Along a road in Wamunyu, Kenya, sits a water tank with a sign that reads: "This tank was built with funds from Southern MS, Lothian, MD, USA."
During the Thanksgiving holiday, Southern Middle School teacher Laura Groo visited the East African country to see the water tank firsthand and relish the fruits of a school read-a-thon project last year that raised more than $3,000 to finance the tank.
The read-a-thon was so successful that there were funds left over, which were used to buy gym equipment for Kyamatula Primary School, where the water tank is located.
The project was part of KenyaConnect, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit organization that promotes cross-cultural exchange and community development worldwide. The organization formed a partnership with the Wamunyu area, encouraging American students to forge relationships with students in Kenya.
Southern Middle students became pen pals with Wamunyu students, and applied lessons from the classroom during the read-a-thon.
Groo, a sixth-grade language arts teacher, said science classes explored Kenya's water resources and the impact of drought. Math classes calculated how much money was needed to reach the read-a-thon's goals. Social studies classes learned about Kenyan cultures.
"When students here began writing letters and getting letters back and pictures from Kenya, they thought, 'We have so much here; they have so little,'" said Groo. "We decided to raise funds to build the water tank.
"The students pledged to read as many books as they possibly could in one marking period, and they went to their family and friends and asked them to be sponsors and partner with us as part of KenyaConnect," Groo said.
"Most parents just made a flat pledge [and said], 'Yes, I'll give you $20 at the end, no matter how much you read.' But some people took a risk and pledged a dime a page," she said. "Our kids just took off on reading."
Groo said she thought about visiting Kenya while helping KenyaConnect explore building an arts integration curriculum. She originally planned to visit during the summer, but after being told of an inexpensive fare during Thanksgiving, she decided to move up the trip. She departed for Kenya on Nov. 20 and returned Nov. 29.
From her Southern Middle classroom, Groo spoke with delight about the welcome she received. Students, teachers, parents and others in the community lined up on both sides of the road leading to the water tank, she said, and sang praises in her name as she neared the site.
"When I arrived, I didn't see anything, just homesteads and farms," Groo said. "As we came around the corner, you could hear the children singing, the entire school poured out and lined the dirt road that led to the school. And they had a big welcome ceremony."
Groo taught lessons to the Kenyan school's sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms, using posters of Norman Rockwell paintings, including some she had cut into puzzle pieces that students had to match.
"Being paintings by Norman Rockwell, they were all the quintessential American scenes," Groo said. "So [students] had a lot of questions."
While there, Groo found out that the school's pit latrine had collapsed, so she brought back items to the United States to sell, with the funds going to repair the latrine. She said one Anne Arundel County teacher gave her $500.
Groo's students marveled at the stories their teacher told them about her trip.
"It was pretty much amazing, everything we have and they don't have and how different they live," said Southern Middle sixth-grader Carly Wood.
Said Groo, "I want to be a model for my students, that you can't know anything until you've lived or visited or spent time in a Third World country, in another part of the world where you just can't even imagine. We say, 'Times are tough, I can't give.' And you look over there and you see that the pit latrine collapses and falls into a hole. And they have nothing. It's pretty stunning."