Global Village

Baltimore City elementary school students are pitching in to help improve health care in Africa

December 01, 2008|By Donna Owens | Donna Owens,Special to The Baltimore Sun

It's a crisp fall day at Waverly Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore. It's about an hour or so before lunch, and the building perched on a hill is humming with activity. Upstairs in Room 223, about two dozen students in green and khaki uniforms are seated inside the homeroom of fifth-grade teacher Cynthia Rock.

Cut-out stars and likenesses of Peanuts characters cover the walls and doors, along with graded test papers. A banner above a chalkboard reads: "Never settle for less than your best."

"Who can tell me how we helped kids in Africa?" asked Rock, a petite teacher with a warm demeanor, who's spent more than three decades teaching in Baltimore City public schools.

A bevy of hands shoot up. Sixth-grader Shantae Backmon is asked to come to the front of the room.

"Miss Jane came and talked to us about Kenya," said the 11-year-old with corkscrew curls. "She told us how they lived, how they eat and get food, how the kids play certain games. She also told us some people there are homeless."

"Miss Jane" is Jane Otai, a Kenyan-based program manager with Jhpiego - pronounced "ja-pie-go" - a global, nonprofit health organization that has a Baltimore office in Fells Point.

Jhpiego has spent decades empowering frontline health workers to serve some of the world's most vulnerable populations in places such as Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. The organization, founded in 1973 and affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University, designs and implements low-cost, hands-on solutions to strengthen the delivery of health care services for women and their families. Jhpiego began its work in Africa in the late 1970s, with training in Tunisia and Kenya.

Since then, its teams of physicians and outreach workers have helped establish health care services and improve quality of care across the continent. They've tackled malaria, AIDS, cervical cancer and the high rates of infant mortality.

The students at Waverly, which has a middle school next door and 655 students in grades pre-K through eight, were first introduced to Jhpiego's work when Otai, 47, visited the school last fall from Kenya, and spoke during an assembly. She described two urban slums in Nairobi, called Korogocho and Viwandani. Korogocho, which means "garbage" in Swahili, is built atop a former garbage dump. Viwandani is next to an industrial area.

"I described the challenges of families and children there," said Otai, recalling the visit, her first to the U.S., during a recent international phone call. "Most families live in houses with iron sheet roofs and mud floors, no indoor plumbing or electricity ... no access to clean water. If they can get work, they become very cheap labor at nearby industrial factories, earning about $2 a day."

The students, moved by what they heard, had a bevy of questions for Otai. At one point, a girl named Jasmine Harris stood up and asked: "What can we do to help?"

From there, an informal partnership was launched with Jhpiego, and a long-distance friendship was born between a Baltimore school and a country an ocean away.

"At first, we thought about sending clothing to the children in Kenya, because one of the things we learned from Miss Jane was that there weren't enough uniforms," said Keishonna Davis, 11.

But shipping items to Africa would have been too expensive. So the students agreed to save spare change and collect donations from family and friends and send that money to Kenya, Rock said. Using empty cookie tins to hold their money, the youngsters began their nearly yearlong campaign. Some gave up their favorite treats, like candy, and instead put money in the pot.

"We really wanted to help," said Wayne Zeback, 11. "Our goal was to raise a thousand dollars."

"I was saving pennies, dimes and quarters," said 10-year-old Miesha Manigault, who regaled the class with a hilarious tale of how she visited a supermarket to tally the coins in an electronic counting machine.

"They only give you nine cents on the dollar," she said, matter-of-factly. "So I got some more money from my father. He gives me an allowance."

The money trickled in slowly, but when all was said and done, the students raised about $225. That sum was matched with another $100 by some of the Baltimore Jhpiego staff and forwarded to Otai in Kenya. She described her gratitude in a thank-you letter sent to the Waverly students.

Beyond its efforts to help in Africa, the charity of Waverly's student body is also evident closer to home.

Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, students in several grade levels made placemats and centerpieces in their art classes, which were donated to The Franciscan Center, an outreach agency on West 23rd Street, not far from the school.

Its client base includes the homeless, people suffering from mental illness and HIV/AIDS, and impoverished and middle-class families dealing with temporary hardships.

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