The Power of Human Connections (Read More)

October 12, 2012
The Power of Human Connections (Read More)

In 2007 when Rachel Woeste was a fifth-grader at Bishop Leibold School in Miamisburg, Ohio, she began writing to her pen pal Denis Osoro, a student at Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School, a Marianist-sponsored school in Nairobi, Kenya. Rachel and Denis are separated by nearly 8,000 miles and two continents.

Rachel, who lives with her parents and two younger siblings just south of Dayton, Ohio, has noticed many differences between her life and that of Denis, who lives with his parents and four brothers in a house made of corrugated iron with a dirt floor.

But despite the differences, the 11-year-old, who flashes a broad smile beneath her long blond hair, has learned an important lesson: “Even though he lives in a different part of the world, has a different color of skin and comes from a different-sized family, we aren’t that different,” she says.

Bishop Leibold Catholic School, as well as two Marianist high schools — Arch­bishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati and Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis — are forging a relationship with Our Lady of Nazareth and deepening their understanding of their sacred and mutual connections by helping students connect through pen pal programs, fundraising efforts and service projects.

Marianist Father Marty Solma, who has overseen the development of OLN for more than 10 years, knows that these deeper realizations start with small steps: “We are planting seeds. We are trying to help our children in Africa connect with a wider world and help kids who live in the United States appreciate the needs of others.”

A safe refuge

Our Lady of Nazareth Primary School is located in Mukuru, one of the worst slums in Nairobi where residents live in cramped and dangerous living conditions. There’s no running water and raw sewage flows freely in the streets.

The Marianists have been running OLN since 1997, providing instruction to 1,700 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Under the Marianists, the school has made significant improvements to the physical plant and the academic program: Recently it added a state-of-the art computer lab and has a library stocked with more than 10,000 books. Last year OLN ranked 55th of 197 schools participating in the national primary school exams.

The school also provides meals to its students. More than one-third of OLN students receive their only meal of the day at school, and it isn’t uncommon for students to arrive at school on Monday having eaten their last decent meal the previous Friday.

For the children of Mukuru, OLN is a refuge, a place where they can temporarily escape crime, hunger, disease and hopelessness.

An overpowering experience

Ray Harter is the director of the Servant Leadership Program in campus ministry at Chaminade College Prep, a Marianist school for boys in St. Louis. In 2007 Harter and his wife, Julie, spent the summer performing service work at OLN. Harter was surprised by what he witnessed.

“I saw some of the most extreme poverty,” he says, but also was touched by expressions of great beauty and love. “It was an overpowering experience.”

During their time at OLN, Ray taught social studies to the older children and Julie, an early-childhood special education teacher, worked with the younger children. His students were curious about their American counterparts and were surprised to learn that they were studying many of the same subjects.

Just as the kids had many things in common, so, too, did their parents.

“The parents in Africa and the U.S. are dealing with the same issues: ‘How do we provide for our family?’ ‘How do we foster a safe, nurturing environment?’” says Harter.

When he returned to St. Louis, Harter knew he wanted to build a bridge between Chaminade and OLN. Mining the mountain of photos he had taken, he put together a video.

The moving images of life in Mukuru and at OLN made a big impression on the students, who wanted to know what they could do to make a difference in the lives of the children in Africa. Last school year, the faculty and students at Chaminade raised $13,295 for their friends in Nairobi.

But the connection didn’t end there. As part of the school’s commitment to service learning, Chaminade administrators decided to sponsor an immersion trip to OLN, and in the summer of 2009 approximately 20 students and parents will travel to Nairobi to perform service work.

“Academic knowledge is one thing,” says Marianist Father Ralph Siefert, president of Chaminade. “But experiential learning can transform a student.”

“I wasn’t prepared for this school”

The power of a trip to transform also applies to adults.

Marianist Brother Ron Luksic, dean of campus life at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, took a group of about 20 people to Kenya last summer. The group included Moeller teachers and parents of current and former students.

The original draw for the trip was a safari. Although the visit to OLN was a brief afternoon excursion, a few hours at the school left a lasting impression on the travelers.

As their minibus wound through the slums of Mukuru, the visitors from Moeller got a firsthand look at the abject poverty and dismal conditions. Among the tourists were Glenn Hartman, the school’s freshman soccer coach, and his son Steve, who graduated from Arch­bishop Moeller in 2005.

“You go through the slums and it is so horrible,” Hartman says, “but I wasn’t prepared for this school.”

Approximately 900 students had gathered. They waited patiently until the American visitors had disembarked from the bus, then welcomed their guests with songs and dances, showed them through the school and showered them with attention.

Hartman says he was overwhelmed: “I have never felt so loved by complete strangers.”

Says Brother Ron: “All our participants wanted to know how they could support OLN.”

The cost to educate one child at OLN for a year is $125. The Moeller group decided to sponsor an entire class of children at OLN. Hartman says he plans to rally the group to donate again this year.

Even though his visit included a hot-air balloon flight over the Masai Mara National Reserve and other side trips in Kenya, Hartman says the stop at OLN topped them all: “It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was like feeling the hand of God.”

Nickels for Nairobi

A newspaper article sparked the connection between OLN and Bishop Leibold School. John and Nancy Woeste, parents of three children at Bishop Leibold, read a story about a U.S. school that had adopted a school in another country. The Woeste family thought such a project would be a wonderful learning opportunity for their school.

Paul Beyerle, principal of Bishop Leibold, was receptive to the idea, and further inquiries led them to OLN. Marianist Brother Don Neff, a former school principal who now works at the Marianist Mission, had visited OLN on several occasions and was asked to speak to the student body at Bishop Leibold.

“I tell students that by supporting our mission projects, they become a member of the international Marianist Family,” says Brother Don.

He told the students they had the power to make a difference in the lives of the students in Africa, where five cents can provide little children a bowl of porridge, a major source of protein and nourishment.

The children at Bishop Leibold took that message to heart, creating a “Nickels for Nairobi” fundraising jar. Under the leadership of teacher Laura Schommer, a fundraising cookbook was assembled for a program called “BLESSINGS for Nairobi.” The cookbook was sold at a school fundraising event, where, under the tutelage of art teacher Marsha Guerriero, Bishop Leibold students created African-themed art.

The activity with the biggest impact was the pen pal program. Approximately 400 children were involved with the letter writing. The three Woeste children hung pictures of their buddies on the refrigerator at home.

Says Kevin Woeste, who exchanged letters and pictures with Brian Ntabo: “He likes football and soccer, and his favorite food is chicken. I like chicken, but it is not my favorite.”

More than merely writing letters, these exercises have helped children such as Kevin and Brian learn something more: “Having kids write to kids helps both groups realize that people are people with similar hopes and dreams,” says Father Marty.

“If we can help them understand that distance and culture are not obstacles to building a world of understanding and cooperation, it is all worthwhile.”

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