all of them have. Some of them have talked about these things before but it doesn’t jump out of their mouth.”

The Ziels utilize a variety of creative teaching techniques in order to make the concepts they teach stick. In order to help the students learn the names of family relationships, Angie draws a family tree and shows pictures of her own family. Students who answer Angie’s questions quickly and enthusiastically are rewarded with a marshmallow.

“It’s their favorite treat,” explains Angie.

Cautiously treading down the hill, Angie expresses her astonishment about one student who didn’t know the word for “one” in English.

“He’s probably taken eight years of English in school and doesn’t know even the most basic English,” Angie says.

Despite challenges with the Costa Rican education system’s English instruction, the Ziels have high hopes for their ministry and summarize their twofold vision: “The first and most important hope is that these kids come to know Jesus as their Savior and that we are able to shine the light of Jesus in this dark place,” Angie says. “We also pray these classes will help these kids one day to find a job and break out of the cycle of poverty that these families are in.”

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