None of the native women in the tiny Maya town of Pac Chen, Mexico can read or write. Thanks to Viasat, that’s about to change.
On June 7, two Viasat retailers activated an internet connection mounted on the roof of the community’s two-room elementary school. That linked six new computers – and the students – to the world.
Zachary Ritchie and Jeriah Hershberger were among 58 Viasat retailers in Mexico for the retailers’ 2018 Incentive Trip – a week-long stay at an oceanside resort awarded to the company’s top sales people. As a corporate give-back project, Viasat retailers donated the internet service, computers, a printer, projector and medical equipment.
Those donations enable Pac Chen resident Mariana Garcia Solana to give reading, writing and English lessons to the 14 local women whose education stopped at third grade.
It means 17-year-old Josue will get an “A” in chemistry this year, and Pac Chen’s sole teacher can now give internet-based assignments.
The medical equipment also means 150 people will walk to see a doctor instead of traveling 7 miles to a hospital in a larger village; few Pac Chen residents have cars.
The donations are welcome gifts in a community that’s slowly integrating into the modern world.
Viasat retailer Jeriah Hershberger, left, confers with Mexican installer Miguel Angel as Viasat’s Zachary Ritchie aligns the satellite dish on the roof of the Pac Chen Elementary School June 7.
Pac Chen is a two-hour drive from the beach resorts of Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Like many towns in the area, it sprang to life in the late 1800s as a gum tree camp. American companies used sap from the area’s trees to make chewing gum, starting a harvesting frenzy in the tropical jungle that ended in the 1950s with synthetic substitutes.
That left the former camps isolated and poor, conditions that changed 20 years ago with the founding of eco-tourism company Alltournatives. It partnered with Pac Chen’s residents in its first project, sharing the income with the community and hiring locals as tour staff.
“They share the job positions – women in the kitchen, men going with the tours and the elders greeting people,” said Solana, a Pac Chen resident and director of the Maya Environmental Education and Research Center. “Many of the villagers don’t have a way to tell time, so we have someone we call an errand man. He goes house-to-house on a bike to tell people when to come to work. That position is rotated, too.”
Using the same model, Alltournatives has since expanded into other area towns.
Today, Pac Chen’s indigenous Mayas still live in traditional huts with thatched roofs and wood or clay walls, none with air conditioning. But with the influx of money, most homes now have electricity and indoor plumbing. Dirt roads have been paved. New classrooms and money for teacher salaries extended education through high school. Most of the area’s residents even have cellphones.
But Pac Chen’s only way to get online was through a local wireless service, with download speeds under 1 Mbps.
And the computers its students used were 7 miles away in neighboring Tres Reyes, which is served by the same wireless provider. Children from both communities shared the two computers there, often waiting until well past dark to take their turn.
Now, the children of Tres Reyes may want to come to Pac Chen. Not only do they have a fully equipped computer lab, Ritchie’s speed test showed the download speed at 35 Mbps.
Solving the ‘homework gap’
Seventeen-year-old Josue was among the first students to use the computers. He completed a chemistry assignment on the nutritional value of butter, including a neat graph with a detailed analysis.
“Before the computer was here, we had to stay in Tres Reyes doing homework,” said Josue, speaking through a translator. “I’m positive I’ll get an ‘A’ because I have access to a computer and a printer. The teacher deducts points for handwritten work.”
Josue plans to work with his father for Alltournatives. But he won’t stop learning. Using the computers Viasat donated, he says he’ll enroll in an online university.
Pac Chen resident Mariana Garcia Solana, who coordinated Viasat’s computer and internet donations, quizzes high school student Josue about his familiarity with the internet in the school’s newly equipped computer lab June 7.
When Solana asks him what he thinks about the new computers, Josue smiles and touches the white keyboard. “It’s very beautiful.”
Solana expects the village women, most of whom only speak Mayan, will have a very different first experience with the computers.
“We’ll need to teach them everything – how to touch the keys gently, not to bring sodas in,” she said. “Learning to read is necessary for many things. It will be much easier with these computers. You can point to words.”
After they learn to read and write, Solana plans to teach the women English, a skill that will help them in their interaction with tourists.
New medical equipment
Just as the computer lab once lacked electronics, Pac Chen’s medical building was an empty building until Viasat’s shipment arrived in June. It now has an examination table, reception desk, blood pressure monitor, glucose meter and many other basic health supplies.
Solana said government money should cover such items, but funding stopped with the building’s construction.
Getting additional funds “… takes a long time to happen,” she said. “They will fix things for big cities. These places are forgotten.”
With the equipment donated by Viasat in place, a doctor from Playa del Carmen will begin regular visits to the village.
“On Sunday, we will have our first clinic day,” Solana said.
Solana, who has helped raise funds for Pac Chen for 12 years, said the donations represent a big step forward for the town. “It’s very gratifying.”
Viasat’s Steven McElroy, vice president of sales and distribution, visited Pac Chen the day service was activated.
“I know we’re making a big difference in their lives,” he later told the retailers in Mexico for the Incentive Trip. “We’re helping increase literacy among the women in the town, and we know we’re opening up a world of opportunities to these kids.
“We all know the value of connectivity. We were glad we were able to provide Pac Chen with what they need to connect to better education and medical care. When we travel, we want to make every place a little better than we found it, and I think we did it this time.”
Pac Chen student Josue reviews a chemistry assignment he completed on a computer Viasat donated to the village school.
Nichole Rostad is a Colorado native with a strong passion for Spanish literature, language and culture. She’s excited to be part of the Latin America Community Wi-Fi team at Viasat. In her free time, Nichole enjoys traveling, spending time with her dog, family and curling.