With the hint of tears in their eyes, Morgan Ferrara and Kaitlyn Lerma said they had to do something.
The Genoa Elementary fifth graders are spearheading a fundraiser to help children who attend an impoverished school in Uganda, a nation in east Africa.
“We just kind of wanted to raise money for them,” Morgan said. “We see that we have all this stuff and they have nothing, and we just want to help them out.”
The project began innocently enough when Pam Hill, the school’s social worker, took a Rotary-sponsored trip to the Nebbi District of western Uganda. She asked teachers if their classes were interested in writing letters she could take with her to the Angal School there.
The purpose of the trip, Hill said, was to work with local community leaders to help improve the lives of young girls and encourage them to stay in school. Emily Fowler’s fifth grade students – Morgan and Kaitlyn’s class – and Cindy Reed’s fourth graders sent letters, which Hill presented to one of the headmasters of the Angal School. Children at the Angal School wrote back to the fifth graders.
What no one expected was how powerful the answers to the letters would be, or how the Genoa fifth graders would respond.
“The letters really moved us,” fifth grader Matthew Iscra said.
“It really impacted them,” Fowler said. “Off and on all day, they were crying over the letters.”
One Ugandan student, Fowler said, thanked her new pen pal for writing because she didn’t have any friends. Another writer said his “hobby” was “fetching water” for his family.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
Fowler said some of the letters actually had dirt on them; since the Ugandan children don’t have desks they had to write them on a dirt floor. Many of the students don’t have school supplies, or even shoes. The district is so poor there isn’t enough room at the local hospital, so some patients are treated outside, under trees.
A letter addressed to Kaitlyn came from a 12-year-old boy named Kevin Fuathum, who said his father died last year. One of his three sisters also died, and he doesn’t know where his mother or his other two sisters are.
“Now no one can take good care of me, but I know with you there is hope,” he wrote.
“I was really sad,” Kaitlyn said. “It really made me cry. I kept reading the letter over and over again.”
Kaitlyn was so moved, she and a group of classmates decided to start their own fundraiser for Kevin and his classmates.
“I was hoping for an exchange of letters,” Hill said, adding that she thought she would be educational. “I was pleasantly surprised that they’re going to do this (the fundraiser).”
Like many of the students, Trevor Pierce said he didn’t even know where Uganda was, “until we started talking about it.”
To help the Uganda students, the Genoa students spent half an hour every day last week after recess making cardboard boxes and signs. Starting Monday, they will visit the other nine classrooms in the building, explaining the fundraiser. Each class will get two boxes, one to fill with school supplies, the other for financial contributions. At the end of two and a half weeks, Hill will send the contents of the boxes to the Angal School District. The class that donates the most items and the one that collects the most money will be treated to an ice cream party.
Fowler said the students are hoping for a variety of school supplies except books, since they are too heavy and costly to ship.
“So many people just look at them as kids,” Fowler said. “But look at how much of a difference they want to make. For them to go that extra mile is what really touched me. I’ve been teaching for 10 years, and this is my most passionate class by far.”
The public can donate supplies or money at the main office during regular school hours.
“Their enthusiasm is pretty cool,” Hill said. “They took their passion and are doing something positive with it.”
Fowler said she’s not concerned with the fundraiser preparations setting her class a little behind in its social studies curriculum.
“I think they’re getting much more out of this than anything in Chapter 10,” she said. “These are the things you can’t teach in a curriculum.”