A shroud of grey hovered above the ground, which would make the distance ahead a mystery if she hadn’t memorised the way.
The morning sun had yet to rise, but when it finally reached its seat on the horizon, the fog would dissipate and reveal the verdant hills of Guatemala’s central highlands. By then, Leticia would already be at work, dusting and washing and folding and sweeping, after a tiresome trek to the next town’s bus stop to board the 6am departure.
When the sun finally reached its place directly overhead, 14-year-old Leticia began her return journey. Back in Santiago Zamora, a small indigenous village overlooking Antigua, she arrived at the local school for the afternoon classes. The $90 per month she earned was enough to support her middle school education – something her parents desperately wished they could do for all five of their children.
By her final year, Leticia had found more cleaning work at a more convenient location: a nearby school. It was there she met Chris, a teacher in her village who would change everything.
Teacher Chris founded a scholarship program for students like Leticia to fund their school fees, encouraging them to focus on their education instead of work. And when she graduated from middle school in 2007, he referred Leticia to CasaSito Association’s youth scholarship program, where she would become their first graduate.
CasaSito comes from the Spanish word casa, meaning home, and Sito, a small yet powerful motorbike engine. Before its creation, founder Alice Lee and her husband Greg worked in Guatemala and had fallen for its tender people, inimitable culture, and stunning landscapes. It’s not difficult to imagine why; the country is known as the Land of Eternal Spring. They wanted to make a home — a haven for people to feel safe, free to be themselves — in the place they loved. And Sito? Something efficient, with a big impact, that just happened to be Alice’s nickname.
What began as a modest program for 28 students in urban Guatemala has developed into a success story for hundreds of students: in 2018 alone, CasaSito funded 150 students in rural villages and semirural towns to continue their education. With the idea that development happens outside the lines of a textbook, they’re given plenty of opportunities to learn about the world, and themselves, beyond the classroom. Students are free to explore their interests with a range of extracurricular clubs – theatre, math, computers, debate, and English, just to name a few – alongside workshops and volunteering. Keeping in mind the often difficult circumstances students come from, the program also provides psychosocial support for them and their families.
But CasaSito is also a family that supports them.
After graduation, Leticia went on to earn a degree in Business Administration; she was the first in her family to finish high school and attend university. These days, she’s busy putting her education to use – she owns a Guatemalan handicraft store herself. And she wants to give back to the CasaSito family that helped her get there. A percentage of Leticia’s proceeds from her online store will be donated to the scholarship fund, helping the next generation finish their education and reach their greatest potential.
For five years, The Intrepid Foundation has been a proud supporter of CasaSito’s programs, raising almost AU $100,000. “The Foundation’s matching has made such a huge impact,” Alice explains over the phone. Her tone, and the sincerity in her voice, suggest a smile has crept across her face. “It’s motivation for us to work harder, knowing how much support we’ve gotten. And it tells our other donors that you trust our work and our impact.”
The trust is well-founded, too. CasaSito, in its fifteen years of existence, has shown unwavering dedication to their students, ensuring that each one is safe and supported. Last year, they achieved a 98 per cent retention rate – a number difficult to achieve in rural Guatemala. By offering partial scholarships, they manage to keep parents engaged and committed to their child’s education. Without some level of involvement, kids can easily fall out of the system and back into working before they’ve completed school.
Across the 52 communities supported, over 1,200 hours were allocated to psychosocial services, helping improve the livelihoods of both students and their families. CasaSito scholars, too, gave back to their own communities, completing over 7,000 hours of volunteer work as a cohort – a principle Alice feels strongly about. “Whatever we have, we should be able to share with others. I don’t let them forget that.”
And as The Intrepid Foundation moves towards a new focus – improving livelihoods through sustainable travel experiences – it’s time to share their support with other causes too. Although the partnership is coming to an end in 2019, the life-changing work of CasaSito will continue: a brand new youth development centre is set to open in February. Every donation has made a world of difference to young people across Guatemala, and The Intrepid Foundation is proud to have helped match every one.
All images provided by CasaSito.