By Sam Pierce
There are 322 students currently enrolled at the Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, Texas, and around 90 percent of those students live in Juarez, Mexico and make the daily trek — about a two-hour walk — on a regular basis.
“As I observe the drive these students have to make their lives and those of their families’ lives better, I have come to the realization that these children do not take this opportunity for granted,” Ernesto Morales, the principal at Lydia Patterson Institute, said. “Some students will be here at seven in the morning to work hours that are required for the scholarship they have been given.
“Some of those same students will be here late into the evening for student activities and sports. Any free time after school will be used for homework and studying.
“When we think of determination, I can think of few instances where I see more.”
Stephen Coburn, the Northwest District Superintendent for the Arkansas Conference, traveled to El Paso to visit the Institute last year. He had the opportunity to go to the border and walk with the kids.
“Their day starts at 4 o’clock in the morning in order to get to the border,” Coburn said. “The students that I had an opportunity to interact with are very committed to their education. They are just like students here in the United States.
“They are eager to learn, hopeful for the future, dreaming dreams and trying to pursue them.”
The Lydia Patterson Institute dates back to 1913 and is the only institution of the United Methodist Church that sits right on the border, just a few blocks from the U.S. and Mexico border in El Paso. It is also the only institution that predominantly serves Hispanics and is supported by the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, according to Socorro De Anda, the president of Lydia Patterson Institute.
“We are a middle school and high school, grades 7 through 12,” De Anda said. “Seventy percent of our students cross the border every single day, and half of those students are U.S. citizens living across the border, and the other half are Mexican students that have student visas.
“Our mission is to help students that might not be able to continue their education because of a lack of resources or a lack of opportunity.”
De Anda said in the late 1800s, there was an influx of Mexican people coming into south El Paso, fleeing from the Mexico Revolution and settling in southern El Paso. She said those families had children of school age, but they were not allowed in the schools in El Paso, because the schools were for residents only.
Lydia Patterson, who was a member of what is now Trinity-First United Methodist in downtown El Paso, took it upon herself to travel to the barrio and teach English and the Bible to these children in their homes. When she died, her husband gave $75,000 to the Methodist Church and asked that a school be built in memory of his wife.
“We bring them here, we teach them English, and we put them through high school, and we send them off to college,” De Anda said. “We are sending about 98 percent of our seniors to college every year, and many of them go through United Methodist colleges or universities that work with us.”
She said the minute a student enrolls at LPI, “we start training them.”
“You are not here to graduate high school and go to work,” she said. “You are here to go to college.
“Their mindset from the very beginning, that’s what they are going to do. When the time comes, if they can’t afford it, we are going to make sure they go to college.”
“These kids are like any other kids anywhere in the United States,” Coburn said. “They are just teenagers, normal kids trying to get an education, but they work hard.
“The commitments they have to make is just incredible. One hundred percent of their graduates go on to college somewhere. They have very high academic standards.
“Talking to the kids, not one student complained about how hard they have to work. They were just grateful for the opportunity.”
Currently, the Lydia Patterson Institute is undergoing a capital campaign to raise money for renovations for the school and build a new chapel. De Anda said the school has outgrown its current chapel.
“The buildings were built in 1960 and are more than 50 years old, so they need to be renovated,” she said. “We need to make sure the school remains here for the next 100 years.
“… We have to have two chapel services because we don’t fit in our old chapel. I want a place where we can worship together under one roof.”
According to the website, the existing facilities will be stripped to the bare structure and rebuilt to the latest standards, including “updated lighting, information technology and accessibility needs.” The new chapel will also house a dining area, specialized classrooms and student gathering areas, according to the website. For more information, visit www.lpi-elp.com.
The school holds chapel services on a weekly basis, and the students are required to take Bible classes are part of their graduation requirements.
“This is a place where one feels like you are making a difference,” De Anda, who has been the president for 26 years, said. “You are making a difference in the life of a student; you are changing their life.
“I have a background in finance, and people ask me why I gave that up for a nonprofit, and I always say, ‘I don’t think I made that decision. I think somebody up there made it for me.’
“I feel like I can make a difference in the lives of our students and sometimes their entire families.”
Mackey Yokem, the grants administrator for the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas, said LPI is “basically a college prep school for young people in the El Paso area.”
“We have been involved with them in raising money,” he said. “We don’t have input in their operation, but just help provide a major capital campaign.”
He said the Institute is trying to raise $15 million, including $500,000 from the Arkansas conference, and are probably a third of the way there.
“Their overall campaign, which is spread across the eight states of our jurisdiction, still has about a year to go,” Yokem said.
Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference expressed the need to support the Lydia Patterson Institute in their fundraising campaign.
“We, as Arkansas United Methodists, are called to create vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world,” Bishop Mueller said. “By supporting the Lydia Patterson Institute, we are answering this call. Join me as we learn more about this powerful ministry in the upcoming months and how we may further support the work being done to change young lives each and every day.”
Michael Roberts, the senior pastor at Conway First United Methodist Church, said he had the opportunity in 2017 to experience the school first-hand. He was impressed by their mission and their work in the community.
“I was impressed with the number of students who do go to college and graduate from college,” Roberts said. “… I was very impressed by the work ethic of the students and their willingness to get up early in the morning and make their way to the border.
“It takes a lot of commitment to do that. They are motivated by their education and the possibilities and opportunities that it is going to give them.”
LPI is not a seminary school, but it does offer what is known as the Lay Ministry program. with 25 students currently enrolled in the program. The program affords students the opportunity to preach, lead worship, and serve in churches and communities both locally and around the country.
Karla Delgadillo, a student at LPI, was assigned to Conway First Methodist Church as an intern last year. Roberts said she was one of several students that came to Arkansas that summer.
“We were blessed to share life with her and experience her culture through her,” Roberts said. “She made presentations at the church, but she also went to a leadership institute at Hendrix College.
“She wasn’t here to work, necessary, but she was here to share her life and experience life in the Arkansas Conference.”
Morales said LPI holds firm in the belief that “we are here to demonstrate Christ by how we love and serve.”
“Many of our students serve as interns in churches across the country and also make missionary trips to other countries to serve in whatever capacity is needed,” Morales said. “Our student activities participate in helping the needy both here (in El Paso) and our sister city, Ciudad Juarez. Service and love, coupled with educational opportunity, make up the philosophy of Lydia Patterson Institute.
“God is definitely at work in the lives of these students and their families.”