Through the support of a growing Lake Norman nonprofit, a group of area teachers is leading the charge to help a small school in the rural highlands of Guatemala break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty.
The country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, forced a whole generation of Guatemalans to focus on survival instead of learning to read and write.
For the past four years, LEAP has partnered with the Mayan school in Central America to develop an educational exchange that preserves its rich cultural traditions.
The LEAP team recently returned from its fourth annual summer visit to the school, Escuela Rural Mixto El Sitan, which is about two hours from Guatemala City.
Generally team members stay from 10 days to more than two weeks. During the trip, they focus on classroom activities, workshops and medical care. They also work with teachers and school officials to define short- and long-term goals, as well as work on construction and logistics for future endeavors.
Locals say the group's effort has sparked a passion for education throughout the community. Parents frequent school workshops. Nearly 20 teenagers have surpassed their entire family's level of education by advancing to high school. The number of kids attending school and completing school is increasing.
"You have lit a fire in our hearts and are changing our history," school director Moisés Ajquejay Chamali recently wrote to the group.
Over the course of annual site visits for the past four years, the team formed relationships with locals, always asking them what the school needs, instead of assuming what they would want.
"On the first visit, we were shocked to see that the school only had a ream of paper for four more months of school, and about two dozen books for 170 students," said LEAP co-director Karin Solomonson.
Before they arrived, a typical classroom had bout 36 students who squeezed into a room with about 25 desks and no electric lights.
This year, aside from more books, school and first-aid supplies, the team brought protective eyewear, leather gloves and enough funding to finish the lower level of a school addition. When done in the fall, it will provide classroom space for all 180 students in grades K-6, and open up the possibilities of housing a new preschool program.
The bigger goal, however, is to build a second-story addition that will house a community library and computer lab. The team also has donated a laptop with Internet capability to help deliver educational strategies, and to provide the community access to services for basic needs.
"After two years of bringing school supplies, art supplies and books in Spanish, the staff at the school said what they really needed next was a place to store all of those supplies - and to spread out their classrooms," said Solomonson. "This (second-story addition) will be a gathering place where education is valued, and all will have the potential of erasing illiteracy and learning new job skills. In short, they will be able to take a big 'LEAP' forward towards living the life they only dream of."
LEAP stands for Learn, Explore, Achieve and Partner, and it embodies the group's goals: Learn about the Mayan culture and educational system of Guatemala. Explore the idea of community with the teachers and students. Achieve: Work on construction projects, share arts-integrated and other alternative teaching methods. Partner: Work with locals, volunteers and sponsors to foster an appreciation for all cultures among students.
LEAP is mainly comprised of teachers and parents from a charter school in Davidson. There are elementary school teachers and others with experience in special education, speech, Spanish and art. This year's team included the following:
five teachers from Community School of Davidson Sharon Conner, Elissa Huffstetler, Maria Kertesz, Kristen Patterson and Karin Solomonson;
a teacher from Pine Lake Prep, Natalie Goodwin;
nurse Ann Suggs;
and a spouse/construction support, John Kertesz.
The teachers cater to various learning styles while implementing modern and alternative educational methods routinely used in U.S. classrooms but widely unknown in Guatemala.
"What we share is our love for children, our love of teaching and education and our desire to make the world a better place by using our unique gifts and talents," said Solomonson. "But the exchange comes from the fact that every participant from North Carolina learns something new - not only about themselves but also about the world - while they are immersed in a new culture, one that dates back to pre-Columbus heritage."
This was Conner's first visit working with LEAP. The 43-year-old Davidson woman heard about the program over the years through Solomonson, a friend and colleague. A former graphic designer for eight years is in the process of becoming an art teacher through lateral entry.
The Guatemalan school really expressed a need for an art teacher, so Conner stepped up even though it was her first trip outside the U.S.
"I was just blown away at how accepting they were and how warm and inviting they were to have us come into their school," she said. "I just have such faith in this group and these people. It really was an opportunity that I couldn't pass for many reasons."
She said she plans to go back at least a handful more times and may even try to bring her teenage daughter.
"I told my husband when I was down there that I think this is a long-term commitment," she said.