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Eye-opening service project at Hammond Middle benefits Ethiopia

Students at Hammond Middle School put away their textbooks on Friday, Nov. 30, and left the classroom for a different kind of education.

To raise money and awareness for a program one of their teachers is participating in, the entire student population took part in an Accelerate Ethiopia Fun Run/Walk, running laps around the North Laurel school in the brisk, late-fall sun. Lapping all of them was eighth-grade math teacher Matt LaCorte, who will be traveling to Ethiopia in February to race and take part in the humanitarian mission Accelerate Ethiopia.

Accelerate Ethiopia benefits two charities: the Himalayan Cataract Project, a group focused on providing low-cost eye care in developing countries, and imagine1day, an organization focused on improving education in Ethiopia.

Dawn Czahor, a service-learning fellow and eighth-grade U.S. history and reading module teacher, said students had been "extremely responsive" to the service learning lessons.

"Ultimately, they're going to take what they've learned and apply it to the real world," she said.

Students are already working toward positive change in the world, Czahor said. As part of the service learning, staff and the more-than 500 students collected funds for the Himalayan Cataract Project, though the amount raised hadn't yet been calculated.

The race in February is LaCorte's first mission work; he was inspired to get involved in Accelerate Ethiopia for several reasons, chief among the death of his younger cousin, who died in a car accident two years while on her way to the airport for her second humanitarian trip to Uganda.

"She had such an impact on people, and I wanted to do something similar — to help people and to honor her," LaCorte said.

The money raised by Hammond students and staff does not go to LaCorte's entry into the February race, but goes directly to the charity.

"They're really getting it," Czahor said. "We told them, imagine not being able to see. We compared cataracts to have clouds over your eyes, and when they imagined taking the clouds off and being able to see, they were like, 'Whoa.' And they have the ability to help someone else see."

Kevin Baker, an eighth-grader at Hammond, put together a documentary about cataracts and Ethiopia. The project was eye-opening for him.

"You think about cataracts, and it's nothing — you just go in and you get an operation, but that's not really something Ethiopians can do," said Kevin, 13. "Just to give $20, one person can get one operation, which is really incredible."

Kevin added: "Service learning is different — when you look at a textbook, I have a feeling it's not always genuine," Kevin said. "You look, you see the pictures, you say, 'Oh that's terrible,' and you move on. But with student service learning, you're seeing people's faces, you're hearing their stories and you're seeing their struggles. That's really powerful to me. ... It feels really tremendous that we can help."

Mica LaCorte, a Hammond teacher and Matt LaCorte's wife, said that students were realizing that $20 — which here, can be spent in a day — can be a life-changer for someone suffering from cataracts in Ethiopia.

"The service learning project builds empathy, and the students are learning, becoming more aware that we have it pretty good here, and it's not like this everything," she said. "There are so many little things we can do to help."

Cydney Wharwood, an eighth-grader, said the service learning and the run helped her understand how "small diseases that don't affect us have a big impact" elsewhere.

"It makes me feel really grateful for what we have, and the medicine we have," she said. "I want to help make a change."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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