By Claire Rooney
“IN YOU I SEE ME” – This poster, in a cafe in Oaxaca, jumped off the wall at my glance. It reminded me of the universality of life’s challenges and joys if we pry back masks such as culture, geography, and class.
“IN YOU I SEE ME” repeatedly came to mind during the week that I spent at The Oaxaca Learning Centre (TOLC) Bed and Breakfast in January of this year. Gary Titus, a community organizer from San Francisco who was grieving the death of his life partner, began healing his own heart by tutoring street youth on his patio in Oaxaca in 1992. Would that each of us were able, like Gary, to transform deep loss into a gift to disadvantaged youth – IN YOU I SEE ME?
Carol Watts, a fellow Canadian, introduced us to TOLC in the September-October 2018 edition of The Eye (https://huatulcoeye.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/2018-sept-oct.pdf). In fact, it was Carol’s article (“Be a Part of Responsible Tourism with the Oaxaca Learning Center!”) that compelled me to contact the B&B to arrange a stay there. All proceeds from the B&B go directly to the programs offered at TOLC, where youth embark on a journey of learning and personal development to overcome socio-economic, geographical and cultural barriers.
I was elated to meet Carol at the January 27, 2019, Concert for the Benefit of The Oaxaca Learning Center in the sunny courtyard at TOLC. An overflow crowd was delighted by music by Mexican composers and Mozart, artfully performed by three members of the Oaxaca Symphony Orchestra and a master guitarist. It was a joyful afternoon of music, camaraderie and community.
To recap from Carol’s article, TOLC is a unique nonprofit organization in Oaxaca. It provides much-needed academic tutoring and social support services to low-income students from underserved urban neighbourhoods and indigenous rural villages throughout the state of Oaxaca. All tutors and leaders come from the same background as the students and are role models to inspire and guide them. From early teens to young adults, students at TOLC are striving to reach a level of academic proficiency in order to fulfill educational and professional goals. Rigorous tutoring in mathematics and science, English classes, computer skills training, career counselling, college admission preparation, psychological counselling, leadership training, gender equity workshops, cultural experiences and field trips are all provided free of charge. Ongoing financial assistance for Learning Centre tutors and teachers, former students themselves, is a cornerstone of TOLC.
Gerardo, fondly known as “Yayo”, is one of the youths currently involved with TOLC. Unbeknownst to my husband and me, Yayo generously gave up his bedroom for the week of our stay, as they were full up with other guests. Yayo’s room was as lovely as he is. I feel immense gratitude that he gave me permission to share his story.
IN YOU I SEE ME. The transition from childhood to adulthood is fraught with angst and uncertainty for each of us, regardless of background. Yayo was a 16-year-old high school dropout in 2015, struggling with anxiety, depression and confusion about his future. Introduced by his older brother to Gary Titus, the founder of TOLC, Yayo found a safe and respectful haven, a job as a kitchen helper, as well as true friendship and psychological counselling that helped him get on track.
Yayo shared with me many feelings and insights. At TOLC, he learned how to set goals and achieve them. A return to high school was first, followed by a scholarship to study English. Four years later, this 20-year-old exudes warmth, confidence and enthusiasm. The compassion and respect he received is paid forward in the warm and sincere way he interacts with everyone. Yayo is now a high school graduate, and an increasingly confident English speaker. Currently in a “gap year”, he is fulfilling several more goals—learning to swim and play the piano, and teaching English to 14- to 16-year-olds at TOLC – a position usually reserved for university students. In addition, he is working studiously in preparatory classes for the university entrance exam that was coming up in April.
In thinking forward to university, Yayo asked The Oaxaca Learning Centre for vocational testing to assist with educational planning. On completion of the psychological testing he realized that “I might like to do this myself . . . I want to help people who really need help, like Gary helped me . . . I know now that psychological health is very important”. Emerging from his achievements are personal development, self-confidence and a bright plan for his future. Yayo is set to study psychology at Anáhuac University in Oaxaca starting in August, a goal that seemed completely out of reach a few years ago.
Gary Titus passed away in December 2015 following a progressive illness. His death hit Yayo very hard. It was clear from our conversations that Gary had a profound impact on the life of this young man, and that his grace, kindness and unwavering belief in the dignity of each individual lives on in many others, too. Among them is one very special woman, Susan Connor.
In 2007, Susan Connor, a petite but formidable law professor and civil rights lawyer from Chicago, was in Oaxaca on holiday. While walking down Calle Murguía, Susan was beckoned over by Jorge, a young man who was hanging out with friends in front of The Oaxaca Learning Center, waiting for it to open. Susan regards this encounter as “no accident”, and recounted to me with delight the story of this introduction. Jorge insisted that she come in to meet Gary (Titus), and learn about the Center. Within a day, she began volunteering at TOLC and redirecting her passion for civil rights law to the youth of Oaxaca.
For the next six years, Susan continued to come to TOLC for three months a year, volunteering in various capacities during breaks from her university teaching back in Chicago. Susan felt a true affinity for Gary Titus, a man she describes as “Buddha-like” in his core value of non-judgment, as well as his intolerance for injustice and ability to articulate these values very clearly. She observed closely how TOLC worked, and easily internalized Gary’s passion for the Centre and the youth of Oaxaca because her own values were completely aligned with his. In August 2013, on the eve of her departure back to Chicago to begin a new semester teaching law, Gary shared with Susan his deep anxiety about the fate of TOLC, as his heath was in decline.
It was a transformative moment for them both. The decision was made for Susan to retire after 41 years teaching and practicing law. An intrepid little ball of energy with clear and unequivocal principles, Susan sold her possessions and replaced her American dream with a Mexican one that felt absolutely right in heart and mind. She moved into her new life at TOLC full time on December 31, 2014. Quietly, respectfully, and steadfastly over time, Gary introduced her into the fold, such that when he died 11 months later, Susan had earned the trust of the students, teachers, Board members and supporters of TOLC.
While Susan resists a “title” at TOLC, she is essentially the mentor-in-residence and the manager of the B&B. She is also a warm and incredibly effective spokesperson for the Centre. Her advocacy for the youth of Oaxaca in general and several individuals in particular is infectious. Yayo now has an “other mom”, a role that Susan embraces wholeheartedly.
In our current world where negativity dominates the press, spending time with the people at TOLC was uplifting. I left there feeling buoyant and optimistic, and cannot wait to return and to contribute in a more meaningful way. IN YOU I SEE ME – we can share in the achievements of Oaxacan youth and better ourselves, too.
There are many ways to support the Centre. You can volunteer to do an intercambio (exchange) where you can practice your Spanish with a student while helping them with English. If you are an English-language teacher you can work on curriculum-building or teach an English class. Workshops on topics such as stress management, essay-writing, and sexual and reproductive health need leaders. Like all non-governmental organizations, expertise in fundraising, organizational development, marketing, grant-writing, and event organizing is needed. Donations are always appreciated, and there are three platforms—-one for Canadian donors, one for Mexican donors, and one for donors from the USA and all other countries.
To obtain a volunteer application or more information, contact Susan Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org. To make a donation, go to the Centre’s secure donation page at http://www.tolc.org.mx/donate.html.