Giving bridges continents

Fort Smallwood Elementary raises money to help Kenya school

April 01, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,[Special to The Sun]

Geography isn't all that separates the students at Fort Smallwood Elementary School from their peers in the tiny, impoverished village of Wamunyu, Kenya.

The 24 students at Nyaani Primary School - at least 15 of whom were orphaned by the AIDS epidemic sweeping Africa - can't study after dark because they have no electricity. Their school has no plumbing, so adults had to tote water there, until 2005.

That was the year when, because of a partnership between the schools, Nyaani Primary was able to buy a water tank.

It will get electricity this year, after a Wednesday-night fundraiser at Fort Smallwood raised nearly $10,000.

Fifth-grader John Lumadue, whose parents cast the winning $510 bid at the auction for John to be principal for a day, said the Kenya project has taught him to appreciate what he has. He said teachers told students not to write their Nyanni pen pals about things they wouldn't understand, such as video games.

"I kind of feel a little bit guilty," John said. "They're struggling to just have water."

Before the Wednesday auction, the Pasadena school already had become the largest contributor in the Kenya Connect program, a local nonprofit organization establishing relationships between U.S. and Kenyan schools. During the past three years - and not including last week's event - Fort Smallwood had raised more than $12,000 for Nyaani.

The school's efforts won it a visit from the new Kenyan ambassador to the United States, Peter N.R.O. Ogego. He was so impressed by the auction that he offered a personal dinner for a party of 10 during the auction.

Ogego, who had been trying to help set up food programs for children in Kenya, was unaware of the Kenya Connect project until he arrived in the U.S. in September. Anything that nonprofits can do to help children in Kenya is greatly appreciated, he said.

"HIV has been a scourge, leaving behind a number of orphans," Ogego said. "It puts a strain on the government."

The Kenya government has been able to provide free primary education since 2003, Ogego said. The government is considering whether to begin free secondary education, starting in the next academic year.

"In the meantime, we assist every effort to get students into school," Ogego said.

An Anne Arundel County teacher started the Kenya Connect organization in 2002. Tim Gregory, a freelance music teacher for county schools, said he befriended a social worker on a 1998 visit to Kenya. Several county schools have joined in to help 30 schools in eastern Kenya: Solley Elementary School raised $2,000; Mountain View Middle School in Marriottsville, $2,000; Odenton Elementary School, $1,300; and the Super Kids after-school program at Belvedere Elementary School in Arnold, $700.

Fort Smallwood joined the program in 2004 as part of its character education service project. School officials placed a water jug in the main office, and students were invited to drop in coins. They collected $1,000 the first year, which was enough to build a water tank for Nyaani. In 2005, Fort Smallwood students donated $1,200 in coins, which paid for a perimeter fence and a new kitchen for the school. The old kitchen had been crumbling and animals were able to get in and eat the food, according to Fort Smallwood officials.

Last year, the school held a world music concert and auction and raised more than $10,000. The money was used to renovate the entire school.

About $6,000 of the money raised at this year's auction will pay for the electricity, said Fort Smallwood Principal Gwen Atkinson. The rest will be used to buy books for a library that would serve Nyaani and 15 other schools in the Wamunya area.

This year Fort Smallwood students competed to create a design for a "friendship" T-shirt. The winning design was put on a light blue shirt. Officials sold two shirts for $15 at the auction, with one of the shirts going to a student at Nyaani.

Fort Smallwood students also have been learning about East African music, dance and culture. Students performed for Ogego on Wednesday night.

Jennifer Leimbach said she is surprised by what the school is teaching her daughter, Sydney, a fourth-grader. Since October, she has been taking Sydney to school early to practice the "flying mallets," an African xylophone.

"The kids are so enthused about helping," Leimbach said.

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