A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, Lao Tzu wrote. For Tom Affleck, the journey that would take him to the creation of SchoolBOX began with a notebook and a pencil. His inspiration for SchoolBOX, a non-profit organization whose main mandate is to build schools and provide educational materials to poor children in Latin America, came to him by chance on a business trip to northern Nicaragua in 2006. Upon leaving, he handed out a few pens and notebooks he had on him to some kids. One of the parents said to his little girl– her name was Sandra, he found out later– “Now that you have a notebook and a pencil, you’re able to go to school”.
This quick but poignant encounter was the fateful moment that started it all. SchoolBOX’s beginnings were humble and brimming with challenges. Today this young organization has brought not only school supplies to thousands of children in Nicaragua’s rural areas and it’s built many schools as well, but it has also brought them hope, motivation and the possibility of a much better future.
Getting there wasn’t easy. Tom had the support of his mom and a small group of friends from the small community of Almonte– where he comes from– who helped him start and build the organization from the ground up. Through various small activities they managed to raise some funds. Their first task, remembers Tom, was to go out to poor communities in “chicken buses”—very old yellow school buses—to hand out educational supplies in several schools. “We didn’t have a master plan,” remembers Tom, “just a very intense desire to help these kids get an education.”
Once they realized Tom’s perseverance and his genuine desire to help the children, friends and family in Almonte gave him and SchoolBOX their unconditional support. The organization grew little by little, at a slow but steady pace, and not without facing many obstacles. They found great supporters amongst Nicaraguans and were able to establish a network of trustworthy individuals, amongst them Ronald Chavarria, who today occupies the position of Director of Operations within the organization. Ronald and his family’s help and support have been crucial to the growth and development of the organization.
SchoolBOX works hand in hand with Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education. They help them identify priority areas in need of schools or where children live in extreme poverty and badly need school supplies. Providing school supplies had been SchoolBOX’s only mission at the beginning, but they soon realized there was a greater need to build schools. Some communities had been waiting upwards of 20 years for a school to be built, and the sense of urgency proved greater when they saw there were kids who took their lessons under a tree because they lacked an appropriate building. The need was palpable.
Presently, SchoolBOX provides ongoing support in the communities where they build schools, by handing out school supplies each year to every kid after they’ve finished building the school. That way, they keep tabs on how the Ministry of Education continues to provide a salary for the teachers they employ at the schools. “This is how SchoolBOX differs from other organizations,” says Tom. “It’s a joint effort along with the local community (where the schools are built) and the Ministry of Education. The community provides the land and labour, the Ministry of Education pays the teachers and they’re responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the schools and SchoolBOX pays the engineer and the construction company and provides the building materials.”
They now have an engineer, two construction companies and several contractors on payroll, who travel wherever SchoolBOX starts a school construction project. They also have the help of groups of Canadian volunteers, who travel from Canada for two weeks every month from February to August to work side by side with the local communities building schools. These people also play the role of ambassadors in Canada, since upon their return they tell others of their experiences, which in turn motivates others to help in any way they can. Tom has discovered that the most important role these groups play, however, is motivating the kids in the communities where the schools are built to continue with their schooling beyond the 6th grade, encouraging and inspiring them to not give up and to continue beyond their primary studies.
“Almost 50% of Nicaraguan kids don’t complete their education,” says Tom. The main focus of SchoolBOX, he mentions, is for the kids to complete their primary education or Grade 6. “If we encourage them to finish elementary school, the possibility that they’ll continue on to high school and even go to university is higher. Our main objective right now is to remove obstacles so that they receive at least their primary education,” he says.
In the 6 years that this organization has been around, they’ve built 28 schools so far. They’re hoping to start projects in Honduras this year. Their growth as an organization continues and today the work SchoolBOX does is recognized not just in Almonte, Ottawa and Toronto, but also throughout Canada. Last summer their work came a little more into the public light thanks to Cycle for SchoolBOX, a promotional effort by Ilan Levy, a SchoolBOX volunteer, who cycled through the entire country hoping to bring awareness to the work the organization does and to raise some much needed funds.
Their strength as an organization is made all the more evident because of the valuable work of its Board of Directors, whose members have the experience and joint capabilities to guide it wisely and provide ongoing support. As SchoolBOX grows, they are able to provide a stronger and better vision of their future and what they hope to accomplish not just in Nicaragua, but in other countries as well.
The experience, Tom mentions, has been immensely satisfying, not just because of the work they do but also on a personal level. The time he’s spent in Nicaragua has given him many positive and unforgettable experiences. “I love the food, the “gallopinto” (a rice/beans mix), the people—the best resource Nicaragua has; their generosity and integrity. I’ve learned so much. I met my wife, Sarah, there, while building a school. It’s been a very positive experience for me. This is where I became a Christian, because people’s faith in God is so strong there. The experience has been such an amazing gift for me, to have the opportunity to help the kids and work side by side with people who want and work for the same cause,” he says.
He admits he hasn’t had the opportunity to work closely with the Hispanic community in Canada. “I know there’s a lot of Hispanics here who believe in the work we do and would love to collaborate with us in some way,” says Tom. “The thing is, I don’t personally know many Hispanics here. Maybe now we could work together building some schools. This is a great opportunity for us Canadians to give these kids the chance to break away from poverty, and for me, doing this along with the Hispanic community in Canada, would be very important,” he concluded.
If you would like more information about SchoolBOX, you can visit their website www.schoolbox.ca or you can check their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/schoolboxhelps