By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
---- — Tiffany Vega-Mendoza stood outside a makeshift classroom Thursday and told stories about a childhood mired in poverty.
She said her family of four lived in a tiny efficiency apartment. She can remember days when she and her two siblings would eat pancakes or rice for every meal because her mom couldn’t afford anything else.
Vega-Mendoza dreamed of something better for herself. She wanted to go to college and become an accountant. She is great at math, she said.
“But I kind of messed up when I was 16,” she said. “I got pregnant.”
Her mom couldn’t afford to take care of another child, so Vega-Mendoza was forced to drop out of school and find a job.
Now, the Kokomo woman is married and has six kids.
Her husband works 16 hours a day, but they still can’t afford to move out of the government-subsidized apartment they live in.
It’s no place to raise a family, she said. Her kids often find needles on the ground on their way to the bus stop.
“I want my children to have more than I ever had in my life,” she said. “Me and my husband, we want a house in the country.”
Vega-Mendoza said the Excel Center is her ticket to a better life.
Excel Center Kokomo opened for classes this week. The charter school run by Goodwill Education Initiatives helps adults get their high school diploma.
Right now, 174 local adults are enrolled. There is space for another 144.
On Thursday morning, teachers interacted with a group of students inside a makeshift classroom in the United Way of Howard County offices.
The teachers announced a special project for the students to work on until they move to their permanent home.
The Excel Center building at 101 W. Superior St. was set to open last week, but school officials hit a snag.
Kokomo’s site director Nick Parks said he was unaware of a state law that prohibits a school from opening within 500 feet of a body of water, railroad or cattle facility. The Excel Center building is near the Wildcat Creek, and officials had to apply for a waiver from the state to use it as a school.
Students likely will move into that building by next week, he said.
In the meantime, students are using the temporary space to work on community service projects that will help them earn a community service credit at the end of the semester.
One group of students was promoting the upcoming Excel Center block party. Another was planning a sporting event in Foster Park.
Parks said the amount of engagement he’s seen from students this week is “wonderful.”
Most students are ready to dive into their classwork, though.
“They’re chomping at the bit to get into classes,” he said.
Kathryn Davis is one of them.
This new school could change her life, she said.
Davis is 56 years old and has an eighth-grade education.
When she was a 20-something, she tried getting her GED a couple of times. She was unsuccessful. At the time it didn’t bother her. She was married and her husband could take care of her.
Her husband died three years ago, though, leaving her to live in poverty. She’s been eating only rice and beans for days.
“You have to fight for food at the end of every month,” she said. “There’s got to be a better way to live.”
Davis wants to earn her high school diploma and eventually become a missionary.
Vega-Mendoza said she may never realize her high school dream of becoming an accountant. With six kids, it would be really tough to spend time in college.
She’s convinced, though, that a high school diploma from the Excel Center will help her land a job and earn enough money to pull her family from extreme poverty.
“I want to get my high school diploma so bad,” she said. “It will improve my life so much. I want to keep moving up that ladder.”
Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WANT MORE INFORMATION? If you would like to enroll in Kokomo Excel Center's free high school diploma program, call the school's offices at 317-524-3642. The charter school run by Goodwill Education Initiatives also will be hosting a block party for the community Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. in the school parking lot at 101 W. Superior St. There will be food, games, prizes and an enrollment table.