For pair of brothers, Guatemala is second home

TECPAN, GUATEMALA (FOX19) - If you'd asked brothers Joe and Jeff Berninger back in 1996 what their mission in life was, they might not have said it was helping Guatemalan education.

But 15 years later, here they are, founders of the Cooperative for Education (Co Ed) in Guatemala.  Even more so, the two brothers are perhaps some of the most vocal advocates for the education of the indigenous people within Guatemala's borders.

The cooperatives they have founded are supplying indigenous Guatemalan children with textbooks, computers, scholarships and more.

"This is what I will always do. This truly is my career," says Joe. "It is my life's work." He first came to Guatemala as a tourist back in 1991, and over time he fell in love with the country. He moved to the Central American nation by 1994; he and his brother Jeff founded Co Ed together in 1996.

A decade and a half later, it's still easy to see the enthusiasm Joe has for the work he's doing with students in the most rural parts of the country.

Co Ed staffers say 191 Guatemalan schools participate in their cooperative textbook program. 48 schools in Guatemala have Co Ed computer centers. Staffers say 90% of the students who participate in the textbook cooperative say the books made a significant positive impact on their ability to learn and retain information. In the computer centers, staffers say  90% of the third year students have passed the Microsoft Digital Literacy Test.

"At the time I thought in a few years I would go home and it would just take root, " says Joe of the first few years of the textbook cooperative. "But I was wrong, it would have fizzled."

Joe wound up living eleven years in Guatemala, working most of that time to get the NGO off the ground. He says he only recently returned to Cincinnati, OH.  Co Ed now employs 35 people in two countries, with offices in Cincinnati and Guatemala City.

"We just saw a need, and we wanted to respond to it," says Jeff off the early days of Co Ed. "The structure we have put in place has really just enabled the work."

Jeff estimates that in 15 years, he and Joe have taken more than 300 people on 30 snapshot tours. Each tour has the goal of showing donors and supporters the kind of working being done with the remote schools in Guatemala.

"They do always understand what they did to deserve all this attention," says Jeff of the students and schools visited on each tour. "They don't realize that it's the donors who really get the most out of this, and that they are able to see their money and their efforts put to work."

And for Jeff and Joe, each snapshot tour is a chance for them to see how much 15 years of labor has paid off for the students of Guatemala.