By Joyce DeWallace, Contributing Writer
Grafton – Several years ago, sixth-grade science teacher Laura Deschenes of the North Street Elementary School in Grafton was looking for an organization to involve her students in something that would have an impact on other children.
“I wanted the project to be about children helping other children their ages,” she said. “I found Open Hearts and Minds (OHAM) through online research. I tracked down the charity’s founders, Sarah Clements-Boyer and her husband Phil Boyer, who were living in Grafton.”
They first met at the Grafton Celebrates the Holidays Craft Fair at the Municipal Center, where the Boyers were selling jewelry to raise money for OHAM. They arranged for Clements-Boyer to come to the school for presentations to the sixth-graders. The connection has since evolved into a very special relationship between an African school in Western Kenya and the students in Grafton.
The couple started the charity in 2010.
“We opened a school in Kokoth Kateng, Kenya (near Lake Victoria) to provide children in need with an education and a nourishing meal,” Clements-Boyer said. “We also started training single Kenyan mothers in sewing skills to enable them to provide for their families. Our aim is to help ease the struggle and break the cycle of poverty in these communities.”
The schoolchildren have always raised money for good causes, and Deschenes wanted to have them learn about other children who don’t have such abundance.
“We have choices; these people have no choices,” Deschenes said. “Life is very basic – a roof over their heads, water, food.”
Her students learned that the African students made their own soccer balls from old plastic bags filled with trash, paper and other bags held together with colorful tape. The school held a Soccer Walk to raise money for their new friends in Kokoth Kateng. The sixth-graders made homemade soccer balls, like their African friends, and asked families, friends and neighbors to be sponsors with any kind of donation. Then all the students in the school kicked the ball around the soccer field with the sixth-graders acting as coaches and buddies.
“The first year we got them playground equipment with our Soccer Walk. Year Two we bought water filters. This year we had one student raise $750 on his own,” said Deschenes.
To build enthusiasm and support for the fund raiser, the sixth-grade students went to all the other 25 classes and gave a presentation with a slide show, answered questions and asked them for their support.
“After three years, the whole school is involved and the students are so excited to run the project. The kids see that they are actually changing someone’s life and see what results they produce with their efforts,” explained Deschenes.
This year the group presented a check for $4,800 to OHAM. The donation will go toward building a larger kitchen and storage area at the school.
Founders Phil and Sarah Boyer were on hand to receive the check and to update the school on the progress in Kenya.
In addition to raising money, the sixth-graders have become pen pals with their Kenyan friends. The 103 Grafton students write to the 68 students now attending the rudimentary school. They draw pictures to put in their letters, and the school makes up a large package to send overseas. In return, they receive letters from Africa.
“The pen pal project created a greater connection,” said Deschenes.
“Through Laura’s support here, the Grafton kids are learning valuable lessons about giving,” Boyer noted.
Added Clements-Boyer: “Because of OHAM, the children in Kenya now can get jobs and return something to their communities and break the cycle of poverty.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.ohamf.org.