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Utahns' project lifts Guatemala students

PROVO -- A private organization founded by two Utah men aims to reverse the cycle of poverty in Central and South America.

The Mesoamerica Project, founded by Doug Christensen and Joseph Allen, was started to support college-age students in poor countries.Christensen, a Vernal merchant, and Allen, an Orem-based Book of Mormon tour operator, launched the project's Alma Success Academy in Guatemala last November.

Noting the two vastly different cultures in Guatemala -- the Ladinos and the Mayans -- the duo envisioned an academy that could help students from both cultures learn the skills needed to earn a college degree or learn a trade, Christensen said.

Guatemalan cities, such as Quetzaltenango, where the academy is located in the upper floor of a shopping center, are populated with Ladinos, while the Mayans live in the remote highlands.

Many Guatemalans drop out of school because it becomes too difficult to attend, both academically and financially, Christensen said.

The original thrust was to help academy students who are former missionaries of the LDS Church. Now, participants don't need to be members of the Utah-based church but must be willing to live LDS standards, similar to Brigham Young University's honor code.

"We can only cover 10 percent of all returned missionaries who can't continue an education due to the lack of enough funds," said academy director Jose Obando in an e-mail to the Deseret News. "We will need a number of volunteers to come down and teach."

Other student challenges are malnutrition and transportation, he wrote. "Some students don't even have a pair of shoes they can wear to school."

The first group of students (many of whom were already in college) helped by the academy expects to graduate from the University of San Carlos this year.

In its first year, the academy's nearly 180 students are all attending on scholarships. School officials say most students are too poor to pay tuition, which averages about $400, low by U.S. standards. Students range in age from 17 to 30.

"Even the $50 a year tuition for the national university is difficult for them," Christensen said.

Teachers also are taking academy classes to Mayans in the highlands. All teachers volunteer their time, even teachers who stay with villagers three or four days out of the week to instruct the classes.

The students are taught English, Spanish business writing, computer literacy, leadership skills and Christian ethics and values.

Optional classes include accounting, economics and resume writing. Once they graduate from a university or trade school, they must pledge to give back to the academy for the rest of their lives, "even if it is just a dollar a year," Christensen said.

The academy doesn't give diplomas, but the skills students learn there help them complete their college education at a national or private university or trade school.

The project started as a joint effort with the 42--year--old American Indian Services, a nonprofit organization set up by BYU in the 1950s with the help of the late Spencer W. Kimball, a former church president. Now no longer associated with the university, AIS has been assisting in raising funds for Alma Success Academy scholarships. That relationship will soon end, said AIS Director Dale Tingey. The Mesoamerica Project is seeking nonprofit tax--exempt status to go after donations on its own.

Christensen said he and Allen have absorbed several thousands of dollars in start--up costs and neither take a salary from the academy. Administrative costs take less than 4 percent of the money generated, Christensen said, and pays just the academy's rent and the director's salary.

Next year the academy will launch its next phase -- helping graduates find work. Meanwhile, the duo is looking at cloning the academy throughout Central and South America and Mexico.

For more information on the Alma Success Academy, call Doug Christensen at 435-789-5847 or e-mail him at dougch@easilink.com.