Giving back to Guatemala

Mario Torres Herrera (’00) grew up in rural Guatemala where educational opportunities were scarce. His father never learned to read or write, and his options for work were very limited leaving the family in extreme poverty. When Herrera was only 7 years old, he ran away from home to live on the streets of Guatemala City for several months. He eventually ended up in an orphanage called Mi Casa run by John Wetterer, a Vietnam War veteran known as Tio Juan. There Herrera learned to read and write and later finished high school with basic English and computer programming skills.

He worked as a computer programmer in Guatemala City and continued to pursue opportunities to further his education. He applied for the Walton International Scholarship Program and was selected to interview with Dr. Nicky Boyd at a local hotel. There he saw other candidates with more advanced English skills and believed he did not have a chance. However, English was not the only skill being considered, and Herrera was awarded the Walton International Scholarship in August 1996. 

“During my first year at Harding, I learned quite a bit about serving others,” Herrera said. “I think that’s the spirit of the University.” As a freshman, he also read Sam Walton’s autobiography, Made in America. Walton traveled to Central America and saw the devastating effects of war and poverty and decided to create a scholarship program to give something back out of his own success. Herrerra was inspired by Walton’s attitude and decided the best way to show gratitude for his education was to look for an opportunity to serve. He knew the obstacles children in Central America faced preventing their access to education, and he wanted to do something to help. 

During his second year on campus, Herrera started a student organization called Educating for Life to raise funds for students in the rural town of San Antonio El Organo, Guatemala. The group organized a school supply drive, and University students donated hundreds of shoeboxes full of pencils, crayons, toys and handwritten notes for the children. In the summer of 1997, they visited Guatemala and learned that one of the challenges the children faced was walking up a mountain for more than an hour each day to get to school.  

Members of the community had secured donations from a local charity for a new facility, but they did not have any land on which to build. In partnership with Educating for Life, the Walton Family Foundation donated funds to purchase the land. University students in Educating for Life — primarily Walton Scholars — continued to visit every year to build relationships with the Guatemalans and teach them about health, spirituality, education, sports and democratic civic values. 

“Sometimes we talk about global impact, but what’s important is the impact that you can make in the life of at least one other person,” Herrera said. “If you help one child finish school, you’re not just helping him. You’re impacting his whole family and sometimes the whole community.”  

Today, Educating for Life continues to support the same goals Herrera envisioned more than 20 years ago. Senior Luis Zelaya, the club’s development director, is committed to doing what they can to break the cycle of poverty. “Sometimes it’s really hard for [children in Guatemala] to continue studying, but if they see there are people supporting them, they are incentivized to continue,” Zelaya said. “Certainly education can be a powerful tool for them to succeed in life.” 


Their annual campus fundraisers include sticker sales and chocobanana booths. The grand event of the year, Latin Fest, celebrates the cultures of each country in Central America and Mexico with cuisine, clothing, dances and other traditional customs. “Everyone puts so much heart into Latin Fest,” junior social media director Ana Melo said. “When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful cultural representation of all the countries.”

The values of service and gratitude continued to characterize Herrera’s life after graduating in 2000. He worked as an information technology manager for BBDO Guatemala, but after two years he decided to move to El Quiche, Guatemala, to help introduce information technology to rural schools through a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. He then spent 10 years with The Cooperative for Education expanding computer centers from four to more than 40 around the country. This organization now serves more than 11,000 students each week. 

Hererra understands firsthand the transformative power of education. “The gift of an education is for life, and it transcends generations,” he said. “My children are already enjoying better opportunities in life as a direct result of the scholarship given to me by the Walton family.” Decades of Walton Scholars and other University students have been involved in Educating for Life, and as they learn to keep giving back, even more lives will be blessed.

More News

"We should all go back to Harding"

Forty years in Florence

Viewpoint: Global Impact