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EAST CHICAGO — A group of Central High School students in Spanish 3 are learning about social justice issues in the Latin American countries of Nicaragua and Guatemala as they sell handwoven bracelets, or "pulseras," through May 15.

The students have joined a nationwide program called the Pulsera Project. It's a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It educates, empowers and connects Central American artists with students in more than 1,600 U.S. schools through the sale of the colorful pulseras.

Central High teachers Nohemi Saavedra and Gail Hammer are overseeing the student project. The pair have talked to their students about the importance of helping out others in Central American countries where people don't have the same advantages as many American students.

Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The combined population of Central America was estimated at about 42.6 million in 2012.

Saavedra told her students the people in Nicaragua and Gutemala make about $120 per month, giving them little to survive on.

"Every pulsera is made by a different artist," she said. "When we contacted the Pulsera Project, they sent us 500 pulseras. This is the first year we are doing this project. We started selling the pulseras to teachers and staff first. Over the next couple of weeks, we're going to sell to students on the lunch hour."

The bracelets are $5 each. The school also received 15 handwoven purses that sell for $10 each.

Saavedra said all her students wrote to a different artist about their life as teens in the United States, and they have been learning about the culture of people in Central America.

"Instead of them just reading about how poor these countries are, they get a chance to see their work and what they are doing to better their lives," Saavedra said.

"We are empowering these people. We are not just giving them charity or a handout. We are selling these beautiful bracelets that they've made. All of this money goes towards programs that will help these people with housing, health care and education."

According to the Pulsera Project website, since 2009, Pulsera Project volunteers have raised more than $2 million through pulsera sales to create jobs, empower Central American communities and provide engaging educational programs both in the U.S. and Central America.

Saavedra said one of the lessons she wants her students to learn is the difference between charity and empowerment. "I want them to understand that if they can do something to help other people in the world, they can certainly do something to help their own community. Be active, participate and you can make changes," she said.

Students find value in helping others

Sophomore Jesus Moreno said he's helping out, because he knows that Nicaragua and Guatemala are among the poorest countries in the world.

"We wanted to do more than just give them food," he said. "We wanted to find a way to help them earn money, and this will do it. This shows them that their work is beautiful, and they have a skill and they're earning money by using their skills."

Senior Omar Rivera said the project makes him feel like he is helping people.

"I've never been to any of those countries, but I'm happy to help in any way that I can. Even though selling these bracelets is a small thing to do, I'm enjoying learning about the people in those countries and know that I'm empowering them," he said.

Junior Nicholas Davis said the bracelets are beautiful, and the intricate work is amazing. "The $5 people are paying for this isn't much, and it's going to make a big difference in their lives," he said.

Sophomore Nayeli Arredondo said her parents are from Mexico, and she's visited that country, and is aware of economic conditions there.

"They've all got similar struggles," Arredondo said. "It's interesting to read about how they make the bracelets and how this project has helped them. I wrote to one of the artists, and they have the same hopes and dreams that we have. They're just like us.

"The artist I wrote to is going to college and trying to improve his English. He's hoping to get a new career, hopefully in the U.S. I can see how little they have compared to what we have here. We take everything for granted. I know I sometimes complain about little things, and it's not worth it. There are others who wish they had my life," she said.

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.