April 21. 2009 6:59AM
Tackling poverty in Paraguay
Group travels yearly to help people in Tobati.
By CHRISTIAN ZAVISCA
Editor's note: Former Tribune editor Christian Zavisca accompanied
the Team Tobati service group on a 10-day trip to Paraguay, South
I had to smile during Ronald Garcia's speech on a balmy night last month in Tobati, Paraguay.
"Me and my classmate Christian Zavisca would never have thought of doing something like this on our spring break," Ron said.
That's for sure.
He spoke to assembled
volunteers from the United States and the local students and families
of students at the Renaldo Macchi Education Center and School, the
centerpiece of the Team Tobati service project.
Ron and I went to Marian High School together, both graduating
in 1991. His family is from Paraguay, and I used to hear all about the
trips he took with his parents, Dr. Juan Carlos Garcia and Dr. Maria
Garcia, his sister, Patricia, and his brother, Juan Jr. Those
Christmastime family vacations evolved into Team Tobati, which is in its 12th year.
and his wife, Denise, teach Spanish and math, respectively, at
Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Conn. Each year, the Garcias
lead a delegation of students, teachers and alumni to Tobati. This
year, I tagged along as one of 20 chaperones, joined by more than 100
high school students,
who pay nearly $3,500 apiece to help pay for service projects in the
landlocked central South American nation of about 7 million people.
heart of Team Tobati is in Connecticut, but its roots can be traced to
South Bend. The doctors Garcia are both well known in northern Indiana.
Mr. Garcia is an oncologist, and Mrs. Garcia is a pathologist.
Garcia Foundation, based in South Bend, provides much of the financing
for Team Tobati, which in addition to the school provides medical
services (including trips by American doctors and dentists), builds
classrooms, and works in other ways to improve the lives of the needy
in this impoverished region.
The Macchi Education Center operates a school that enrolls 15 of
the brightest seventh-graders in the district each year. The first
class of students is now in its junior year of high school.
"We reserve the school exclusively for poor students," Ron told me.
The school provides three meals a day, health care
and textbooks to the students. Tobati's public schools are a much
different story, overcrowded and only meeting for a few hours a day.
school is by far the best school in the state," he said. "It's
extraordinary to have poor students from here go on to college."
The hope is that the students will one day return and help the
people of Tobati, where about a third of the people live below the
international poverty line. "All of the (Macchi) students have been
spoken to constantly about service to the community," Ron said.
school director Ben Elliott and teacher Darren Lefrenier, both
Kingswood-Oxford alumni and recent college graduates, are on yearlong
teaching assignments at the school.
Although the work of Team Tobati goes on in Paraguay all year long, the highlight is the big March trip.
"The whole town gets excited," Lefrenier said.
was excited, too. We left out of New York City, on a nine-hour-plus
flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil. A several-hour layover, a flight to the
Paraguayan capital of Asuncion and a bumpy 90-minute bus ride later, we
were in Tobati, in an area of about 20,000 people.
What I found when we arrived were friendly, gregarious hosts,
plenty of schoolchildren who ran rings around us on soccer fields,
moderate-to-blazing heat and beautiful
countryside. We did some fun tourist stuff, going on hikes, learning
how to make bricks out of the Paraguayan clay, buying handmade crafts
and souvenirs like soccer jerseys, joining in local festivals held in
our honor and gathering at the local pizza parlor and the Macchi
Institute's athletics complex.
Not just spring break
the middle of it all were Ron and Denise. Unfortunately, Ron's parents,
for the first time, didn't make the annual trek. Mr. Garcia is
recovering well after a difficult surgery to remove a cancerous tumor.
Ron is the primary planner of the service trip's many projects, and Denise works to ensure that those plans are executed.
is not just a spring break activity," Denise said. "Ron runs a whole
school in a South American country. It's not a Habitat for
Elliott, the school's director, says the students there have
made great progress in learning English. Those students face unique
"You have to confront problems like, 'I didn't do my homework because I didn't have a light,'æ" Elliott said.
a co-leader of a subteam of American high schoolers, I saw that poverty
firsthand. I joined in helping to build classrooms, donated clothing
and other essentials to poor families and gave out soccer balls and
toothbrushes at schools.
It's an impoverished part of the world,
but also one teeming with happy and engaging people. Poverty doesn't
equal unrelenting despair, as Ron told me. But opportunity is sorely
lacking, and that's what the Macchi School is all about.
Ron described the Garcias' special connection to Paraguay, from South Bend to South America. Tobati is the home of Mrs. Garcia's family; Mr. Garcia is from Asuncion.
Giving back and helping those in need "was a very special family dream for us," Ron said.