How did WAVS get started?

WAVS was started by a woman named Martha Reynolds, a retired quality engineer living in the Seattle area. Martha made her first trip to Guinea-Bissau in 1994 with a church team. She was 64 years old at the time.

Martha felt a strong connection with the people she met in West Africa, so she made several more trips to Guinea-Bissau by herself throughout the 1990s. With each visit, she formed new friendships and learned more about the country.

In 2000, Martha and a small group of volunteers formed the nonprofit that eventually became West African Vocational Schools.

Martha, a widower at the time, married Herb Reynolds in 2002. The pair traveled to Guinea-Bissau almost every year from 2003 to 2012, often living in the country for up to six months at a time. It was during these trips that they laid the groundwork for the first WAVS vocational school.

Martha Reynolds with friends she made during her many trips to Guinea-Bissau in the 1990s.

Why start a vocational school in West Africa?

During their trips to Guinea-Bissau, Herb and Martha lived in a rural town called Canchungo, a community of about 20,000 people with few paved roads and little access to electricity.

Many people in Canchungo had small farms, but they earned very little money. Lacking other opportunities, some young people were drawn into drug trafficking.

Because Herb and Martha had become well-connected to the community, local leaders asked them if they would help young people find a way to earn better incomes. The community leaders made it clear they didn’t want handouts. Instead, they asked Herb and Martha for a more sustainable solution: to open a vocational school.

Herb and Martha agreed. With the help of donors and local labor from the community, the first WAVS vocational school was built. It opened in 2006 with an auto mechanics course. Additional courses were later added: Computer basics in 2008, English in 2011, welding in 2012, and French in 2014.

Today, the school serves more than 400 students each year.

WAVS School construction

Martha Reynolds and a local pastor stand in front of the site of the WAVS vocational school in Canchungo during its first phase of construction.

WAVS Canchungo school campus

The WAVS vocational school in Canchungo has served more than 1,600 students since opening in 2006.

What are the next steps?

In 2019, WAVS acquired property to establish a second campus in the capital, Bissau. The new campus, which opened in 2022, will eventually serve more than 2,000 students each year.

To help fund this growth, WAVS introduced One Student, which is a way for anyone to directly help train a student at one of the WAVS vocational schools.

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The new campus in Bissau will serve more than 2,000 students each year.