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Once-doomed school celebrates 50 years


The whole town of La Mesa, Colombia, joined the American Mennonite School in its 50th anniversary festivities. Here community dancers help celebrate with a traditional dance

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November 29, 2005
-by Aaron Kauffman, Laura Kauffman and Lynda Hollinger-Janzen

La Mesa, Colombia – A colorful parade through the streets of La Mesa launched a two-week celebration of the 50th anniversary of Colegio Americano Menno (American Mennonite School) — a school that should have closed 15 years ago. On Oct. 15, each class of the 12-grade school danced along the main street of this Colombian town, dressed in traditional outfits from different regions of the country.

The following day, more than 2,000 people packed into the newly renovated school for a Bingo game, playing for prizes: a computer, a digital camera, a television set, a washing machine, a stove, a refrigerator and the grand prize – a brand-new motorcycle.

CAM’s principal, Guillermo Vargas, reported the 500-student school typically invests $4,000 into fund-raising events, earning back twice that amount. Proceeds help purchase school improvements, like equipping the computer lab.

The Colombian Mennonite Church appointed Vargas in 1990 to oversee the closing of CAM. Instead, he rallied support from the local community and over the next 15 years led a grass-roots movement to build today’s thriving institution with a vision to educate young minds, bodies and spirits.

Three young Colombian Mennonites began the Anabaptist school in 1955. However, the Catholic-dominated school system in Colombia refused legal status to the educational institution with its evangelical orientation. Such discrimination forced the school to close its doors several times. Undaunted, teachers continued to educate about 20 students in homes during these years.

In 1959, the Commission on Overseas Mission, a predecessor agency of both Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner Mennonite Mission Network, sent Vernelle Helen Yoder, of Berne, Ind., to La Mesa to help with legalization, granted in 1969.

In the early 1970s, North American mission workers provided leadership for CAM, but in the course of the decade turned responsibilities over to their Colombian colleagues.

Despite CAM’s continued growth during the 1980s, both Colombian and North American church leaders began to question the long-term viability of the institution. By 1989, the budgetary gap between income and expenses, coupled with a drop in foreign support, nearly forced the demise of CAM.

Enter Vargas. One of his first administrative visits was to the regional secretary of education, who asked if the Mennonites had consulted the local community about their decision.

This question led Vargas to realize he had not explored all the alternatives to CAM’s fate. As he talked with members of the La Mesa community, he found them ready to mobilize support to save the school.

Vargas directed the creation of a five-year plan that weaned the school’s dependence on the subsidies from the Colombian Mennonite Church, the source of 80 percent of its revenues. The plan called for increased enrollment and tuition to become a self-sustaining institution.

Under Vargas’ leadership, the school has grown to provide education from kindergarten through high-school graduation. The building has expanded from a few rooms to an impressive four-story edifice complete with science and computer labs.

Though CAM began under Catholic opposition, it now attracts a majority of Catholic students whose parents have an interest in the teaching of peace and moral values.

Additional activities during the 50th-anniversary festivities demonstrated CAM’s vision of holistic education.

Teams from area schools competed in volleyball, basketball, ping-pong and soccer tournaments. An art show featured regional artists. First-graders participated in an art contest with other schools. Older students contributed chemistry and physics projects for the Science Fair. Some even marketed their homemade shampoo, body wash, and nail polish remover.

A forum composed of parents, students, teachers, Colombian Mennonite Church leaders and visitors from North America discussed the relationship of the school to the church, the tension of growth versus maintaining identity, the possibility of evolving into a bilingual school and future exchanges with North American Mennonite schools.

Iglesia Menonita de La Mesa (La Mesa Mennonite Church), whose property adjoins the school grounds, sponsored a series of workshops on church leadership, parenting and life skills for youth.

The church also hosted a starlight worship service on the basketball court where delegations representing the Mennonite churches of Canada and the United States sat shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of students and their families, alumni and community people.

The service concluded with birthday cake and fireworks.

Linda Shelly, Mennonite Mission Network’s director for Latin America, and Robert Suderman, representing Mennonite Church Canada Witness, received recognition for the role of “Amigos” (friends) of the school, acknowledging the support from the wider church and individuals in North America.

North American Mennonites continue to support CAM through low-interest loans and donations and by sending workers through Mennonite mission agencies.