Along the border with Guatemala, about 500 miles from Cancún and the popular tourist destinations of the Yucatán Peninsula, lies Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. Known for its cloud forests and ancient Mayan ruins, the region is home to the largest indigenous population in Mexico, with twelve federally recognized ethnicities represented. It is also Mexico’s poorest state, where nearly 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.
It’s where Foundation Escalera focuses most of its efforts. Created by REALTOR® Bryson Garbett, the foundation builds schools and, through scholarships and other tools, provides educational opportunities to children who would otherwise face a very limited future.
“They’re in indigenous villages and they don’t speak Spanish well, and they need Spanish to have a hope of getting a formal job,” explains Ann Garbett, Bryson’s daughter and chief financial officer of Foundation Escalera. “Otherwise their destiny is either subsistence farming or migration—to the resort towns on the coast, the factories of northern Mexico, or across the border.”
The options are even more limited for young women, who generally are married and starting families by age 15. “Without school, they have no opportunities; their fate is fixed,” says Ann. “Life is really hard when you’re that poor.”
Like many in real estate in the early 1990s, Bryson Garbett, a home builder in Salt Lake City, struggled through the recession of that time period. “Garbett Homes was plodding along and just surviving,” he recalls. “Usually we could make the house payments.”
After pulling the business through those uncertain years, Garbett and his family decided to celebrate in 1998 with a trip during Christmas break. As a way to share their good fortune with others, they opted to join a service project in Mexico. The Garbetts’ experiences during that trip made a profound impact on their lives, and each Christmas they would return to Mexico to help the people there in any way they could.
Zeroing in on effective ways to make a real difference took some trial and error. During one visit Garbett loaned $5,000 to a group of men who wanted to start a brick-making business. The following year, the same men returned every cent of what he had loaned them, confessing that they didn’t even know where to begin. “It taught us that you can’t just give somebody money and it will make their lives better,” says Garbett. “It has to be more than that.”
Education Leads to Opportunity
The experience also drove home the realization that education was the key that would allow people to change and improve their lives. The dropout rate from middle school to high school is as high as 60 percent in some areas of Chiapas, says Garbett. Reducing that dropout rate is the foundation’s primary focus. Among an average Chiapas elementary school class of 30 students, only seven will go on to finish high school and many won’t even complete middle school, says Molly Fisher, Foundation Escalera’s executive director.
Since there are few high schools in the region, which has the highest illiteracy rate in Mexico, the foundation offers scholarships for students to attend public high schools as far away as Mexico City. In Mexico, students must first pass an entrance exam in order to attend high school; for many families in Chiapas, the cost of the exam is prohibitively expensive. The scholarships remove that barrier by covering the cost of the entrance exam and subsequent enrollment fees. A system of mentors, tutors, and other resources ensures the students’ success, keeping them in school until they graduate.
In Chiapas, the foundation piloted a program to assemble schools in areas that either had inadequate school facilities or no middle schools at all. Using prefabricated construction methods learned through the work of Garbett Homes, they were able to speed up the process and build more schools in more areas. “We built a school, and another school, and another, and instead of taking six months to build, we got it down to six weeks,” says Garbett.
With assistance from the state government, the foundation has helped build 177 schools in Chiapas, serving more than 29,000 students. Add the scholarships to that number and Foundation Escalera has been able to make a significant impact on the lives of nearly 100,000 students in Mexico. Where just a few years ago middle schools in Chiapas would have had classes of 10 students or fewer, Fisher says, classrooms now are often at capacity.
Building 300 to 400 housing units per year up and down the Wasatch Front area of Utah, Garbett Homes makes its connection with Foundation Escalera an integral part of its business. Many of the company’s trade partners participate in its “1% for Schools” program: When they donate 0.5 percent of what they make doing business with Garbett Homes to the foundation, Garbett Homes matches those funds with another 0.5 percent.
The company also promotes the mission of Foundation Escalera to home buyers and renters. This past June, Garbett Homes participated in the Utah Valley Parade of Homes with its Dileri House, a home built and designed in honor of Dileri, a girl in Chiapas who wants to attend school so she can fulfill her dream becoming a doctor. The company recently built a subdivision of 30 homes, from which a percentage of each sale was used to build a school in Chiapas.
More Like an Investment
For Garbett, devoting his own time and energy to Foundation Escalera and other charitable activities—he is known as a passionate advocate for the homeless and patron of the arts in Salt Lake City—is simply part of who he is. “Sometimes people will say, ‘Well, how can you afford to do that?’, and I always think, I’m not sure I can afford not to do it,” he says. “Seeing the needs that are there in Mexico—I can’t just walk away from that.”
In addition to serving on the foundation’s board of directors and raising $250,000 per year, he and his wife travel to Chiapas every other month to help build schools and work with students. Since the area lacks hotels and other facilities, they often stay with families in wood huts or sleep on the ground at the school construction site, giving them a chance to get to know the people and understand their perspectives.
“He’s always there and I can always seek him out for advice,” Fisher says of Garbett. “He doesn’t come and tell you what to do. He gets out there and takes the time to listen and understand the culture and the problems.”
Asked how others might follow his example, Garbett answers with an imperative: “Do it! It hasn’t always been easy and we haven’t always done the right thing, but we just started. The time that is spent in helping is more like an investment. The time pays dividends that we’re often not even aware of in our businesses. There are lots of opportunities, not just in Mexico but in our own backyards.”