On a wall at Rae C. Stedman Elementary School are rows and rows of red, brown and orange construction paper bricks – each boasting a student's name. The bricks are a representation of accomplishment for the Reading with a Meaning campaign, and they also mean the promise of building new classrooms for a kindergarten in Ethiopia.
“By the end of the month, this whole wall will be covered,” said fifth grade teacher Greg Kowalski, motioning to the space above several students who sat at long tables, hunkered over lunch trays. The bricks symbolize the building of two new classrooms at Lando Kindergarten in Petersburg's African Sister City, in Wondo Genet, Ethiopia.
Students at Stedman have spent the month of February reading for a good cause; for each five, 20-minute block of time a student spends reading, they get a brick for the wall.
“Each year the students participate in a month of reading and charitable giving,” Kowalski said.
Last February, the students raised $9,000 for Heifer International, a charitable organization that provides livestock to impoverished families.
How the campaign works is, students read as much as they can during the month. The page-turning marathon is sponsored by individuals and businesses in the community. At the end of the month, the student with the most sponsors, the student with the most time logged reading, and the student who raised the most money will be recognized.
“The school [in Africa]currently seats four students per desk,” Kowalski said. The students need to raise a total of $5,000 to reach their goal. “We are hoping any additional money will go toward bringing running water to the school,” he added.
A relationship with Stedman and the kindergarten, located more than 7,000 miles away, began with Petersburg's Karen Dillman. An ecologist for the U.S. Forestry Service, Dillman spent six weeks in Wondo Genet, working in botany, she said.
Dillman met Peace Corps volunteers, Robert and Nancy Stutevant, a retired couple from Fort Collins, Colo. who told her about the cramped conditions at Lando Kindergarten. The Stutevants are working on a matching grant for construction of new classrooms and already have grants for desks, books and other items, Dillman said.
“The government in Ethiopia doesn't fund kindergarten, but many of the churches have taken on that task,” Dillman said. “The school is so over-crowded [there are] 150 kids in three classrooms.”
If children can start off school with kindergarten, they will have a better chance of learning to read early, and sticking with their education. “I'm always looking to making things better in little ways, little increments that's all it takes,” said Dillman, a former Peace Corps volunteer.
Half-way through February, the students at Stedman had already received pledges of $500 each from The Trading Union, Wells Fargo Bank and Hammer & Wikan. And several businesses around town have Reading with a Meaning donation boxes on their counters. At the $5,000 mark, Kowalski said, the students will be hosted to a pizza party.
“The campaign is going all month-long, until the 29th,” he said.