SANDPOINT — For most of us, a trip to see the family is an over the river and through the woods kind of affair — even when crossing the river and traveling through the woods is updated to include flight schedules and rental cars.
When Sandpoint residents Michael and Anavel Boge and their daughter, Laura, pack up to see Anavel’s family, getting to Peru is only the first leg of the journey.
“To me, it might as well be traveling to the moon,” Michael said, recalling an early trip to his wife’s hometown. “You have a fun, 14-hour bus ride where you start at sea level, cross the Andes and go back down into Satipo.”
Similar in both population and elevation to Sandpoint, Satipo also has become home to one of those little miracles that keeps you believing in the fundamental goodness of humankind. In 2005, the Boges were on a visit there when Michael asked his wife why so many of the local kids were wandering the streets, instead of attending the free public school.
“Anavel told me that the school was free, but you still needed to pay for the uniforms and shoes, the books and school supplies,” he said. “I told her we should start a program to supply these items to kids in her hometown — she thought I was totally nuts.
“In Peru, money’s scarce, so you keep it in the family,” he added. “No one gives to anyone — especially people you don’t know anything about.”
Soon enough, Boge learned that he was pushing up against Peruvian culture itself. Undeterred, he pushed harder to move his idea forward.
By 2006, the Satipo Kids Project was gaining steam. The first year saw about 15 children from some of the poorest families start to attend the San Francisco school there.
The cost to send kids to school runs about $150 per student. Funding for the project comes annually from the Banff Mountain Film Festival — showing this weekend at the Panida Theater — which the Boges host each year in Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene. Once the money was raised from the North Idaho film screenings, Anavel would travel to Peru to access needed supplies, then take the long bus trek to deliver them.
“You really had to keep an eye on things,” her husband said. “This stuff was going over the Andes, so you’d have to watch out the bus window to make sure everything you came with was getting on the bus.”
Encouraged by a strong initial response, the Boges rolled into the second year of the project with new challenges. For one, their funding had been rerouted to create a kind of “friends and family plan” for employees at the school and others who could afford school supplies, but liked the idea of having the cost covered by someone else.
On another occasion, they questioned a young child’s request for size 11 shoes and found out that the student’s father had decided the footwear should belong to him.
The hammer really came down when the family realized that some students being funded through the project were taking an on-again, off-again approach to school attendance. Part of that came from home, where parents thought that putting their kids right to work made more sense than betting on what opportunities might lie ahead following an education.
“Some families get it in terms of education, some do not,” said Michael. “We finally got to the point where, if you did not have passing grades for the year, you were out — period. No excuses.”
Girls outnumbered boys in the project by 3-to-1, a factor of the boys simply having more opportunities to work than girls in Peru. That, too, can prove to be a trap that keeps the poverty cycle in play, Boge noted.
“In Peru, it’s a caste society,” he said. “The really poor kids don’t go to school, so there’s no way out. If a child does get a job, that’s their job for life. And don’t even think about asking for a raise. Ever.”
The Boges’ hope was to find a way to break that cycle.
“We took the long view,” Michael said. “How could we give some skills that would pull families up so they would have a better life?”
At its peak, the Satipo Kids Project boasted 38 students enrolled in school because of the program’s support. Out of those, 34 went on the graduate from secondary school — the Peruvian equivalent of high school.
The crowning achievement, though, involved the recent graduation of three of those students from college last year, with a fourth scheduled to graduate this year.
“In the end, we decided not to add more new kids and just work instead on getting the ones we had through the program,” said Michael. “These are really good kids and they’ve worked hard. Much of their success was because they had their own parents who saw the value of what we were doing and got behind the program and their kids’ education.”
The three college graduates received extended funding support from the Boges, as will the fourth student, who has expressed an interest in continued higher education once he gets his degree this spring.
Anavel shared a note from one of those graduates named Thalia Gravier Davla, who wrote: “Thanks for teaching me, because now I can help other people.”
With 34 secondary school grads and soon to be a quartet of college graduates hailing from Satipo, the Boges are poised to look back on this chapter as one that planted the seeds of change for kids who came up out of poverty with no opportunity in sight.
“We were really doing some good work on a ground level that would help these young minds for many years,” Michael said. “Bottom line, the Satipo Kids Project worked and it taught me much in my own education called life.”