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High school senior collects school supplies for students in remote Mexican villages

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Susana Juarez Rodriguez won an award last fall, but the real winners were the 500 children in a remote Mexican village who received needed school supplies thanks to her collection drive. Some of the children had never seen crayons before. Now they have crayons, colored pencils, markers, note paper, even a backpack and a calculator.

Rodriguez was one of four winners of the Catholic Business Network of Northern Virginia Y.E.S. (Youth Exemplifying Service) Awards.

“A personal set of crayons is empowering. It’s theirs to create, and it’s inspiring to see the kids smiling,” Juarez said.

“It was nice to get the recognition, but what was more important to me was that it opened so many doors for me,” Juarez said. “The award benefited the children we were helping because we were able to get even more donations, and it was even more of a stepping stone to get money from sponsors.”

The Bishop O’Connell High School senior was born in Monterrey, Mexico, the third-largest city in Mexico, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains. She moved to the United States in 2000, but she feels drawn to helping the poor in Mexico.

She and her family volunteer with a nonprofit called Dibujando Sonrisas, Spanish for Drawing Smiles. The organization provides Christmas presents and other needed items — but not school supplies —  to small towns in Mexico.

“I thought collecting school supplies was something we can easily get from students,” she said. “I asked for gently used or new supplies.” The first collection drive she spearheaded in 2015 netted 150 pounds of supplies. That year, she and her sister, Cecilia, a freshman at O’Connell, carried the school supplies in their suitcases. They flew alone to Monterrey, and joined folks from Dibujando Sonrisas for a seven-hour bus ride to several villages in the state of Nuevo León, south of Monterrey, including La Joya del Zacate, San Elías and Jesús María del Terreno.

In 2016, the donations grew to more than 600 pounds of supplies and $600 in donations.

“By mail we sent 140 pounds consisting of paper, binders, coloring books and notebooks to Mexico and took with us 300 pounds of supplies in our suitcases and carry-ons,” said Juarez. “The other 200 pounds we bought in Mexico with the monetary donations we collected.”

Juarez promoted the campaign through a presentation during O’Connell’s Hispanic Heritage assembly, on social media and through a GoFundMe page. More schools became involved, including her grade school, St. Joseph in Herndon. Her friends also donated items in honor of her 18th birthday.

Juarez, an artist, said she wants to give kids the opportunity to create something out of nothing.

“A personal set of crayons is empowering. It’s theirs to create, and it’s inspiring to see the kids smiling,” she said. 

After her graduation, her sister will continue to collect supplies at O’Connell for the annual December trip.

Juarez believes that this kind of work is her calling. She plans to major in business analytics and hopes to start her own nonprofit.

She hopes to expand the school supply collection in college so she can “serve as a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico.”

“By using me as a middle man, we can help even more people.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017