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A forgotten island

Cooper Mountain teachers, students send school supplies, love to Honduras' Helene
by: Submitted photo, Dee Runberg, left, and Allie Roth, right, teachers at Cooper Mountain Elementary School, with Yorgin Bodden.

While two Cooper Mountain Elementary school teachers found a tropical place to spend spring break, they weren't there to enjoy the sunshine.

Rather, they were there to teach and bring badly needed supplies to an impoverished island.

Fifth-grade teacher Allie Roth and second-grade teacher Dee Runberg (accompanied by 24 others) spent eight days on Helene, an island about 30 miles off the coast of Honduras.

'Basically this is a forgotten island,' Roth said. 'It's very small.'

Covering roughly four square miles, the island has no running water or electricity and receives no government funding.

Realizing the islanders' needs, students in Roth's and Runberg's classrooms pitched in to raise money to purchase items by doing chores at home.

'I did a lot of chores and I donated some money,' said Olivia Rabin, a second-grader in Runberg's class. 'I swept the floors and I cleaned my room and the bathroom.'

Another second-grader, Mason Schimmel, did laundry and pulled weeds for 1½ hours.

'We felt like the kids didn't have as much as we did so we felt we needed to bring in money and just kept bringing it in,' said Molly McCay, a second-grader.

John Ahn, a fifth-grader in Roth's class, said not only did they donate to the effort, such things as soccer balls and first-aid kits, but other students pitched in as well.

'If we didn't do chores and stuff, we couldn't have raised enough money to buy important things like binders and calculators,' said Mackenzie Beber, another fifth-grader.

Extreme poverty

In the first week, students collected more than $200 from their chore labor and by the time efforts were over, $1,200 had been raised.

'I think the biggest thing I want to say is the kids really stepped up (to help),' said Runberg.

In addition to Roth's and Runberg's classrooms, two classes of second-graders and a Brownie troop donated various supplies and snacks. Nike donated colored soccer balls, cleats and air pumps.

Also, students brought in notebooks and water bottles along with medical supplies for the island's small clinic. Picture books were donated from another school district as well as equipment for the island's carpentry vocational school. Higher tech items included 40 calculators and two CD players.

In the end, Roth estimated that students collected 25 bags of items, each weighing 30 to 50 pounds each.

But the teachers said the students wanted to go the extra mile and sponsor one of the children on the island.

For $300 a year, students sponsor Yorgin Bodden, a 12-year-old boy, who showed his appreciation by drawing a picture of a boat for the students.

'The poverty is so extreme down there,' said Roth. '(Yorgin) has clothes now. He gets food everyday he goes (to school). He gets all the supplies he needs. It's just basically opening opportunities for the rest of his life.'

In June, Roth plans to return to the island with high school students to help out even more as part of her job as senior class ministry leader for her church, Sunset Presbyterian, which sponsored the Spring Break trip.

Since her first trip to Helene 1½ years ago, Roth and her father, Scott Griffith, created 'Friends of Helene,' a non-profit agency set up to help those on the island. Roth's husband, Scott, created the Web site, www.friendsofhelene.org.

Meanwhile, with the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch still obvious all around the island, the group accompanying Roth and Runberg helped rebuild a gangplank/boardwalk so that locals don't have to slog through marshland to get around.

'It's such a tiny community (that) when you leave, you make a huge difference,' said Roth. 'We do a lot of physical labor so there's a noticeable difference.'