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School to help Appalachian women expanding

The Associated Press

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BEREA, Ky. (AP) — A school that helps improve the lives of poverty-stricken Appalachian women is expanding its reach outside Kentucky to areas in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.


The headquarters for the New Opportunity School for Women is located at First Christian Church in Berea, Ky. Leaders moved it there last year after an arsonist destroyed the school's former building in 2011.

Now, school leaders tell the Lexington Herald Leader (http://bit.ly/10lvG4g) that they will soon be offering classes in three more states. Campuses will be located at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., Bluefield College in Bluefield, Va., and Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn.

The school provides classes to low-income, middle-age women from Appalachia who don't have the skills or education to get out of poverty. The program also offers the women clothing and accessories to wear to job interviews, and it has a dental fund.

"You can't build your self-esteem and have no teeth," said founder Jane Stephenson, whose late husband, John, was at one time president of Berea College.

As the Berea facility gets ready for its June session, officials heard that Gary Davidson, who was charged with arson and burglary for the 2011 fire, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution.

Director Lori Sliwa said the fire was devastating, but donors have given generously to help the school rebuild.

For instance, the clothing closet at the school includes bright fashionable suits paired with scarves, pins and jewelry.

"They come in and they don't know how smart they are, how talented they are ... and they leave a piece of themselves with us, and I love it," Sliwa said.

George Ann Lakes, who attended New Opportunity school and now works for the organization, knows how the students feel.

"My mom only had a sixth-grade education. We just never had books. We played in the mountains. Education was not up front," she said.

In 1992, Jane Stephenson "allowed me to come with a stipulation that I go back" to school, Lakes said.

She eventually received a master's degree in social work from the University of Kentucky.

Sliwa said potential donors should understand that success might look different for each participant, but it's about giving them the tools to better their lives.

"They're not supporting a program per se," she said of donors. "They're supporting women."

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Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com

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