Paraguay is the poorest country in South America, and the country regions are where the most need is found. Most young people can manage to complete their secondary schooling nowadays, but it is a struggle to get further education. For this reason the Santa Maria Education Fund was founded by Margaret Hebblethwaite in 2001 to offer educational opportunities to the poor, especially but not exclusively in formal education at tertiary level. Although we have some children’s programmes, the major part of our work is with teenagers and young adults.
Although there are a number of state scholarships to university, the system operates in such a way that the poor are still excluded. It is difficult to get a scholarship if you do not belong to the ruling political party. You are only eligible for a scholarship in the year following the end of your secondary education, and only if you have already enrolled in university and paid your inscription fee: then the scholarships are announced halfway through the year. Even if you have managed to pay your fees for the first six months or so, in the hope of getting a state scholarship, it will not cover associated costs like study materials, fares or rent.
By giving university scholarships to the most able young people among the rural poor our aim is not only to help individuals, but to create a new generation of leaders who come from the base of society. By funding an Institute where a two-year diploma is offered for free, our aim is to help a broader range of school leavers, and to give them a qualification that will enable them to get good jobs. By offering our free English course in a country where English standards are abysmally low, our aim is to form a group who speak really good English and to create job opportunities locally (as in the Santa Maria Hotel for example) as well as elsewhere in Paraguay. By running music classes our aim is to rediscover and build upon the great musical tradition of Santa María’s past.
After 17 years of operation, we believe we are fulfilling all these objectives.