Imagine a tall, solid Guatemalan woman wearing a hand-woven skirt and traditional white blouse with her green and blue school colors embroidered at the neckline. Myrna is the director of Christian Education at the Horeb School in Cotzal.
In July 2019, Suzanne and Ken Popp joined the Nicolás Fund for Education (NFE) mission trip to the Nicolás Christian School (NCS). At the teacher professional development workshop which NFE offers to educators around the country, Suzanne met Myrna, and through an interpreter, learned about her life: how she traveled as a missionary to Morocco for a year, how she worked with AIDS orphans there, how—at age 57—she adopted two Guatemalan children. Suzanne felt inspired by her compassionate work for peace and justice.
For most of their lives, Ken and Suzanne Popp have lived lives of compassion. Just out of college, they spent two years in Africa with the Peace Corps. Since then, they have led and joined many mission trips to various countries. For ten years, Ken worked as a project manager for World Vision, and in retirement, the Popps founded and led VillageSteps, an organization dedicated to improving primary education in sub-Saharan Africa.
When asked what has fueled their compassion, Suzanne says: “The realization of what a difference one person can make, how you can change things, open people’s eyes.” She tells the story of a friend in Senegal who learned of a child falling out of a tree and breaking his leg. The friend gave the hunters who found the child a dollar to take the child to the hospital. A week later, the hunters returned the money. When asked how the child was doing, they replied, “Oh, we didn’t want to hurt your feelings. We laid the child in the bush. No one recovers from a bone being broken like that”. These people needed to know that something could be done needed their eyes opened to the realities of modern medicine.
Suzanne also says, “Children are so important. A person or generation can be changed by one person’s words or actions.” Oprah Winfrey tells her own story of the power of a person. When a well-dressed woman visited her elementary classroom, she told Oprah that she had bee-stung lips, encouraging Oprah’s self-confidence and ambition and making her feel beautiful.
Compassion sometimes involves relieving suffering in joyful ways. At the primary schools near Nebaj where NFE provides educational enrichment, Suzanne read “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” and “Rumpelstiltskin”—through a translator—to the children. At the end of each story, she provided crayons and paper and asked the children to illustrate the stories. At one school, two boys—not enrolled—wandered in and listened. Since they had no desks assigned to them,
they crawled down on the floor head-first under a scruffy desk topped with dilapidated boxes where they drew and colored pictures of the story. At another school, after “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” two girls wearing sports uniforms acted out the story using their hands as horns and a table as the bridge. The drama of fighting a troll caught their imaginations, and they readily volunteered to put on a show for the other children.
More moments of joy ensued when the team conducted a meeting during the day for parents to solicit their feedback. Translation moved from Ixil, the villager’s native language, to Spanish to English and back again. NFE makes it a practice to seek parent feedback on school practices and decisions. Fathers left their farming and showed up in their best clothes. Mothers came in their traditional garb. After the meeting, the team formed an inner circle while the parents formed an outer circle. The parents prayed—out loud, all at once—for the school and the team. The team heard and felt the power! As Suzanne recounts these education enhancing experiences, her voice vibrates with joy and enthusiasm.
“Education is the cornerstone to enabling all children to hold the promise of a brighter future,” Ken writes on the VillageSteps webpage. Education is compassion. Let your compassion fuel up and out as you consider Myrna’s work with Moroccan orphans and as you reflect on the lives and words of Ken and Suzanne Popp.