This year we have many people to thank. In particular, this summer we had seven visitors at Wema who made a tremendous impact.
1. We're thankful that Rye Country Day teachers and administrators, Meredith deChabert and Brian O'Callaghan, spent a week working with the directors and teachers at Wema to further develop the partnership between the schools and share successful teaching methods. Wema teachers were grateful for their mentorship and look forward to staying in close contact as well as another visit by two RCDS teachers next year!
2. Michael Childress, Director of Programs at The School Fund, spent several days working with Teresa and interacting with the 73 students fully supported by The School Fund. He also shared successful administrative methods employed by other The School Fund partners.
3. Ryan Stackpole, a 12th grader at RCDS, installed 15 more custom-developed computers in the computer lab as well as helped institute the first steps of the developing a self-sustaining farm. Ryan oversaw the purchasing of 300 chickens through a partnership with the One Acre Fund. These chickens have started laying eggs- a welcome additional source of protein for the students. For the fantastic work he has accomplished, Ryan was awarded the 2016 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. You can read more about this incredible accomplishment here: https://greenwichfreepress.com/schools/greenwich-teen-wins-national-award-for-teaching-kids-in-kenya-to-build-their-own-computers-73917/.
4. Taylor Weary and Michael Staffeldt, recent college graduates, spent two months volunteering at Wema, supporting the students, teachers, and administrators. They worked on a tremendous number of projects. They wrote up a short write-up about their trip below!
"When we stumbled off the plane in the tiny Kisumu airport on June 4th, we were exhausted from 48 hours of travel but incredibly excited for our summer at Wema. Little did we know then how much the next seven weeks would mean to us. From interviewing students and teachers for Michael’s upcoming Wema documentary (stay tuned!) to mucking around in the new chicken farm to elaborate obstacle courses at games time, every day brought new challenges and joys for us.Having stayed two months, double the time of previous trips, it was really eye-opening to get to know the people and the routines in more depth than ever before.
We spent the first four weeks mostly teaching in the classrooms, as per usual for Wema volunteers. Michael taught physics, math, and business studies, while Taylor taught 5th grade general science and high school biology. The kids loved demonstrations with magnets, vertebrate taxonomy Jeopardy (“I’ll take birds for 500 shillings, Taylor”), and educational art activities. We were having a great time, too, but we realized that we had so much we wanted to accomplish and not enough time each day between spending time in class and preparing for lessons. That’s when we decided to take a more bird’s-eye view of things at Wema (while still having time for soccer, frisbee, and volleyball at games time, of course!).
In the remaining three weeks, we spent a good portion of our time on a project Teresa asked us to do: sitting in on classes with every teacher for teacher evaluations. We had a standardized rubric and gave Teresa and Stephen the results and overall comments at the end of our stay, with the hopes of improving education even more for this high-achieving school. We also recognized the need for fire safety on campus, purchased fire extinguishers, and designed and conducted Wema’s first fire drill. Eyeglasses were distributed with the help of a local optometrist (and there’s definitely demand for more donated pairs!) and medicines doled out. However, the largest lasting impacts of our trip will probably be the organized checkout systems in place for all the wonderful library books and sports equipment, so that all donated items are used to their full potential and returned safely every time. We see our goal as volunteers as one day becoming unnecessary, as systems like these are put in place and cogs keep turning without us being there. That is true sustainability, and that is what Wema Children, Inc., is all about. That being said, when we piled back into the car on July 20th, there were definitely a few tears as we left our Bukembe Village family and friends. There are still ways we and other volunteers can help, and we can’t wait to return to see everyone again."
Like a lot of good ideas, my work with Wema started as something else. I had been building my own computers for fun, and to play video games, but I had no idea at the time that it would lead me to Bukembe Village in Western Kenya. Last fall my parents showed me a video about Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT Professor that had started "One Laptop Per Child" to bring low-cost computers to school children in the developing world. I thought there might be a way to improve upon this model, so I created "TechCorps: Geeks-4-Good". Our goal is to teach kids to build, repair, and maintain low-cost computers for their schools and most importantly, for them to teach others to do so, creating a multiplier effect.
I had a plan, but no place to execute it. Then my academic adviser, Jenny Heath, suggested I contact Alex Breinin, an alum at my school, Rye Country Day, about Wema: Nine months later I was on a plane to Kenya with 400lbs. of donated computer parts in my luggage.
I'd like to say that months of planning and preparation made this an easy transition, but in reality, nothing could prepare me for what I found at Wema. In thinking back on it now, I realize that Wema is a place that renews your faith in mankind and in particular, human beings’ boundless capacity for compassion. Wema is the one place I have been where I know that hope has conquered despair. What Teresa, Stephen, and the incredibly dedicated and talented teachers have accomplished there is difficult to overstate. And they have done so in conditions that defy comprehension: three kids to a desk with one tattered textbook, and no light but that of a few candles to overcome the constant power outages. And they are learning...TRULY learning.
A few hours after we arrived, my plan to do a "test run" of the computer building curriculum I had designed quickly got pushed to aside when I saw the situation on the ground. The power would go out for days at a time and there was no real Internet service to speak of, not ideal circumstances in which to build a computer lab! The first thing I did was focus on getting solar panels and a generator up and running. I had never done either before, but necessity is the mother of invention. Working with Stephen and one of the science teachers, Sachadeva, we got the solar panels installed and the generator running. The Wema Children's Centre/Highway Academy finally had a consistent source of power, not only for the computer lab, but the entire school and dormitories! I then did our first computer building class for the 10th and 11th grade science students and finally fell asleep, exhausted, in disbelief that this was only my first day.
I can't say enough about the kids at Wema and the Highway Academy. They are the most dedicated students I have ever met and some of the kindest people. By the second day, we had broken into small groups of three students and a few teachers to begin their hands-on computer building training. They took to the task with dedication and focus. By day’s end, they had five powerful, affordable new "Fursa 1.0" desktop computers up and running ("Fursa" means "Opportunity" in Swahili). There is also much better internet thanks to some troubleshooting with the local cellular providers. Finally, we set up a Rachel Pi server on a local network. This tremendous, low-cost tool will give the students and teachers access to hundreds of text books, Khan Academy videos and other educational content (including Wikipedia), even when the Internet connection is down. Most importantly of all, the students and teachers who now know enough to build the remaining desktops for their computer lab when we return in March.
Everyone we met at Wema constantly thanked us for our work there; they even sang to us, but I am the one who should be thankful. My time at Wema, and the wonderful people I met there gave me far more than I contributed. I have thought about the students and teachers every day since I returned. It was truly the most incredible, exhausting, and fulfilling experience of my life.