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Before Kelly Waugaman came to the remote Guatemala village of Joconal, children had to walk up to three hours to continue their education beyond grade school. Now in the third year of her Project Joconal, youth in the village are starting to experience the value of higher learning.

The school Waugaman, a Black Mountain resident, set up produced its first five graduates last year. The program continues to thrive, and Waugaman, executive director of Lan Vwa, the nonprofit behind Project Joconal, is looking to expand her organization's reach.

Lan Vwa, which means ‘the voice’ in Haitian Creole, is the manifestation of Waugaman’s vision. Following the devastating earthquake of 2010, Lan Vwa in 2011 partnered with Greater Works Academy for Girls in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The partnership produced a cyber classroom that allows the school's students access to U.S. teachers qualified to teach English as a second language.

Recognizing the potential of the Internet as a teaching tool, Waugaman returned to Joconal, a coffee-farming village in Guatemala she had visited on a mission trip in the past. She asked Karina Leiva, the future director of Project Joconal, what needed to be done to help the village.

“She said she wanted to put a school in,” Waugaman said in a recent interview. “She told me the current school ended after sixth grade and if the children wanted to continue their education they had to walk three hours.”

In 2012 Waugaman returned with five computers.

“I started teaching computer classes because our kids didn’t know anything about computers,” Leiva told The Black Mountain News. “They didn’t even know what a computer was or how to open it or what the buttons on the keyboard did.”

Leiva, who herself is the daughter of a coffee farmer, was familiar with the needs of a Joconal.

“At the age of 14 my dad had us write out our vision, what we wanted to accomplish,” she said. “Mine was to help kids receive their education because I realized how many doors education opens for you. I want others to have that opportunity too.”

Her parents' emphasis on education helped Leiva choose her own path. But her situation was the exception, not the rule, Waugaman realized.

“When I saw these kids in Joconal, they didn’t realize what they had to offer the world,” she said.

Leiva saw herself in a child named Nora, who was among the five students who were in the first Project Joconal's first graduating class last November.

“If Nora would have had the same opportunities that I had growing up, I knew her life would be better,” Leiva said. “So I had to do everything possible to expose Nora to the education she needed.”

Nora used her diploma to find a job in a nearby village - "something she couldn’t have done without that degree,” Leiva said. “And she’s going to continue studying business administration.”

Other members of Nora’s graduating class are continuing their education as well.

“Wilfredo is going to school to be a secondary teacher,” Leiva said. “He’s enrolled in the university, so he’ll get his degree there. Another graduate, Gaudi, is going to continue her education in early childhood education. And Freddy received a scholarship to pursue a degree in medicine.”

The success of the first graduating class speaks well of the future of the Joconal project, whose goal is to pass along to the village the model of a self-sustaining secondary school.

“At this point our primary focus is funding the school,” Waugaman said. “What’s exciting is we only need eight more student sponsors at $38 per month and 11 more facility sponsors at $150 per month and Project Joconal will be funded for all of 2017.”

While Leiva carries out the administrative duties in Joconal, Waugaman's top priority is finding school funding.

“People have definitely been willing to help,” Waugaman said support she's found in the Black Mountain area. "It’s not necessarily in the form of writing big checks; everyone doesn’t have the ability to do that. But a lot of people have asked how they can help.”

Last year, Waugaman organized various fundraisers in the Swannanoa Valley such as benefit concerts and the annual Jumping for Java 5K.

"This is the first time we've been this close to having Joconal completely funded for the entire year this early," Waugaman said. She is now looking for grants to expand Lan Vwa's reach.

"The rest of 2017 will be spent on finding areas to grow," she said. "We're exploring three other villages, in which we can place schools."

Potential villages include Chichimeccas, Escuitla and five villages in Guatemala's Huehuetenango region.

"Our long-term plan is to open one school in 2018, two in 2019 and three in 2020," Waugaman said. "We'd like all of these programs to be self-sustaining by 2025. We'd then like to finish working on this model so we can hand it to other organizations."

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