For Sarah Valentina Hernandez Solache, the colorful city of Zitácuaro in the Mexican state of Michoacán — where millions of Monarch butterflies bathe the fields and forests in a sea of orange during their annual migration — was, and always will be, home.
But, despite its beauty, Solache readily admits that it simply wasn’t a safe environment for her.
“I had an amazing childhood there,” said Solache, who was raised Presbyterian in the Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana Getzemani in Zitácuaro. “Mexico is beautiful, with the best climate and the best food ever. But that it’s also a really dangerous country, I will accept.”
Solache said the ongoing violence against young girls that terrorized her community while she was growing up was one of the primary reasons her parents decided to send her, like her older sister before her, to pursue her education in the U.S.
Both sisters are now distinguished graduates of the Presbyterian Pan American School: the eldest is a Houston-based architect and the youngest is a first-year, pre-med student on a full scholarship at Schreiner University in Kerrville, Tex.
The Presbyterian Pan American School (PPAS), located in Kingsville, Texas, is an international, college-preparatory boarding school related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Established in 1911, the school motivates and equips young people for lives of Christian leadership in the global community.
“We met the school thanks to our church, which has a relationship with Pan Am,” Solache said, referring to her alma mater by its common nickname. “They send scholarship award letters to people all over Mexico. When I got one, I went to Pan Am.”
Because of her near-perfect academic transcript and her impressive list of extracurricular, church and community activities — including serving as president of Pan Am’s campus ministry, its worship planning team and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper — during her four years at the school, it would only be reasonable to assume that the accomplished 17-year-old had an easy time of it.
“I make it sound like it was all fun and a beautiful world, but really it wasn’t,” said Solache, who arrived on Pan Am’s campus at the tender age of 13 with “zero” English skills. “My first year here was really hard, not only because I was struggling to learn the language and to adapt [to the culture], but I was also living alone. It’s still hard. It’s never been easy.”
And while she may have been rooming alone, it was at Pan Am that Solache came to know that she was never truly alone.
“Coming to Pan Am and to this Christian community is where I actually found myself and my faith, and where I knew that I loved God,” she said. “I found my blessing here.”
“The mission of the school is fulfilled when students like Valentina Solache apply their God-given ability all over the world, making Pan Am a truly global Christian community,” said Govens and Belonni-Rosario Govens in a statement. “We know that she will go on to inspire and influence people all over the world.”For Pan Am’s new collaborative leadership team, Dr. Gordon A. Govens, president and head of school, and the Rev. Ruth-Aimée Belonni-Rosario Govens, executive vice president, who began their service to the school in July 2020, the blessing is entirely mutual.
Both also expressed their profound gratitude for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Christmas Joy Offering, which helps Pan Am to provide scholarships to Solache and other exceptional students. A cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s, the annual offering distributes gifts equally to the Assistance Program of the Board of Pensions and to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color.
“Through the sharing of the Christmas Joy Offering — and prayers — every student receives the gift of reaching his or her full potential,” said Govens and Belonni-Rosario Govens. “This important source of funding makes a difference in the lives of the students entrusted not only to Pan Am, but also to the other Presbyterian-related racial and ethnic schools and colleges that are currently being supported by gifts from the offering.”
As Solache now prepares to close the books on her first semester at college, the busy first-year student hopes to devote some time over the holidays to the nonprofit she created: “Tools of Change.”
“The organization’s whole purpose is to help people from the indigenous communities in my state to learn how to have a varied diet without having to spend too much money on it,” she said. “It all started with us giving candy away for Christmas when we realized that just giving one time is never enough. Since giving people knowledge and education is more powerful and long-lasting than a one-time gift, that’s what we’re trying to do with Tools of Change — all in the name of Jesus, of course.”
But first, Solache is just looking forward to the sheer joy of celebrating Christmas by counting her many blessings and expressing her gratitude to God for the gifts that have changed her life.
“The generous people who give to Christmas Joy give us scholarships and the opportunity to continue our education in the United States,” she said. “I will always be grateful for that. But beyond that, they have also given us a lot of hope and the realization that we can expect to be more. We can expect to reach the stars and do whatever we want to do. All of the things I always dreamed about, thanks to them, they are making me feel like it can actually happen.”
Gifts to the Christmas Joy Special Offering of the PCUSA will be received throughout December By giving to the Christmas Joy Offering, you will be providing assistance to current and retired church workers in their time of need and developing our future leaders at Presbyterian-related racial ethnic schools and colleges. Please consider giving to the Christmas Joy Offering in addition to your regular giving. Give online or by check — mark gifts “JOY”.