2017-10-12 / Front Page

$2,525: A HUMANITARIAN ODYSSEY

Lawn middle-schoolers raise money for kids’ education in the Congo
BY RYAN GIBBS


Fifth- and sixth-graders during lunch Tuesday afternoon surround the fundraising thermometer in the Lawn School cafeteria. The goal was to raise $400 for Congolese schoolchildren, but the students raised six-fold that amount. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Fifth- and sixth-graders during lunch Tuesday afternoon surround the fundraising thermometer in the Lawn School cafeteria. The goal was to raise $400 for Congolese schoolchildren, but the students raised six-fold that amount. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN A cardboard fundraising thermometer, with a red line indicating the $400 goal, sits in the Lawn School cafeteria.

To reach that mark, principal Nate Edmunds explained, each student had to earn $2, then donate it.

So, how much shading filled the thermometer?

“It’s through the roof,” Edmunds said. “Our students are awesome.”

Through a diverse range of philanthropy, from baking cookies to cutting grass, Jamestown’s middle-schoolers have raised more than six times their goal. In a glowing example of humanitarianism, they have collected $2,525, which will be donated to Congolese children who grew up viewing education as a privilege, not a right.


Amani Matabaro, second from right, marches through the village of Mimosho during the 2016 International Women’s Day celebration in Congo. Along with education activism, Matabaro is a strong advocate of women’s rights. 
ACTION KIVU Amani Matabaro, second from right, marches through the village of Mimosho during the 2016 International Women’s Day celebration in Congo. Along with education activism, Matabaro is a strong advocate of women’s rights. ACTION KIVU The fundraiser’s origins lie in a presentation African activist Amani Matabaro gave to Lawn students in the spring. Matabaro raises awareness of the plight of schooling in his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Inspired by the interest from students, counselor Marge Johnson, who arranged Matabaro’s visit, hosted a school-wide assembly in September to introduce the fundraiser.

Along with Edmunds, Johnson asked each class to earn roughly $100, which would show the Congolese that they have support from outside their borders.

“It reinvigorates their hope,” Johnson said. “That’s a big deal.”

6,600 miles away

While it costs about $14,000 annually to educate a Rhode Islander, a Congolese middle-schooler only needs $95 a year to attend classes. Despite this relative affordability, only 20 percent of the nation’s children are enrolled in the world’s 17th most populous country. Typically, only one child from each family enrolls; these family representatives then return home and teach their siblings.

“Every mother would basically give her right arm for her child to go to school,” Johnson said.

Johnson first met Matabaro while she was teaching sewing classes in the Congo. They struck up a friendship, which led him to the United States for the first time. During that 2010 visit, he presented for the Rotary Club of Wakefield, a group that includes Johnson’s husband. Matabaro explained to the Rotarians the dire straits of schooling in his country.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is abundant in natural resources but is shrouded by tumultuous political history, which makes it one of the poorest and least developed countries on the planet.

Unlike most residents in Mimosho village on the Rwandan border, Matabaro is fluent in English and college educated, which he’s used to his advantage. Along with raising money for the school, Matabaro led the construction of a “peace market,” which is a vocational center for women.

“He has done incredible things in Mimosho,” Johnson said. “He has raised an entire village.”

Visiting Jamestown

The theme for the middle school’s advisory program is on social-emotional learning and empathy, which was the perfect fit for Johnson to introduce Matabaro to Jamestown. Following the overwhelming student response from the visit, she decided to take the relationship a step further.

“What a great idea,” she said, “the kids in our school sending other children to school.”

At the September assembly, Johnson showed pictures from her visits to the Congo while reiterating Matabaro’s speaking points about education. She also shared photographs of four Conglonese children that would benefit from the students’ charity.

The children earned money from Sept. 20 through Oct. 4. This fundraiser, however, was different than most.

“We decided they shouldn’t go to their parents and ask for the money, they should earn it,” Johnson said. “It should be hard for them so they realize what they’re doing is helping kids that have a really hard life. They really embraced the idea.”

While some children did yard work for neighbors and donated their allowance, some of them chose to raise more than their fair share. For instance, fifth-grader Lillian Smith donated $8 from her earnings as a youth soccer referee.

Smith’s classmate Scarlet Wolfe set a $100 goal for herself. She met that mark asking her stepmother, a music student at Rhode Island College, to help. During a live concert, her stepmother read a plea from Scarlet that detailed the predicament. The money soon followed.

“When I kept getting more, it surprised me that so many people donated,” Scarlet said.

The largest contribution, however, was raised from bake sales organized by students in three grades, two at McQuade’s Market and a third on Thames Street in Newport. Among the children were sisters Jaydin and Ayla White.

“We really didn’t expect to get as much money as we did,” Jaydin said. “We were trying to get over $100.”

Edmunds was surprised when the girls unveiled their total haul — $1,500.

“I thought that was absolutely fabulous,” Johnson said. “We were surprised that they could make that type of money at a bake sale, but we were not surprised that they were capable of doing this.”

By the time the fundraiser ended, the schoolchildren had raised $2,000 more than Johnson had asked.

“The kids responded unbelievably,” Edmunds said. “I’m so proud of these guys.”

Reconnecting with Congo

Johnson has e-mailed Matabaro about the children’s success, but she has yet to hear back from him. There is no internet or telephone in Mimosho, where he spends most of his time. Matabaro has to travel to the nearby city of Bukavu to contact the outside world. Johnson also wants to know the best way to use the extra money.

Once the money is sent to the Congo, Edmunds hopes that contact will be established between the Jamestown students and the newly enrolled Congolese children. Johnson anticipates an answer because the connection is intimate, with no middlemen. She expects a letter written in French, the official language of the African country.

“It’s not a big organization. It’s directly going to the students,” Edmunds said. “We get to have a reciprocal relationship with them.”

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