Guatemalan School Provides Students ‘Precious Opportunities’

By Stan Friedman

SPRING VALLEY, CA (August 13, 2013) – Three years ago, Richard Paff and two friends garnered the speed record for shooting a basketball through a hoop in each of the forty-eight contiguous United States. They accomplished the feat in eight days, five hours, and thirty-three minutes.

The three had embarked on the cross-country journey as a fundraiser for New Dawning Christian School in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala. (For a previous Covenant News Service story about the accomplishment, click here). Paff’s church, Grace Covenant in Spring Valley, California, has supported the school for years.

The trip remains a joyful memory, but Paff is especially excited for the school’s success in developing students who have gone on to college or some other form of career preparation at rates roughly double of those who attend public schools.

More than 90 percent of the students at New Dawning Christian School continue their education past high school compared to less than 50 percent in the public schools. Many of the public school students stop attending class following sixth grade, the mandatory education level the country requires.

Five thousand people live in San Juan La Laguna, almost all of whom are indigenous Maya. Most of the students who attend New Dawning come from families in which parents are laborers, according to the school. The average daily wage for an adult male laborer is less than five dollars, and even less for an adult female laborer.

The school’s success also is helping to change the local culture, says Paff. “More and more families are willing to really sacrifice to see their sons and daughters continue their education,” he explains, highlighting the parents’ increasing desires for daughters to extend their schooling, which also is a sharp departure from the cultural norm.

When students do reach high school, they must choose a course of study such as accounting, tourism, secretarial, graphic arts, cooking, and teaching. “A few of these they can do in San Juan La Laguna,” Paff says. “Other subjects they need to go to other towns that have those subjects available.”

New Dawning was started by several small evangelical churches in the community. Grace Covenant members started making annual summer trips to the school thirteen years ago, the first two led by Merge Ministries. “We will be forever grateful for the start Merge Ministries provided us,” Paff says.

The trips have included doing construction work; teaching English, art, and music classes; and helping with morning Bible devotions. Participants on the trips have ranged from young teens to people like Russ Camp, a retired Covenant missionary to Ecuador, who made his eleventh trip last month.

The church has become so tied to the school that some members formed a non-profit in 2004 called Children of Lake Atitlan, named for the lake the school sits next to. Since then, the nonprofit has funneled about $300,000 of aid, Paff says.

Tom Palmer, Grace Covenant’s former children’s ministry director who also served as a short-term missionary in Colombia, heads the organization. He moved to San Juan La Laguna and now teaches English full time while also acting as an unofficial counselor to the young people at the school.

Paff says one of the gratifying accomplishments of the school is developing the interest among some of the students to seek teaching careers. Four have even come back to New Dawning, where they help provide the same “precious opportunities” they had received.

To see more photos, click here.




  • What a marvelous legacy Richard Paff and Grace Covenant is building there. Thank you for all you do and have done to reach past your own wants to their needs. It will multiply.

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