Love of island translates into English-speaking school
Boston Globe
Mar. 18, 2005

Marie C. Franklin

ISLA MUJERES, Mexico - The story of La Gloria English School is a pay-it-forward tale inspired by one woman's love of this sunny island off Cancun and her desire to pay back its people after vacationing here for 10 years.

The notion of repaying good deeds with new good deeds, from the 1999 novel Pay It Forward, by Catherine Ryan Hyde (and the 2000 film starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt), appealed to Maggie Washa, 56. When she and her husband, Tom, 58, retired here a few years ago from Madison, Wis., lounging at the water's edge wasn't enough. After building a house on Isla Mujeres, making friends and settling into island life, she said she realized that "Tom retired, but I was bored."

Soon she was back in Madison, taking Spanish classes and pursuing a certificate to teach English as a second language. Washa, who had worked as a physical therapist, was following a dream: to return to Mexico to start an English-speaking school for local Mayan children.

"The people of Isla have opened their homes and their hearts to Tom and me. I felt that it was time to give back," she said. "Isla Mujeres is a prospering tourist destination, but many native Maya residents are poor. The ability to speak English is critical to these kids growing up and earning a living wage."

So she and Tom bought a piece of land in La Gloria, the poorest neighborhood, in the middle of the island. They created a 1,400-square-foot building, spending $85,000 of their own money to establish La Gloria English School. They spread the word around the island, especially to the women who belonged to the bead cooperative that Washa had joined. Friends of La Gloria, a non-profit group, was created to help provide money for the school.

Today, La Gloria English School reflects Washa's vision: Downstairs is a large open space that houses a classroom, a library, an office, and a small kitchen and bathroom. Upstairs are two bedrooms used by volunteer teachers, like Kate Pichotta, 69, a retired high school Spanish teacher from Wisconsin. "Because of what they learn here, these children will be able to get better jobs, to be paid more, to have the incentive to climb the ladder," Pichotta said.

The school opened in January 2004 with three teachers, 50 students and a cadre of volunteers. Today, there are four teachers and more than 100 children taking twice-weekly classes, "and we are turning them away," Washa said.