When the Rev. Miguel Alvizures started school as a child in Guatemala, there were 22 children in his first-grade class.
“When I finished sixth grade, we were four,” he said.
He was the only one of them to graduate from high school.
“My father wanted me to. I made it because of my father,” said Alvizures, who is now the pastor of St. Leo Catholic Church in Versailles.
Several years ago, Alvizures crossed paths with Forrest Day, a Lexington man who had volunteered with medical missions to Guatemala but who wanted to do more, to do something that would make a lasting impact in the Central American country.
“He knew I was from Guatemala,” Alvizures said. “His question was, what would you do to help out in Guatemala?”
Alvizures had an answer at the ready: “If you give a handout, that doesn’t change anything in the long run. One of the few things you could do is help out with education.”
And from that conversation, the Little Mountain School near Alvizures’ hometown of Palencia was born.
The Little Mountain School is currently in its second year and is run by a Lexington-based board of directors through the nonprofit organization they formed, Guatemalan Educational Outreach.
Those involved say they hope they can use education to change the future of the children of the rural, mountainous region -- and eventually the community as a whole. But to make it work, they said even more help is needed.
“It’s going very well,” Alvizures said. “Although if we want to keep going, we have to get more people involved.”
The 45 or so students who attend the school live in poverty, Alvizures and others said.
Most live on a diet that consists primarily of tortillas, so the school provides the children two meals a day to help with nutrition.
“People tell me how good they look now that they’re eating healthy,” Alvizures said. “That’s what we want to do: go beyond the minimum.”
Teacher Reina Slaymaker said they also work with the students on basic health and hygiene.
“A lot of them had never brushed their teeth before,” she said. “It’s a lack of education. They don’t know that a black tooth is a problem.”
She does not give the children homework, because they don’t have pencils or paper at home with which to complete it.
Just using school supplies is exciting for them, Slaymaker said. “They’ve never had these things before.”
Besides giving its students a good education in their native language, the Little Mountain School seeks to give them an extra edge: the ability to speak English.
Slaymaker grew up in Lexington and is a product of the Fayette County Public Schools’ Spanish Immersion Program at Maxwell Elementary School and Bryan Station middle and high schools.
When she graduated from college she began her career as an ESL teacher in Turkey. Now, she’s trying to replicate some of what she learned as a Fayette County student in reverse in Guatemala.
Slaymaker and Patssy Zamora, also of Lexington, teach the Guatemalan curriculum in English for half the school day. Two Guatemalan teachers teach the children in Spanish for the other half.
The school currently has classes for Kindergarten and pre-K students, and a group of first-graders who attend Guatemalan schools come to the Little Mountain School for English lessons after their regular school day ends, she said.
Slaymaker also teaches a community English class for adults and siblings of the school’s students.
“The whole philosophy is, anyone who wants to learn can have a chance,” she said.
Last year, she said there were times when as many as 40 people attended her community class.
Day, the chairman of the board of directors, said English speakers in Guatemala can earn up to five times more than the average laborer.
For him, the school’s mission gets at the heart of a polarizing subject in America right now: immigration.
“We’re actually doing something to try to solve the immigration crisis on a Lexington level with as many kids as we can,” Day said.
By giving the children a skill that can improve their earning potential in Guatemala, Day said they will be less likely to resort to leaving their families behind to come to the United States.
Slaymaker said some of the students’ fathers and uncles “have made that dangerous journey” and are now sending their families money back home from the United States.
“We don’t want our children to have to do that,” she said.
Guatemala has good public universities, Alvizures said, but they are hard for the average person to get into. The hope is that the Little Mountain School’s students could go to college one day if they choose.
“That really is the importance of education. Being able to open those doors,” Slaymaker said.
Even if they don’t attend college, simply being able to speak English will open doors for them.
“Because tourism is such a big income in third-world countries, speaking English can get you a job” in a high-end restaurant, hotel or tour company, Slaymaker said.
She knows one English-speaker who has moved to the capital city and works for a call center, a job that would have been out of reach without the second language.
While Day said Guatemalan Educational Outreach considers itself a faith-based organization here in the U.S., the school itself is secular.
The team’s goal is to add a new class each year, and Alvizures has hopes of adding new offerings such as sports, music and art classes.
One way or another, Day said they are committed to seeing the current students, who are 4 to 6 years old, through until they finish high school.
With that goal in mind, Alvizures recently started a one-year sabbatical from his work in Versailles. According to Cross Roads, the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, Alvizures had to leave the United States for a year because of his visa status.
In Guatemala, he hopes to serve as “kind of a tour guide” to people from the Lexington area who are interested in visiting his country while learning more about the work of the school.
“I’m excited that I’ll be there,” he said.
While most of his time will be spent in Guatemala, he also plans to complete a 500-mile walk across northern Spain. It’s a pilgrimage called The Way of St. James, and Alvizures is using it as a fund-raiser for the school.
“I’m asking people to donate $1 per mile as a way to support the children,” he said.
Day said it costs about $1,500 per student per year to keep the school running, and the students do not pay to attend. Expenses include the wages paid to the teachers, a part-time cook who prepares two meals a day for the children and a part-time principal.
Alvizures’ brother, an educator, is serving as the principal. The board is also renting a house from him that is serving as the schoolhouse while a permanent classroom building is under construction.
Day said he and Alvizures have gone to churches and civic groups throughout the Lexington area seeking donations.
“We go where anybody will listen to the story,” Day said.
Their dream is that each of the students from the Little Mountain School will become citizens who want to give back to their community some day.
“Get kids to develop their potential through high school, and they have the world open to them,” Alvizures said.
For more information about the school, visit teamgeoky.org.