Justo Méndez Aramburu is a great man roughly shaped by the hardships throughout his life but always making the best of it. For he is a man that doesn’t believe in coincidences and everything happens for a reason, such as the loss of his best childhood friend “Estrellita” which has great significance on the work he does today. Justo has dedicated his life to service of those in need such as the homeless, drug addicts and dropouts, even though he would never refer to them as such. Justo doesn’t use the term dropout, he finds it demeaning “It is not their fault, they have been rejected by the educational system and deem them insufficient, and they just don’t adjust to the standard educational system”. That’s where “Nuestra Escuela” comes in, a school for those who have been left behind by the educational system, for several years he has been working in this project which now has three campuses in Caguas, Loíza, and Vieques. He is the director of the schools and his wife Ana Yris Guzman is the sub-director. Together they have been making Puerto Rico a better place one child at a time.
- Justo what makes “Nuestra Escuela” so especial and how does it work?
Well unlike the normal educational program our teachers and courses work individually and varying in each student. The groups are small no more than 12 students per classroom and the periods are short. The student doesn’t go at the pace of the class; the class goes at the pace of the student. “Nuestra Escuela” has become a place shaped by students for students. I just provide the necessary tools for then to complete their goals.
Just until about a decade ago “Nuestra Escuela” was not only for teens, but also for adults that never got to finish high school. Later on Justo narrowed his goal towards the rising youth of Puerto Rico with the ideal to make them into leaders.
- What other services does “Nuestra Escuela” offer?
The source of the problem isn’t only the schools that turn their backs and give up hope or just stop caring whether the student is learning or even attending school. Part of the problem lies in their homes or outside the school. Many of the students come from harsh, violent backgrounds and find difficult to stay in school due to the lack of interest or have found other means to live by. We offer workshops to mend the soul and begin a process of spiritual healing by forgiving and confronting that feeling that has caused them pain. Freeing them from those chains that bind them from moving forward.
- How did you meet Ana Yris?
I met Ana Yris in a workshop I was taking in the Dominican Republic. I saw her for the first time across the room and when the time came to find partners I rushed toward her. The first night I fell in love with her. The second night I proposed marriage to her and she accepted and the next day she came back to Puerto Rico with me. We got married on December 15 of 1994.
- Tell me about Ana Mercedes? Ana Mercedes was my daughter she died in a car accident in September 10 of 1997. She wanted to go out with her friends even though I told her not to because I had a bad feeling but, eventually I coped and let her go. She was the only one that got severely injured, she stayed like that for a while the doctor’s asked my consent for the option to donate her organs, but I declined. Ana Mercedes just like Ana Yris was involved in the projects and workshops. So when she left I lost the will to keep giving them. Until one day the very friends that had been with her that night reminded me of Ana Mercedes and convinced me to once again to continue to give workshops. To honor her death we hold “Nuestra Escuela’s” graduation on September 10, every year.
- What are you goals for the future?
Right now we are currently representing “Nuestra Escuela” at an international level in the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC). It has become very important in the school since not only me and staff members are involved but the students as well. Many of our students have gone to the conference to represent us and have as far as England, Canada and even Ireland. We even got the Conference to be held here in Puerto Rico in the town of Caguas. The goal is that through this conference to keep learning methods so we can impact student’s lives.
Justo to will keep impacting peoples lies through education and compassion and raise another generation to carry on this way of living to help others and making Puerto Rico a better place.