She paints to lift the lives of poor Mexican kids

‘We didn’t go to Mexico to become sponges. We wanted to be productive in our senior years.’

Port Washington’s Sharon Beste found a use for the more than 100 paintings she has done. She is selling them on June 25 to benefit an impoverished school in Mexico. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

A desire to give back during retirement morphed into a little more than a Port Washington couple bargained for, and now Sharon Beste is selling more paintings than she expected to help impoverished Mexican children.

Each year, Beste and her husband Jerry Smith spend montshs south of the border on vacations. On one of those visits they attended an art show to support a charity.

“We didn’t want to go to Mexico and become sponges,” Beste said. “We wanted to be productive in our senior years.”

They met painter Britt Jarnryd, president of El Sueno Zapoteco Foundation, part of the Bacaanda Foundation that works with impoverished communities to improve educational opportunities for children.

Beste and Smith wanted to get behind the effort, and it wasn’t long before Jarnryd used her power of persuasion to get them to go all in.

“This was a Wednesday,” Beste said of the art show. “She had us signed up to go touring some of these schools on Friday.”

It was a culture shock. Small schools that often resemble shacks had been built in each village in the region because the annual rainy season doesn’t allow for travel on dirt roads.

By the end of the day, the couple had agreed to sponsor la Escuela Puente de Cuajinicuil (the school at Cuajinicuil River) in a tiny village in the state of Oaxaca  near the Pacific coast 2,500 miles away in the southern part of the country. 

Students live within a 15-minute walk of the school. They bring their own supplies, among them toilet paper. Before Smith and Beste got involved, it didn’t have running water.

“There is no comparison to what we consider poverty in this country and the generalized poverty you find in the hills of Oaxaca,” Smith said.

Smith and Beste became the padrino y padrina — godfather and godmother of the school and have supported it the past seven years.

It isn’t a hard sell when they meet who they’re helping. Beste once took wrapped gifts to the school and had each student pick out one.

“They went back to their seats and didn’t open their packages,” she said, “until they were told to.

“You fall in love with these kids. They’re so appreciative and so happy.”

Many don’t have shoes or pillows and never did a puzzle before. Beste even taught them how to spit watermelon seeds.

“It was just a way to get everybody laughing,” she said.

Teachers with high school diplomas are assigned through a federal program. They live in small rooms attached to the school and are fed by the community.

One of the teachers once awoke to a six-foot snake slithering around her. It wasn’t poisonous, but Beste and Smith had their facilities upgraded to keep snakes out, along with bats.

Other improvements the couple has funded include replacing the kindergarten room with a concrete addition, building a library with 200 books, install piping for a well to provide running water to the bathrooms and teachers’ showers, fencing to separate the school from a steep gully and furniture, a swing set and a vegetable garden.

Each community maintains its school. Little money comes from the state for education, and the agreement calls for sponsors to donate money through the foundation and the residents to do the work, including students.

Smith compares the schools to 19th-century versions in America.

If the teachers last two years, they receive a stipend to go to college. But many come from urban areas  and “can’t hack it,” Smith said.

Through Beste and Smith’s support, the school got a computer, a laser printer and a TV on the wall. A wifi connection from the nearby airport allows teachers to use online learning materials.

The foundation, Smith said, is trying to implement online learning in other schools. Being near the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range means the wifi range is basically the line of sight, he said.

Smith and Beste’s school has students from age 3 through sixth grade.

After students age out, the hope is to advance to other schools that require transportation — a pickup truck with benches — but many students end up getting jobs in town making tortillas or carrying bricks.

Smith and Beste wish all their students could go on, but some are already disinterested in school and don’t attend. One of their hopefuls is Wendy, who attends one of the schools in the city where teachers have college degrees.

She recently turned 15 and wanted jeans for her birthday — not to replace her old ones, her first-ever pair — along with paper, glue, scissors and shoes — she only has flip-flops.

Wendy has been doing well in school but struggles with algebra.

“Welcome to the world. We’ve all had trouble with algebra,” Smith said.

Wendy’s challenge was she didn’t have her multiplication tables memorized, so problems took long to solve. Smith created flash cards for her and ordered her to memorize them.

A teacher is tutoring Wendy two afternoons per week—“therefore I need to sell another painting,” Beste said.

The language barrier isn’t a huge factor in school — the couple knows a little Spanish and the students know a little English — but being bilingual would help the students eventually land legitimate service jobs at resorts in the nearby town that would include Social Security.

“The ability to speak English would launch every one of these kids,” Smith said.

The main industry is tourism. Cruise ships stopped coming during the pandemic, which made a detrimental impact, Smith and Beste said.

Mexico’s minimum wage is $8 but that is for the official jobs, Smith said. Many families live on less than that working in the “dark economy” with unreported income, such as picking coffee beans on the mountainsides done by many of the area’s local fathers.

“The only thing that can improve the lives of the children is a good education,” Smith said.

The couple want to help fund that effort through Beste’s paintings. She has had a creative side since dabbling with it during high school in Wausau and learned her technique through YouTube videos. She has done more than 100 paintings.

The couple is hosting an art sale in the  backyard of their home at 746 W. Grand Ave. in Port from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 25. The rain date is June 26.

Paintings will be price from $20 to $200. Proceeds go to the foundation to support the school.

“I don’t want to go out of this world and not do something good for someone else,” Beste said, adding helping the children keeps her young.

For Smith, a Ripon native who used to work in the printing industry, the initiative has been a welcome surprise.

“Who knew at our age we could have these kids?” he asked.

To make a donation to the school without buying a painting, checks made payable to the Bacaanda Foundation may be sent to Beste at her Port home. Donations are tax deductible.

For more information, call Beste at (262) 235-4041 or visit



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