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Honduran teen grows coffee in Habersham from homeland beans to pay for college
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Kevin Arita, left, and Dennis Rogers construct a greenhouse for growing coffee plants in Cornelia. Arita and Richard Stafford founded Yonah Coffee Co. last year. They’re growing coffee plants and expect to be able to harvest them in November 2014.

Kevin Candelario Arita grew up around coffee as a child in the mountain village of Mar Azul, Honduras.

Now a senior at Norcross High School, Arita is growing coffee in the mountains of Habersham County.

While most boys from Mar Azul quit going to school after the sixth grade to work in the mountainside coffee fields, Arita has put his hope for a college education into the very same plants.

Arita, once an undocumented student, plans to use the beans of his native country to fund his education and to help him become an American citizen.

Hundreds of 2- and 4-foot tall coffee plants fill a small greenhouse in a Cornelia backyard. The greenhouse is kept humid and warm to mimic the tropical weather the plants prefer.

For the last two years, Arita and his former sixth-grade teacher and mentor Richard Stafford have carefully tended to the plants and worked diligently to "trick" the plants into thinking they are growing closer to the equator.

"We really didn’t know what we were going to do with (the plants) but we wanted to see if we could grow some coffee," Stafford said. "As it turns out, once they were growing, it’s kind of like having a dog or a cat. You can’t just give it away, I guess."

Arita and Stafford established Yonah Coffee in 2011. The company operates out of Stafford’s house.

The plants won’t be ready to harvest until November 2014, so for now the company imports coffee beans from Honduras and sells them to more than 22 stores in Habersham, Rabun and White counties.

Arita drives to Cornelia from Norcross on the weekends to care for the plants. He and Stafford built a larger greenhouse last weekend to accommodate more plants and to regulate the temperature more accurately.

"It’s a lot of work to keep the plants alive," Arita said. "Especially when summer turns to winter, you have to bring them in at nighttime when it gets too cold. It takes a lot of effort."

While the men have worked hard to care for the coffee, they know it’s a matter of time before they’ll see the fruits of their labors.

"It’s pretty much wait and see what happens," Arita said. "Hopefully something good can come out of it. That’s the inspiration, to start my own coffee business when I get older."

Stafford said growing coffee in the Georgia mountains isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. With patience and the right equipment, the plants might not realize they aren’t in a tropical paradise.

Stafford points to the Georgia wine industry as an example of a crop that wasn’t expected to be successful but now is.

"I think people are watching us to say ‘OK, can you really do this,’" Stafford said. "It’s sort of an experiment."

Stafford said there could come a day when former chickenhouses are remodeled into greenhouses for coffee plants.

While the success of the coffee industry in the Georgia mountains remains uncertain, Stafford and Arita are hopeful. After all, it was hope that brought the beans to the mountainside in the first place.

"This would have never, ever started without this young man having some needs," Stafford said of Arita.

Arita was an undocumented immigrant who came to the country at age 9. In 1998, Arita’s village was uprooted by Hurricane Mitch. His father left a few days before the storm, which devastated his village.

With no father to provide for the family, Arita’s mother decided to come to America to find work. She obtained a temporary humanitarian visa and worked in the country legally while Arita was left in the care of his 80-year-old grandparents.

After his grandmother’s death in 2003, his grandfather knew the boy needed to be with his mother. He packed all of Arita’s belongings in a black plastic bag and sent him to America with a stranger.

"It wasn’t much of my decision," Arita said. "It was my grandpa’s; he was the only one alive at the time."

Arita traveled through Central America and Mexico with a woman and another child. He and the other little boy swam across the Rio Grande to another woman who was supposed to help him find his mother.

The woman later abandoned him and law enforcement placed him in the International Education Services center in Los Fresnos, Texas. The center is for minors who enter the country illegally with no adult supervision.

Some time later, immigration officials were able to reunite Arita with his mother, who was living and working in Atlanta.

Arita wrote a book "Lost in America: A Young Hispanic Immigrant’s Quest for Hope" about his journey into America.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic person to serve on the court, called the book "truly inspiring."

Arita penned the book under his middle name Candelario. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble Bookstores and other book stores. A copy can also be ordered through Arita’s website, www.Candelario.org. The book sells for $12.95.

Though Arita’s story is heartbreaking and at times nightmarish, he said he’d never want to change anything.

"I have little memories about what happened," Arita said. "Mostly I remember things that happened along the way. I was little and it was the journey of life because it made me be the things I want to be. It shaped me into the way I am now. I know other kids my age haven’t experienced that."

Growing up as an undocumented student, Arita faced hardships and uncertainty about his future. He often confided in Stafford, his theater teacher at Norcross Middle School.

"Whenever something was wrong I could tell him what was going on," Arita said. "That’s how our friendship grew. He’s become a very influential person in my life ... I never had a dad and he always has kind of been like that."

Stafford, too, had grown fond of Arita and wanted to help him get the documentation he needed to be in the country legally, He attempted to hire lawyers in Honduras. But the remote location of Arita’s village made the task too difficult.

Stafford decided to just go to Honduras and find his papers himself. After four days in the village, he found what he was looking for and a little bit more.

"In this little town in the mountains, where he grew up without running water, without restrooms, without electricity and a one-room school," Stafford said. "They grow coffee in this little mountain village and I gathered together a whole sack of coffee seeds.

They planted the seeds together when Stafford returned to Georgia.

Arita now has a green card, driver’s license and temporary legal status. He dreams of someday becoming an American citizen who owns his own business and helps his community.

Arita plans to reach his goals by majoring in international business when he goes to college next year.

Though he’s an "A" student, Arita still has concerns about paying for higher education. Stafford said the coffee business was founded for that reason: A portion of the money raised through Yonah Coffee goes to fund Arita’s education. The rest is funneled back into the company.

Arita said he’d like to use his life and the opportunities he has been given to help others like him.

"One of the things I’d love people to know is that there are many kids like myself," Arita said. "They came here illegally at one point in their lives and didn’t have a say in that decision. It was made for us. Since we’re here, why not allow us to stay here and at least have the opportunity to pursue our dreams?"

Stafford said it’s important for teachers and adults to realize the value of all children. He said teachers especially have "an awesome responsibility" to help their students become successful.

"It would be easy to turn a blind eye to an undocumented kid in Georgia," Stafford said. "It happens so often that you really have to value every student, even if they’re not exactly like ourselves."

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