They might be young, but they know that in some parts of the world, students walk two to three miles to school every day, carrying books or sometimes even a brother or sister. They know that in some countries, kids don’t have video games, roller skates, swimming pools or even school supplies. But luckily, fifth-grade students Eric Nebel, Grant Deakins, Hailey Schleter, Jhania Blanchard, Kettie Tesfa and Milena Cornejo also know that they can make a difference.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of a big charity,” said Jhania, from Elm Creek Elementary School. “Because I want to help people.”
At the end of March, the students – along with program leader Tammie Epley and Weaver Lake Elementary School Principal Gretchen Peel – traveled to Mexico to deliver school supplies to the needy children of Sasabe, Mexico. They spent a full day south of the border, as well as two days in Tucson, Ariz., experiencing how students in another culture live and learn.
“It’s very eye-opening to see how other people live,” Epley said. “We have so much more than a lot of other people in the world, and a lot of our kids take it for granted until they see, firsthand, people who don’t have everything we do.”
From Minnesota …
Epley began the program, called Students Connecting Through International Service, seven years ago by collecting donated school supplies for the students of Sasabe. Over the years, the program has grown from what Epley’s husband once called her “hobby” to a full-time project because it encompasses so much more than just a trip to Mexico.
For five months prior to the trip, Epley and the students – who were selected based on an essay competition – met every other Tuesday night for two hours. They made posters to advertise their school supply drives, learned some Spanish, sampled Mexican food and wrote to pen-pals in Arizona, and they also discussed issues such as immigration, poverty, religion and culture. Right away, the students learned to work in an unfamiliar group, as they are all from different schools and backgrounds.
“They learn as much from each other as they do from their Mexican counterparts,” Epley said. “It’s a huge cultural exchange.”
Plus, said Valeria Waldner, mother of Oak View Elementary student Milena, the students learned public speaking skills from presenting their trip to multiple large groups, including the school board and several community groups, such as the Rotary Club and the Lions Club. In addition, each student spoke to every class in his or her school to kick off the week-long campaign to raise funds for school supplies for Sasabe students.
The students all admit they were nervous about speaking in front of big groups, but say it turned out all right. “It was a lot of fun,” said Kettie, from Park Brook Elementary School. “There was an envelope in each classroom for money, and if anyone had any donations they put them in the envelope, and every day I collected the money.”
The students’ combined goal was to raise $6,500, which went toward folders, notebooks, pencils, crayons, colored pencils, markers and backpacks for every student in Sasabe, as well as calculators for the fourth-through sixth-graders. In addition, it bought paper and ink for the school’s printer and sports equipment, such as soccer balls and basketballs. Additional donations from the public and community groups helped with plane tickets, meals and accommodations.
… to Mexico …
Even though the kids had three days off from school to take their trip, it wasn’t all sun and fun. With all the efforts they put in, “going to Mexico was more work than school,” Milena said.
On Wednesday, March 25, the kids flew into Tucson, bought school supplies and met their Arizona pen-pals. On Friday, they drove two hours south to Sasabe.
Crossing the boarder has never been a hassle, Epley said, but it’s always an extremely involved process. Each student must have a passport or Green Card as well as a notarized signature from both parents – and they mean both. Those signatures are so important that last year, Epley says, one of the students had to mail her permission slip to her mother, who was still living in Ghana. For her to sign the slip in front of a notary public, she had to walk to the only American embassy in the country – a full day’s journey. But that’s how special this trip is.
Once in Sasabe, the Minnesotan students presented the school supplies to the Mexican teachers and students, which Kettie said was her favorite part of the trip. “I liked giving the supplies to the kids and seeing their faces,” she said.
The Mexican students “treated us like celebrities,” Epley said. There were a few officials from the Mexican government present, and the Sasabe students performed skits, sang songs and put together a “museum” of Mexican antiques for the Minnesotans to see. They were also eager to show off their new community library, which they’d assembled with the books Epley and her students have brought over the past few years. Before they returned to Tucson, the Maple Grove students shared lunch with the Sasabe students.
In previous years, the Minnesota students had toured the town of Sasabe and its only source of employment, the brick factory. (This year, due to their full schedule, they didn’t have time.)
It would be an experience worth repeating, however. “[Last year] they were stunned when they saw the clay pit and people making bricks by hand,” Epley said. “They said, ‘we’ve never seen people work so hard for so little money.’ And they all commented on how happy the people seemed, even though they didn’t have as many material possessions.”
“It’s much more of an experience than I ever thought it would be,” she said.
The Sasabe students drove north to Tucson on Saturday, and together with Eric, Grant, Hailey, Jhania, Kettie, Milena and their Arizona pen-pals, the Minnesotan students explored the Sonora Desert Museum. Later, the students from all three regions shared lunch at McDonalds and went swimming. It was the first time many of the Mexican students had seen an ice machine, Epley said, or swam in a pool.
“We learned to appreciate what we have here,” she said.
… and home again
The students flew home on Sunday, but the program didn’t end when the Northwest jet hit the runway. The students continued to meet, wrote thank-you notes, created a DVD of their trip and gave more presentations to share their trip with their classmates. After all, the students who did not go on the trip still helped by giving donations to buy the school supplies for the Sasabe students.
“When I volunteered at my kids’ school, we did every drive for the hurricanes, tsunamis, Red Cross and everything,” Epley said, “and for a lot of kids, that money just dissipates. I want these kids to feel connected, to see what a difference they make.”
The six students also attended another school board meeting, where a representative from the Mexican Consulate presented them with a plaque, thanking them for helping the students of Mexico.
“That’s another perk I never would have expected,” Epley said.
But the best benefits of the program are less tangible. The trip has changed the students in profound ways, Epley said. They learned to be accepting of other people’s opinions and perspectives, and they learned to step outside of their own experiences.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Milena said. “I really wanted to help others and know what it’s like for others in a different situation than we are.”
Since the start of the program, Milena’s mother has seen changes in her daughter. She’s more confident now, Waldner said, and she’s grown in many ways. “She was used to getting what she wanted – not everything, but most of it,” Waldner said. “And now she appreciates what she has more.”
Kettie always wanted to travel and meet other people, said her mother, Amele Hailu, and since participating in the program, she tries to speak Spanish at home. She talks about Mexico every day – especially if she hears something about it on the news.
“She wants to mix with different people from different countries,” Hailu said.
Other parents reported to Epley that their children are now more ambitious and have a drive to help others. “They say, ‘this is a different kid,’” she said. “They learn that we can make a big difference.”
So now, even though they might be young, and they might not be able to speak much Spanish, Eric, Grant, Hailey, Jhania, Kettie and Milena know that a big smile means thank-you in any language.