Students in Nancy Simmons’ fourth grade class at Newfane Elementary School have been communicating over the past few months with fellow students in Kenya. The pen pal program in which they’re involved, LevelUp Village, put them in touch with Kyawango Primary Public School. This eventually led to the class raising money for the Kenya Connect organization, which was helping the community build a library in nearby Wamunyu.
Wamunyu is a rural agricultural community located southeast of Nairobi, and is regarded as being the home of Kenya’s woodcarvers. Kenya Connect Executive Director Sharon Runge said that Wamunyu is isolated, and most of the kids who live there do not have television or internet access.
“To be able to connect with a child in the US is just really fun for our students,” Runge said in a phone interview.
Three languages are used at Kyawango Primary school: Swahili, Kikamba and English.
“All of the big national exams in Kenya are in English,” Runge said. “When they get to do a video letter, or hear kids from America talking in English, it helps them practice in preparation for the exam.”
In January, the two schools started sending videos to each other.
“We sent a series of videos back and forth,” Simmons said. “First an introductory video, and then the other videos were about a local environmental issue.”
The Newfane students talked about issues relating to Lake Ontario, such as invasive species, rising lake levels, litter and fish consumption. The Kenyan students talked about soil erosion, poaching, deforestation and water usage. Simmons mentioned that students from Newfane High School came over to help the fourth-graders research the issues.
While they were in contact with the Kenyan students, Simmons’ students found out about Kenya Connect’s efforts to build the first library in the Wamunyu area. The overall cost of that effort is about $ 150,000.
“We asked the elementary students, kindergarten through fourth grade, to bring in quarters, nickels, dimes and dollars, to help our Kenyan friends build their new library,” Simmons said, “and throughout March and into April, we were able to raise about $ 1,000. ”
The Kenya Connect library, as a gesture of thanks, is painting each of the stairs in the building to resemble the spine of a book requested by the schools that helped fund it. Newfane Elementary requested that their step be painted as the poetry book “Read! Read! Read! ” by local poet and children’s writer Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, with illustrations by Ryan O’Rourke.
While the Kenya Connect library has not officially opened, as its grand opening gala will be in June, provision of library services began two weeks ago. These include a mobile library that drives around the area with a few books to lend, and a Saturday read along in which a librarian reads storybooks to children.