By Jill Zarend-Kubatko, For The Baltimore Sun
10:14 AM EDT, July 29, 2013
Two Arundel High School graduates who are headed off to college this fall have an unusual achievement to add to their resumes. In order to raise money for an online book club for students in Kenya, they held a school-wide Quidditch match, complete with broomsticks.
Quidditch, of the "Harry Potter" book series, may be fictional, but the computers and Internet access that the Kenyan students received as part of the Kenya Venture are very real.
The project came about when Aashi Parikh, 18, attended an Ashoka Youth Venture global citizenship conference at the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2011 and a Vital Voices Global Partnership conference that same year.
At the Vital Voices conference she was able to hear Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden and actors speak about global issues.
"Tickets are $500 but our school got free ones," she says. "I was completely blown away by some of the stories. I was really inspired by this. I wanted to make a difference and be a change maker."
She immediately met with her friend Jordan Luber, 17, who had just came home from the Appalachia Service Project, a Christian ministry where volunteers repair and build homes for low-income families in rural central Appalachia.
The duo started to brainstorm about what they wanted to do as a project and settled on creating an online book club for students overseas.
"We are both book nerds and love to explore different cultures. We wanted to start a cross-cultural exchange; there is so much you can learn if you open yourself up a little," Parikh said. "That is how the idea came about for the book club. We were thinking literacy is important in developing countries - they don't always have access to books, let alone computers."
A teacher at their high school put them in touch with Kenya Connect, a cultural arts and outreach organization in Elkridge. The nonprofit has installed water tanks at more than 50 schools, renovated several schools and constructed two solar-powered learning resource centers.
Parikh and Luber decided to raise money to install $10,000 worth of computers in a community center, called Kenya Connect computer Learning Resource Center in the Wamunyu community, which serves as a computer lab, library and outreach center.
"We told [Kenya Connect] about our idea, they were so excited and enthusiastic that kids wanted to partake in something like this," Parikh said. "They told us about the community center and we told them we will fund the books and computers."
Alicia Wrenn, executive director of Kenya Connect, said she was impressed with Parikh and Luber because most teenagers typically have difficulty sticking with a single project.
"I think the other factor that makes [Arundel High] different is the kids are given a lot of latitude from the teachers and the principal," Wrenn said. "The school itself has connections with others in the global studies community, so they are a pretty dynamic group of educators."
Parikh and Luber created Kenya Venture to raise funds. Luber met with school administrators, teachers, community leaders and local businesses on a weekly basis to planning and stage fundraising events.
Their biggest moneymaker was a Quidditch match, a tournament from the Harry Potter series in which the wizards fly and compete on brooms.
On Arundel's Carrol Field, brooms in hand, the students played three games - two qualifiers and the championship. The games are played like handball with players on the sidelines throwing in balls and trying to hit the opposing team. If a team member is hit by one of these "bludgers," they must drop everything and freeze for 5 seconds.
In addition, there is also a "golden snitch" that is released toward the end of the game.
"In true Quidditch, the snitch is a flying ball with wings, but for our non-magical purposes, it is a really fast runner with a painted yellow face," explains Parikh. The team that tags the snitch first gets 10 additional points.
"The teachers were very involved. They did a great job of play fighting and trash-talking to get everyone excited," adds Parikh.
Arundel's principal, Sharon Stratton, gave students a half-day off school to participate. Students dressed in costume throughout the week. The event sold out, and they raised $3,500 in 2012 and $5,000 this year through ticket sales, entry fees and T-shirt sales.
"Mrs. Stratton had a lot to do with our success. She believed in our mission. Our school was euphoric during those weeks," said Luber, who recently received a $1,000 scholarship from Kohl's department store for his efforts and is in the running for a $10,000 scholarship.
Other money for the project came in through direct donations.
"A lot of it was nickels and dimes and $20 bills," Parikh said. "Those are amazing experiences, where people who don't know you reach out and support you."
This past April 11, two years after the effort began, the first online book group was held. They discussed "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," one of a series of novels by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith are set in Botswana.
"In some ways it was a disaster because the technical aspects of it were terrible, but it was so amazing to be able to do it and hear what kids in Kenya thought about it," Parikh said. "It was so perfect for me and so fulfilling."
Luber said the screen sometimes froze, but they were able to see and hear each other. When the two sides appeared on the screens, "There was serious applause, it was a very emotional celebration," he said.
Parikh recently returned from a trip to Wamunyu with Kenya Connect.
Her introduction to Africa was a hairy one. The first day there, she discovered a tarantula in the toilet.
"I screamed as it was being flushed away," she says.
In addition, Parikh learned tribal dances from women in their 60s and 70s. The colorfully dressed women taught her the movements to the Kamba welcome dance and an anti-AIDS dance.
"I couldn't believe they were in their 60s and 70s, they were more limber than I," she says. The women named her "Mutheo" (pronounced moo-THEY-oo), which means "purity" in Kikamba, their tribal language.
Parikh and the Kenya Connect group visited a women's homestead where the residents spend their time weaving colorful baskets. Parikh also went on a night safari, saw the Big 5 of Africa (lions, elephants, rhinoceros, leopards and buffalo), straddled the equator, saw the Coriolis effect firsthand, and got licked by a giraffe.
But one of the most amazing sights was the center that she, Luber and the community of Arundel High helped become a reality.
"It was so amazing and awesome to see the center and be able to see all the hard work materialize. I was so blown away; it's so beautiful and bright," Parikh said. "It's so fulfilling that all these kids will have access to computers and the small library we set up. It is so amazing to see physical and tangible results."
While there, she participated in a live book session with the students they had seen on their monitors.
"They are a little shy at first; once things got started, things went well," she said. "We got to learn their thoughts and how they meshed with our own."
Parikh and Luber are now training other students at Arundel High to take over the program, and Parikh plans to continue with Kenya Venture in college. As part of the University of Maryland Honors College she will enter the Living and Learning programs, taking entrepreneurship and innovation classes as part of her studies.
Luber also will attend the Honors College. His ultimate goal is to participate in Doctors without Borders, where volunteer doctors and nurses provide urgent medical care to victims of war and natural disasters.
Luber and Parikh have accomplished a lot as high school students, but as Luber will tell you, they are "just getting started."
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