ISLA MUJERES, Mexico -- The story of La Gloria English School is a pay-it-forward tale, inspired by one woman's love of this sunny island off Cancún and her desire to pay back its people after vacationing here for 10 years.
The notion of repaying good deeds with new good deeds, from the 1999 novel ''Pay It Forward" by Catherine Ryan Hyde (and the 2000 film starring Kevin Spacey), appealed to Maggie Washa, 56. When she and her husband, Tom, 58, retired here a few years ago from Madison, Wis., lounging at the water's edge wasn't enough. After building a house on Isla Mujeres, making friends, and settling into island life, she said she realized that ''Tom retired but I was bored."
Soon she was back in Madison, taking Spanish classes and pursuing a certificate to teach English as a second language. Washa, who had worked as a physical therapist, was following a dream: to return to Mexico to start an English-speaking school for local Mayan children. ''The people of Isla have opened their homes and their hearts to Tom and me. I felt that it was time to give back," she said. ''Isla Mujeres is a prospering tourist destination, but many native Maya residents are poor. The ability to speak English is critical to these kids growing up and earning a living wage."
So she and Tom bought a piece of land in La Gloria, the poorest neighborhood, in the middle of the island. They created a 1,400-square-foot building, spending $85,000 of their own money to establish La Gloria English School. They spread the word around the island, especially to the women who belonged to the bead cooperative that Washa had joined. Friends of La Gloria, a nonprofit group, was created to help provide money for the school.
Today, La Gloria English School reflects Washa's vision: Downstairs is a large open space that houses a classroom, a library, an office, and a small kitchen and bathroom. Upstairs are two spacious bedrooms used by volunteer teachers, like Kate Pichotta, 69, a retired high school Spanish teacher from Wisconsin and longtime visitor to Isla Mujeres.
''I love doing this, and I think I can make a difference in their lives," Pichotta said after teaching grade-schoolers recently. ''Because of what they learn here, these children will be able to get better jobs, to be paid more, to have the incentive to climb the ladder."
On any afternoon, the inside of this yellow schoolhouse is full of children, from 4-year-olds to teenagers. The day I visited, Pichotta led two classes of preschool and elementary-age children. Her enthusiasm and conversation skills, with a slow English pronunciation and a broad smile, captivated the youngsters through a one-hour class in which English was spoken in games and songs. Bright-eyed children participated eagerly, all the while speaking English.
''I want my daughter to learn English," Yulma Ozuna Luyua said with the help of a translator. ''My husband and I own the best taco stand on the island, but because we don't speak English we don't have many options for work with the tourists."
The school opened in January 2004 with three teachers, 50 students, and a cadre of volunteers. Today, there are four teachers and more than 100 children taking twice-weekly classes, ''and we are turning them away," Washa said.
Classes are offered for children, teenagers, and adults, and emphasize spoken English, concentrating on pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Students also attend public school.
I heard about ''Maggie's school," as many refer to it, during a fall trip to the island. When I contacted Washa after reading about her project on the school's website and told her I would be returning to Isla Mujeres in January, she invited me to visit. I asked if there were some way I could help out before my return.
Washa said the school needed supplies of all kinds: small notepads and file folders, whiteboards and markers, primary level books, inexpensive toys and prizes for good attendance, and good used children's clothing. To send donations, she told me not to rely on the Mexican postal system because ''there is nothing guaranteed," and advised me to find folks on the Isla Mujeres message board who would carry packages. That was when the pay-it-forward message became as clear to me as the turquoise waters off Playa Norte, a gorgeous stretch of beach and one of Isla's treasured attractions. I was happy to have a chance to give back, and over the next six weeks gathered books and supplies to send to Maggie, stuffing 10 large envelopes with goodies for her school. Each time I posted a message on the Internet board looking for someone to deliver the package, an Isla lover planning a trip to the island came through: Mark Howe from Plymouth, Mich.; JoAnn DeLucia from Ansonia, Conn.; and Margie Gorton from Hillsborough, N.J., to name a few. When we met, Maggie confirmed that my 10 packages had been dropped at the school, courtesy of an ever-widening circle of people willing to act on their love for Isla.
The school also needs used laptop computers and individuals willing to volunteer as grant writers, Washa said. Island visitors are also welcome to volunteer.
''Tourists have been a great help to us, donating time and stuff," Washa said. ''What the school needs now more than anything is money to pay teacher salaries and hire staff to help with administration."
Marie C. Franklin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.