Lakewood Ranch’s Joaquin Garcia Argibay recalled driving during a family trip through Buenos Aires in Argentina at 7 years old and seeing dozens of people living on the street.
At the time, Garcia Argibay said he didn’t understand the depth of what he was seeing. He said his mother, Silvana Perego, gave a “sheltered response” by saying “things are unwell.”
Now as a senior at The Out-of-Door Academy, he knows the people he saw were homeless.
Garcia Argibay has a deep love and appreciation for Argentina, where his parents, Silvana Perego and Agustine Garcia Argibay, were born.
“It’s bittersweet to be Argentinian at this moment because they have so many great things but the resources they have are not being used. It’s very saddening,” Garcia Argibay said.
After a spirited discussion with his father about what Argentina can do to improve its economy and help its citizens, Garcia Argibay said he felt the need to do something.
“Unfortunately, in the past couple of decades, there’s been a steep educational decline (in Argentina),” he said. “It was affecting not only every Argentinian in the country but my family as well.”
He knew the state of education in Argentina was dismal after seeing his 17-year-old cousin Santiago Perego’s homework. He said Perego, who would be a high school junior in the U.S., was completing assignments at an eighth grade level.
“In the U.S. sometimes we undervalue the education we have because when you’re living in a country where standards are followed by basically every school, you get used to education being at a certain level,” Garcia Argibay said. “In Argentina, it depends on the school you’re in, the province you’re in and so many factors that are out of your control. It can feel pretty helpless.”
To Garcia Argibay, education is the key to a successful future, so he began the Sister School Project at ODA last school year.
“If we’re going to break these chains of poverty in Argentina, we need to start by educating its people and showing them there’s a world of opportunities out there and they’re there for the taking,” he said.
He organized a dress down day at ODA in which students paid to wear clothing other than the school uniform and raised $2,500. He used that money to work with the Grand Chaco Foundation, a nonprofit in Argentina, to support E.E.P. N 714, a school that serves kindergarten through middle school students in Chaco, Argentina. Chaco is the poorest province in Argentina with more than 60% of the children in the province living in poverty.
“You have people not knowing when they’re going to eat next,” Garcia Argibay said. “They’re only getting one meal a day sometimes.”
The money helped the school pay for internet access and school supplies for 100 students.
Garcia Argibay said students had been erasing their notes in a notebook so they could reuse the paper.
Garcia Argibay was able to meet with a director at the school last summer and hear about the impact the organization has had on the students. He said it was an emotional experience.
“I put in so many hours to this project, but when you’re able to not only see because we have pictures of (the students) but hear firsthand from one of the people that saw this change, it makes it so much more real and tangible,” he said.
During the visit, Garcia Argibay watched videos of the students trying to speak English, which he said brought him to the verge of tears.
“They’re enthusiastic and they have so much hope in us as a community of what we’ve been able to provide them and hopefully will continue to provide them,” he said.
Garcia Argibay said there is so much more he wants to do.
“There’s so much opportunity out there,” he said. “I’m not going to stop for the rest of my life. I love how far we’ve come already, but there are dozens of mountains in the mountain ranges that I’m following right now that need to be climbed and conquered.”
This year, Garcia Argibay is working with four other students in the Spanish Club to continue to raise money as well as teach the Argentinian students English. They also want to provide resources teachers need.
Although Garcia Argibay will graduate in May, he plans to continue to be involved in the Sister School Project.
He hopes ODA can start an exchange program with the school in Argentina in the future.
He also hopes to find a way for the Sister School Project to provide a meal for the students every day.
As a student in a private school in the U.S. with the opportunity to attend a college or university, Garcia Argibay said researching and learning about Chaco has been eye opening.
“The more I’m involved with this project, the more I appreciate everything I have,” he said. “The more that people work with me on this project, the more they realize we’re living in such a wonderful country with so many opportunities. The U.S. might have its faults, as any country does, but we’re living in a city, especially in this community, that has so many opportunities and resources. We should be happy with the access we have. These students have the same aspirations as us, just in another country.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.