The influence of the Church's Benemerito de las Americas prep school has filtered throughout Mexico during the past 25 years, touching nearly every city with a positive influence.
That's the opinion of leaders and students alike who savor their experiences at the 30-acre campus that opened its doors in February 1964. Benemerito has been called "a microcosm of the Church in Mexico" because of its well-ordered plan, enthusiastic and obedient students, and penchant for progress.The school is located on what was once a ranch in the Arbolillo valley in the northwest sector of the Federal District of Mexico City. When the school opened its doors, it was in a rural area.
Today, however, the ever-widening city has engulfed Benemerito and beyond, leaving the campus as an oasis in a metropolis. Students relax on mini-plazas along bricked walks, study in the library, or indulge in playful pick-up basketball games.
Discipline problems are few at the school, which has a motto of "Intelligence, power, light and truth," said Eder L. Ontiveros, administrative assistant. Students know well the economic difficulties besetting their land, and they also know the school represents their hope for success. But more than the search for an economic edge that can be found at many schools, Benemerito's pervading climate is one of kinship and spirituality. Students live high moral standards and many gain a testimony while attending seminary classes on campus. Their school colors - white for purity and gold for excellence - have real meaning.
"We teach our students that they are the leavening for the whole of Mexico," said Ontiveros.
Evidence of the students' commitment shows up in the fact that about half of the students accept mission calls soon after graduation, said Efrain Villalobos, a former student and mission president who is now technical director of the school.
Nearly 100 percent of each graduating class at Benemerito attends public or private universities. Perhaps 60 percent of those graduate, he estimated. "Most are professionals - engineers, lawyers, architects, doctors."
Students at Benemerito are well prepared for the university. By their senior year, they are grouped in one of four areas in which to specialize.
The first area is the exact sciences, such as engineering, and classes include third-year algebra, physics and college-level calculus. The second area includes medicine, dentistry, chemistry or biochemistry. The third includes the administrative sciences of accounting, business administration, and finance. The fourth includes the humanities, such as history, psychology and law, with such classes as philosophy and ethics.
This year, 2,243 students from throughout Mexico attend Benemerito. Upon arriving, the youths immediately become part of a cottage family, where a couple lives with and supervises 16 students. The cottage family offers a homey atmosphere as members hold family prayer, eat meals together, do household chores, and attend Church services.
Students also enjoy extra-curricular activities. Benemerito is well-known among the high schools in Mexico City. Often, its students learn to play basketball only after they arrive at the school. Yet Benemerito teams often win the Mexico City championship, beating a population equivalent to that of New York state.
The school's touring performing group, Ballet Folklorico, is also widely noted for its cultural presentations.
One successful former student, Abraham Menes Sagrero, bishop of the Jordan Ward, Ecatepec Mexico Stake, described what he gained through his education at Benemerito:
"I have a small business with several computers to assist in my work, and I have many clients and a profession. My wife is also a former student of Benemerito. All this is thanks to Benemerito and the good people who have helped make this beautiful dream a reality."
The school's name is taken from an honorary title bestowed upon Mexican leader Benito Juarez, and means, appropriately, "well-deserved of the Americas," said Alberto Kenyon Wagner, who directed the school during its first decade.
He said that from the beginning, the school has brought a change in the lives of the students as they gained self-worth.
"The school has blessed the lives of thousands and thousands of youngsters," he said. The first students were mostly from broken homes supported by less than minimum wages, who couldn't even pay their tuition when they came. Of the first 400 who were recently surveyed, 90 percent have become professionals, and 90 percent are active in the Church.
"Forty have been stake presidents, four are now serving as mission presidents, and several have been regional representatives.
"There is a great spirit there," said Wagner. "The students look at the school as a home as well as a school. It is a place of security they never had. The respect they have for teachers just can't be equaled. I can't say enough good about them; they are just like my own children."