Reyes Irene School for Young Women

February 21, 2021



Jack A. Licate


Much of today’s news portrays Central America as a somber land with throngs of people in caravans on the road north away from violence and poverty. Indeed, disorder and destitution exist, but my dozen years alongside Central Americans as they battle poverty has shown me a reality far different. Instead of a gloomy land, I have encountered a region that shines with a boundless capacity for creativity, dynamism, and resiliency. Let me tell you about my experiences with Hondurans as we seek the resources to sustain a school dedicated to the educational needs of the poorest girls in their country.

Let’s begin with some perspective. The World Bank says Honduras is the second-poorest country in the Americas. Its nine million people live with an annual family income of $4,800 and an individual income of $821; the Bank classifies 60% of Hondurans as poor and income inequality is the greatest of any country in Latin America. Honduras struggles with one of the world’s highest crime rates (much of it fueled by North America’s voracious appetite for illicit drugs) and the resultant violence and corruption. The Honduran government possesses neither the resources to assure health, education, and food security for all its people nor the ability to protect its citizens from natural disasters, criminal syndicates, or international market fluctuations.  

The poorest Hondurans struggle in a cycle of poverty that repeats itself generation after generation. They endure corruption, unemployment or under-employment, disability, malnutrition, and discrimination.  The landscape of the poor is one where the dramas of street crime, sexual abuse, addiction, and illness play out day in and day out year after year.

The hellscape that afflicts the poorest Honduras comes down hardest on the most vulnerable, women and children, who are susceptible to domestic violence, sexual abuse, and abandonment. Many relationships between men and women are transitory and women most often left to care for any children. On average, women work for less pay, are less educated than men, and make up a disproportionate share of the poorest of the poor Hondurans (those with an income of less than $1.65 a day). A student, Lidia, told me her story: “My mom and I came to the capital when I was 12, because she wanted me to get more education than the primary school in my aldea (village). But all we could do here was make tortillas and sell them, so we get up at 2 a.m., make the tortillas, walk to the market since we don’t have enough for bus fare, sell the tortillas till we run out about 2 p.m. We’ve got to watch out for people who want to cheat us or steal our money. Then we do it all over the next day. On Sunday I go to school while my mom rests.”

Some of the poorest of the poor girls work as domestics in homes of affluent Hondurans, where they cook, clean, or care for children six days per week. Unaware of their employment rights the girls may accept no salary, since employers provide room, board, or sometimes old clothes. Many girls begin work at age 12, and some even earlier, and forgo school while they work. If they are paid a salary, it is low.  Carmen relates her story: “When I was 13 a lady came to our house in the country and promised my mother that she would give me food, clothes, and education if I would come to her house in the city to do chores. My mother let me, but that lady was mean and only gave me a little food, clothes, and shoes, but no pay. I ran away and got other jobs as a domestic till I was 17. Always it was the same. I didn’t get to go to regular school.

Other of the girls struggle from an early age in the “informal economy,” dedicated to the sale of tortillas or any number of inexpensive items, such as batteries, flash drives, magazines, or newspapers on the street or on municipal buses. Nearly all poor Hondurans dream of better circumstances: some struggle and cope as best they can; some flee toward the siren call of prosperity outside the country; yet others stay put determined to confront adversity head on and shatter the cycle of poverty

The Reyes Irene Valenzuela School is a high school created by two Honduran women to tackle the plight of girls who worked as domestics. The late Reyes Irene Venezuela and Sister Maria Rosa Leggol (often referred to as the Mother Teresa of Central America) set out in 2000 to overcome and eliminate the worst forms of child labor. They wanted to offer an alternative to traditional education, “there was economic poverty, to be sure,” Sister Maria Rosa told me, “but we wanted to stop that as well as the spiritual poverty the girls suffered from. We wanted to make a place where girls got a good education so they could provide for themselves and their families, and to have values and principles to live by, too.”  The School’s enrollment has grown to approximately 300 girls between the ages of 14 and 18 drawn from the capital city, Tegucigalpa. Almost all students work as domestics or hawk products on the streets. The wait list is double the size of enrollment.

The curriculum at Reyes Irene follows the transformative philosophy of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose pedagogical methodology strives to empower the poor through education to become full-fledged members of their societies. In the Freire model, the student acts not as a passive recipient of data or memorizer of facts, but as an active participant, along with her peers and teachers, committed to the analysis of her situation and the discernment of how to overcome it. She forms a vision of what her adulthood could be and make a plan to acquire the tools necessary to remake her life to attain that vision.

The curriculum at Reyes Irene School is not the traditional blend of academic and vocational subjects. Rather it is an accelerated program geared to the needs of students who students attend class one day a week for nine hours, with extensive off-premises study via educational radio and homework. The Reyes Irene building emits a joyous vibe and provides a safe environment relevant to its student body; the visitor sees a crib in the hallway, a child on her mother’s knee in class, and bulletin boards with colorful displays (pink appears be the favored color). Students choose to prepare for careers as pharmacist assistants, tailors, cosmetologists, computer technicians, university students, or, in a bow to Central America’s entrepreneurial spirit, proprietors of small businesses. Students some years ago nearly revolted at the suggestion of a new course to improve domestic service skills. They instead demanded and got a course that would assure them a profession with salary and benefits – computer repair. A classroom they got, and it since has evolved into a Microsoft-certified training site. The computer lab pays tribute to and is under the patronage of St. Clare of Assisi, who toiled alongside St. Francis, because as one instructor told me, “like our girls, Clare did the work and someone else got the credit, if you know what I mean.” The School also offers workshops to combat factors that would prevent the girls from graduation, such as labor exploitation, sexual abuse, adolescent pregnancy, addiction, and gang membership.

Reyes Irene is private; students pay no tuition. As a testament to the creativity and dynamism of the administration and faculty, the School thrives due to its unique domestic and international network of funders: In-kind support comes from Honduran businesses, while operating funds flow from a group affiliated with a Jesuit parish in Cleveland, a German evangelical charity, a Swiss Catholic foundation, and two Canadian organizations, an interdenominational group and a private foundation.  The Director’s conference with the wife of the Japanese ambassador has become the stuff of legend. As one faculty member told me, “one day she went to the embassy for tea and the next day they delivered a stove.” In recognition of the School’s exemplary program the Honduran education ministry upgraded the School to Instituto status and now provides an instructional subsidy. Recognition has come from Central America and beyond. The United Nations named the Reyes Irene one of the twenty most innovative programs to tackle poverty in Latin America and staff routinely visit nearby countries to explain the School’s methods.

Of more than 500 Reyes Irene alumnae, almost all work in the formal economy, upwards of 120 have completed or are in university studies (one just completed her law degree), and many graduates own or manage small businesses.

For its students Reyes Irene serves as a beacon as they navigate from the margins to the center of Honduran society. By its commitment to eradicate the worst forms of child labor, the School leads the attack on the cycle of poverty that excludes so many from full participation in the national economy and society. Of course, challenges exist - funds have to be found to repair the roof, improve the electrical system, upgrade the plumbing, provide nutritious meals to students the day they attend class, assist students to deal with medical emergencies, and recruit and retain teachers desirous and capable enough to teach girls from marginal barrios.

But girls determined to escape impoverished circumstances continue to show up, desirous to grab hold of a rung on the ladder that will lift them out of poverty. Student Raquel exemplifies Honduran resiliency when she told a visitor: “I started as a domestic when I was 8, my employers beat me, so I ran away and joined a gang and lived on the street. All I ate for a long time was a tortilla for breakfast, no lunch, and some rice with beans and a banana for dinner. Then I had a daughter, who is two and you see with her arms wrapped around my leg. I will graduate soon now that I am 22. Reyes Irene made me somebody, and I intend to get a good job and serve my community and my country. I am determined that my daughter will not follow my road, and that of my mother and my grandmother before me. Just watch.”