BEING THE CHANGE
Two 8-year-olds make real-life differences for children in Africa
Eight-year-old classmates Ben Walker and Rory Bialostosky share a birthday, a love for Nintendo Wii, kickball and sports trading cars. They are neighbors and often play together outside.
But last month the two boys from Willamette Primary School found out that they also share a passion for giving.
After learning about Ndaga Primary School in Tanzania, Africa, the duo decided it would be nice to raise money for the elementary students a world away. The boys raised $1,083 and that amount was matched twice, for a total of $3,249 raised.
'There's no electricity,' Rory said.
'And the biggest class has more than 215 kids - primary school kids,' Ben added.
The children learned about Ndaga - where it is located, the children that attend there and the current hardships they are faced with - at Willamette.
'They have huge holes in the walls,' Rory said, spreading his arms wide open. 'And they are bigger than that.'
Ndaga - which is located in East Africa - became Willamette's sister school last year. And the West Linn school previously raised money for scholarships and classroom repair; they also held a pencil drive.
'There are no educational materials. It's really 'call and response' in the classroom,' said Katy Mayer, principal at Willamette who visited Ndaga two months ago.
For a week and a half in the middle of December, the boys held a collection drive at their school. They spoke at an assembly and at two holiday concerts.
'We like helping other kids,' Ben said.
All these financial contributions to Ndaga are given through Africa Bridge, a non-profit organization that helps African children and is based in West Linn.
Jane Stickney, assistant superintendent with the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, along with Mayer, each matched the donations Ben and Rory collected at school.
'Why wouldn't we help other people in another community who weren't well off?' Mayer said.
Ben said he came up with the idea a few months ago to raise money for Ndaga students.
Rory's dad then built the donation box, which was placed within the school office at Willamette.
Mayer said that Ben and Rory volunteered to come into her office during several recesses to count money and prepare the speeches they would give in front of the school.
'We would sit at my computer and I would say, 'you can dictate to me what you want me to type.' I said, 'do you know what dictate means?' and they said 'no' and I said, 'OK, you tell me what to say and I'll type it,'' Mayer said.
Mayer said that the children at Ndaga are beautiful, gracious and eager for an education. While visiting the school in November through the Africa Bridge organization, she helped plaster walls and observed the children learning in crowded classrooms with few writing utensils.
'They would break their pencils in half to share with one another. And one out of six children is an orphan,' Mayer said. 'The main problem is HIV/AIDS.'
Bridging the gap
In 2007, Africa Bridge provided shoes, uniforms and writing materials to enable 436 children to attend school. The organization provided 735 desks in eight schools, allowing more than 2,000 people to sit. They supported 87 HIV/AIDS peer educators in eight schools.
To attend school in Tanzania, children are required to have a school uniform, writing materials and shoes - costing about $25 per student each year, with which Africa Bridge helps.
'We have a very holistic approach. Our mission is to improve the life of orphans and economically strengthen their families by improving healthcare and their environment,' said Barry Childs, founder of Africa Bridge.
Childs said that Africa Bridge helps African families learn how to take care of themselves. In the past three years the number of scholarships given to students from Africa Bridge has decreased from 600 to 350.
'School enrollment isn't going down. Families are taking over. (We are) helping families that are fostering orphans. They have increased their income,' Childs said.
Childs is a West Linn resident who grew up in Tanzania and now visits the country three times each year. He founded Africa Bridge in 2000 after visiting his homeland after a 40-year absence and reconnecting with the beauty of the land and culture, but also witnessing the poverty and negative effect of HIV/AIDS. He used retirement funds to help launch the organization.
Each 1,100 shillings in Tanzania currency equals $1 in American currency, thus the boys raised $3.5 million shillings.
The money Ben and Rory raised will help Ndaga Primary School's infrastructure.
Childs is visiting the school on Feb. 19 and will meet with teachers at the school to decide how the money will best be utilized - probably repairing classrooms and on scholarships, he said.
Mayer said that Willamette and the West Linn-Wilsonville School District puts a big effort toward developing character.
'We try to do a lot of service learning, which is a blend of academic learning while providing service,' Mayer said. 'One of my favorite things about being involved with education is helping to develop leaders for the future. This was amazing because it was helping to develop 8-year-old leaders.'
And Ben and Rory said they are thankful for the opportunity Willamette provided them and also for all those who donated money.
'Thanks for donating to our sister school,' Rory said. 'I'm going to save money to meet the kids.'
'Like, maybe in high school,' Ben added.
Ben's actions have inspired his older brother Nicholas Walker to want to contribute somehow to help others.
'Kids have to learn. Donating to charity is just the first step to getting them through school,' fourth-grader Nicholas Walker said. 'I'd like to help a school and I'd pick a far away school.'
Margie Watt, a West Linn parent of an 8-year-old attending Willamette Primary, said she was touched when she saw the boys speak in front of hundreds of people at a holiday concert.
'These boys are demonstrating leadership, compassion, goal-setting skills, and that we are all capable of great works,' Watt said. ' I don't think many of us have done anything that powerful at that age. What a wonderful accomplishment they can be so proud of.'
Mayer agreed, saying that it is children like Ben and Rory that make her job worthwhile.
'This reinforces my belief in children,' Mayer said. 'The ability for anyone to positively affect the world.'
Ben and Rory may be only 8 years old, but their contributions, Childs said, should be inspiring to both the West Linn and Tanzanian communities.
'A dollar goes a long, long way there. (Ben and Rory) are an example to adults,' Childs said, 'about what leadership is all about.'