This former teacher didn’t want to waste his retirement years. Here’s how he is improving education in Guatemala

When Kenneth Grover made the decision to retire early from full-time work at the age of 48, he spent a good deal of time pondering what he wanted to do with the next 30 or so years of his life. 

“I wanted to get busy now,” he said, expressing his desire to serve others. “I didn’t want to wait until I’m 70 and then say ‘I wish I would have done that’ because I might not even have the capacity at that point.”

Reflecting on his life as an educator and thinking of where he would best be able to utilize his talents to make a difference in the lives of others, Grover’s thoughts returned to the thing that brought him the most joy in his life apart from his family.

Kenneth Grover, left, meets with community members in one of the areas where he sponsors scholarships for primary school-aged children in Guatemala.
Kenneth Grover, left, meets with community members in one of the areas where he sponsors scholarships for primary school-aged children in Guatemala. Credit: Courtesy Kenneth Grover

As a young man, “the greatest joy I had was the time I had serving and working with the people of Guatemala on my mission,” said the Provo, Utah native. “So I decided to give back to the community that had given me so much.”

A hope for the future

After a few return visits to the country — including an initial visit with his wife and children to show them his former and future work environment — to meet with old friends and get reacquainted with the communities he hoped to help, Grover set to work.

In Guatemala, public education is only fully funded through the sixth grade, Grover explained in a recent Church News interview. After that, students are responsible for paying for their uniforms, books and other school supplies, which often cost more than they or their families have the means to afford. It is during the primary and secondary school years where scholarships and outside funding are not often available that the educational system loses the majority of its students, Grover explained.

So, after making the necessary contacts to begin his work, Grover established the SOYLA Foundation — a scholarship program directed at helping entire communities in poor rural areas of the country — in July 2018. The foundation’s name, Grover explained, is in honor of a 13-year-old girl he knew in the area who passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989.

“The scholarships offer an opportunity amid the great poverty and inequality that exists in this country,” said Doris Adriana Morales Paz, a licensed social worker with the mayor’s office in Santa Andres Villa Seca in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. “They have changed the students’ way of viewing life and have given them other opportunities for personal progress.”

Grover started the scholarships first in two schools in La Maquina — a community in the state of Suchitepequez. He began offering what he calls “blind scholarships” for children in the community to attend either the primary school, Linea B-14, or the secondary school, INEB Telesecundaria B-16. Once scholarships in that community were established, he expanded to schools in the neighboring states, offering scholarships at Canton Siglo I, Santa Cruz Mulua, Retalhuleu and INEB Telesecundaria Mangales, Retalhuleu.

Students and teachers at one of the schools where the SOYLA Foundation sponsors scholarships in Guatemala pose for a group photo.
Students and teachers at one of the schools where the SOYLA Foundation sponsors scholarships in Guatemala pose for a group photo. Credit: Courtesy Kenneth Grover

Griselda Margoth Perez Morales, a teacher at the Instituto Nacional de Educación Básica de Telesecundaria Siglo I in Retalhuleu, said because of Grover and the work he is doing in their community, children are starting to believe achieving their dreams is possible. 

“They know there is someone else willing to listen to their needs and give them support through the difficult process of getting an education,” Morales said. “Most of them, in order to continue studying through the basic cycle (primary school), had to buy their own school supplies. But this year that was no longer necessary thanks to the generosity of Kenneth Grover and his SOYLA foundation. The students strive with increased enthusiasm to accomplish their work and as a result are becoming increasingly competitive.” 

Daring to dream

In 2018, when the program began, 68 children were attending the secondary school in La Maquina. Once the scholarship applications went out, enrollment went up. This year there are 183 students, Grover said, “simply because we have scholarships for kids to be able to go to school and get their books and pay for their uniforms.” 

As a result on the increase, Grover met with the minister of education to request more teachers be brought in to handle the increase in student attendance. 

As a former teacher, Grover felt that every child, regardless of their circumstances, should have the opportunity to receive an education. So, Grover decided to make the scholarships both blind and merit based —  meaning every child in the community who applies will get their basic education covered by the scholarships, but if they work hard and perform well, they can receive extra scholarship funding as they advance. 

Students gather in the courtyard of one of the schools where Kenneth Grover sponsors scholarships in Guatemala.
Students gather in the courtyard of one of the schools where Kenneth Grover sponsors scholarships in Guatemala. Credit: Courtesy Kenneth Grover

Jose Luis Gulaj Obispo, the former principal of INEB Telesecundaria B-16 in La Maquina, said that Grover’s scholarship program has completely changed the lives of his students. 

“Now my students are happier,” he said. “Through education, they are realizing that they can have a better life. They have dreams now, beautiful dreams. Some want to be doctors, teachers, engineers. … They have dreams that they previously viewed as something impossible to accomplish. … He has helped our young people dare to dream.” 

As Grover explained, he simply wanted to ensure that every student, or every family in each of the communities he works in, has the opportunity to go to school without money as an obstacle.

“I was an educator for over 20 years of my career and one of the things I believe in is incentives,” Grover continued. 

For both the children and the teachers — who can also qualify for merit scholarships — the addition of the incentivized scholarships has already brought about an increase in performances, Grover noted. 

“You want to treat people with dignity,” he said. “They don’t want to just receive something. They want to feel like they earned it and so this is a way for me to work with the community to offer that.” 

In addition to the scholarships, making the schools a place that both the children and teachers want to be was also important, Grover explained. With very little money or resources from the government each year to improve the facilities and supplies at the schools, Grover has worked with the communities to help improve the school buildings as well.

Kenneth Grover, center right, stands with a group of students to cut a ribbon after completing a toilet building project for one of the schools where the SOYLA Foundation sponsors scholarships in Guatemala.
Kenneth Grover, center right, stands with a group of students to cut a ribbon after completing a toilet building project for one of the schools where the SOYLA Foundation sponsors scholarships in Guatemala. Credit: Courtesy Kenneth Grover

“I’m not a big believer in doing tons of infrastructure because lots of foundations do it, but then they don’t provide that ongoing,” Grover said. But, because the idea of 180 kids using a single pit toilet at the school seemed like a health hazard waiting to happen, Grover helped to build and install flush toilets with proper plumbing at each of the schools. “We also painted the school and little things like that to kind of build a sense of pride and show that the school means something.”

By changing some of the infrastructure of the schools, Grover has helped the children want to be there, Paz explained.

“The whole community has benefited because more boys and girls have hope for a better world and a better future,” she said. 

In Mangales, Retalhuleu, the SOYLA Foundation also helped to build a small community center to provide a place for the community to gather. 

“Part of my logo is ‘juntos logramos,'” Grover said, explaining that the phrase means “together we achieve.” So with every project, whether with the scholarships, building of bathrooms, painting the schools, donating new desks or building a community center, the focus is always on bringing the community together, Grover explained. 

For each of the building projects, for example, Grover sought out skilled artisans and laborers from the community to help plan, direct and build everything. 

Community members help paint at their local school in Guatemala as part of a project to upgrade the schools sponsored by the SOYLA Foundation.
Community members help paint at their local school in Guatemala as part of a project to upgrade the schools sponsored by the SOYLA Foundation. Credit: Courtesy Kenneth Grover

“They were more than willing to dig the holes and lay some pipe,” he said. “I provided all the materials, and I did provide some contractors to do some permitted work where needed, but I wanted them to have a part in it, because if they have skin in the game then they are more likely to feel ownership for it.”

The SOYLA Foundation and the work Grover is doing in the communities “fills us with hope,” Obispo said. “It fills us with joy and demonstrates to us the power of charity. Through his example, we have discovered that loving one’s neighbor means becoming part of their history. He has given us back our dignity and is teaching us to believe that together, we can achieve great things.” 

Making a difference one by one

By January of 2020, Grover said he expects the foundation will be sponsoring more than 450 students with scholarships. And although at times it feels like he’s not doing enough, Grover said he likes to think of his work in Guatemala like the parable of the starfish. 

The short poem tells the story of an old man, walking along a beach covered with starfish washed ashore by the tide. As he walks, the old man comes across a young boy picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean. The old man, somewhat incredulously asks the boy why he is bothering to throw them back — there are millions of them, he says, telling the young boy he’ll never be able to save them all and then asking what difference it makes. 

The young boy, picking up another star fish and tossing it back into the ocean, says to the old man, it makes a difference to the ones that get thrown back.

“For me, I know it’s only 300 or so kids, and maybe in three years it’ll only be 3,000 kids but, well, it matters to them,” Grover said. “So I’m going to do my part wherever I’m led, to shift the trajectory of these lives.”

Kenneth Grover, founder of the SOYLA Foundation, greets scholarship students prior to a ceremony honoring their academic achievements for the year.
Kenneth Grover, founder of the SOYLA Foundation, greets scholarship students prior to a ceremony honoring their academic achievements for the year. Credit: Courtesy Kenneth Grover

When it comes down to it, there are really only two commandments from the Lord, Grover said. “To love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor. And for me, the best way to love my neighbor and to love my God is to love His children. And my neighbor could be next door or they could be down in Guatemala.”

In recent months, in addition to all he is doing for education, Grover has started looking into other ways he can help these communities. From providing wheelchairs to people in need, to helping sponsor medical services with the help of local doctors, Grover said he is trying to help in any way he can. It’s incredible to know the impact that such small acts can have on the lives of individuals as well as whole communities, he explained.

For Grover, serving others is what really drives him. “It has given my life meaning,” he said. “And I just go by the feeling of the Spirit. It’s really pulled me to those areas and it’s been powerful to see what happens just by providing people with what I think Christ would do by serving them. I’m trying to inspire them to expand their capacity and to grow their spirit and to grow their ability to achieve more in life.” 

And as Morales explained it, Grover’s work is doing just that. 

“Both for me and the educational community, Kenneth Grover’s work is a light of hope helping to overcome the difficult but necessary challenges of improving humanity,” she said. “The love and devotion, which he demonstrates through his kind acts, strengthens our vocation and helps us improve our dreams as educators and learners.”