by Mari Pintkowski (Feb. 2016)
Erika Whittman had a dream. Born in Slovakia, she journeyed with her young son to the United States looking for a better life. She had many adventures before she arrived here in Macario Gomez in 2013, and if you ask her, she will say that she is living her dream. She has a strong and loving husband, Chito, a successful Bed and Breakfast, and has saved countless children and animals by offering them a better life. What she is doing now goes beyond anything she has accomplished in the past.
Erika went about her day-to-day life in Macario, often with a few children in tow, while always observing what was going on in the streets teeming with children with very little to occupy them other than television. Before long, a few of the kids found their way off the dirty streets to her living room in search of a clean, safe and stimulating environment to read and do their homework. She and Chito had opened their hearts to these loving children and both knew there was no turning back.
She began telling her friends about an idea to open a library and after-school program somewhere in the pueblo where the children could spend a few productive hours each day. This energetic, caring young woman even created a Facebook page: Help the Children of Macario Gomez. She searched high and low for a location for the Center, from the newly expanded ejido (local government) building to dilapidated casitas that might offer an affordable option. They were not afraid of the work it might have taken to transform one of these buildings into a haven for local kids. In the meantime, those of us near and far who knew Erika and Chito reached out to our friends and business contacts for donations of children's books, art supplies, furniture, teaching materials and decorative items. The items came pouring in and Erika and Chito found a place to store everything until one day the perfect spot became available.
The owners, who are relatives of Chito's, agreed to let them have the space, a one-room apartment on the ground floor with a bathroom for less than $100 a month. The space was perfect, well almost: The floor was tiled, the bathroom needed a little plumbing work, the fan did not work, but there was electricity and two windows that opened, even though a few of the glass panes were missing. She brought a group of children over to begin to collect all the trash left behind from the past renters, dust away the spider webs, and get a good look at the place. The team of workers from Erika's B&B painted the building outside and in, and a new fan was installed, the plumbing fixed, curtains put up and the furniture moved in. It was about this time, that my husband and I got involved and really pulled in others from the Gringo community to donate the necessary items to open the doors the next week. On set-up day, April Larkin and Kim Turner arrived to help Erika and me unpack all the donated materials and lovingly place the books on the shelves. Next came concrete blocks donated by Simon and Libba along with boards to make the shelves that the children helped me stain. Thomas Mork and Aline Labassi made a beautiful wooden table, and my husband, Lou, and our worker Jose made the benches and delivered them the very next day.
Erika and Kim have submitted a grant proposal to Los Arboles Tulum's not-for-profit organization to help support the school's main expenses of rent and paid staff.
Sara Luna, responded to an ad Erika placed on a local Web page for an English teacher. She was interested in the position being offered and was willing to come two afternoons a week. Kim, who had been an elementary teacher in the States, agreed to be her assistant even though she spoke no Spanish. Erika and I would be the core team of teachers along with volunteers. The next day, Erika gave it a trial run, and there were over 20 children invited. I asked how she would let the community know that we were opening, and she just smiled and said, “They will know.”
The Children's Center has been open for three weeks and 23 children a day come in with a smile and are eager to learn English, explore the great selection of books in the library, and take part in art activities. As a teacher and director in my past life, I was particularly interested in creating a beautiful environment that was welcoming and organized. We have already created successful routines that the children are following with ease. The volunteer group, which is a key element in this type of operation, is expanding. Erika has noticed that many of the children do not know how to read, and she is eager to take them aside to teach them the basics. There is a need for a tutoring program if we can find more volunteers. We all know that it “takes a village” to raise a child, but the dream started with Erika.
If you are interested in reading to the children in English or Spanish, volunteering to tutor one-on-one in Spanish, assist in English or Spanish with our art activities, offer to lead or teach an activity to the children, please contact Erika through the Facebook page. The center is currently open on Tues., Wed. and Fri. from 4 to 6 p.m. in Macario Gomez. If we had more volunteers we could open more days a week. Check out the Help the Children of Macario Gomez page on Facebook for our latest wish list.
Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate the #1 Bed & Breakfast in Tulum, La Selva Mariposa, in Macario Gomez. Read more of Mari's articles and books available on Sac-be.com and you can find her published books on amazon.com.
Girls at Macario Gomez showing their art work.
Girls at Macario Gomez showing their jewelry
Macario Gomez Library children working on art projects