Reed's Pushcart Warriors Fund A School In Liberia

Thanks to the past two Reed Intermediate School sixth grade classes, a school in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, in Liberia, has a new well, and a new school building is being constructed.

This past February, Newtown Middle School seventh grade students learned how they helped fund a well for a Liberian school through participating in a yearly event at Reed Intermediate School as sixth grade students the previous school year.

At the Board of Education’s Tuesday, July 15, meeting, the school board learned how Reed sixth graders, participating in the same event this past school year, helped to build a new school building.

Before Newtown’s fifth grade was moved to Reed Intermediate School, reading The Pushcart Wars by Jean Merrill was part of the curriculum at Sandy Hook School. The book tells the fictional story of a clash between pushcart vendors in New York City and the increasing truck traffic that competed for space.

In 2007, Valerie Pagano-Hepburn introduced it to her sixth grade students at Reed, and the students worked to create their own “pushcarts” filled with selected foods and other items. After completing their pushcarts, the students sold the items while competing, like in the book. That year the profits were donated to charities selected by the students.

Since then Pushcart Day has grown.

Prior to Pushcart Day at Reed near the end of the 2012-13 school year, Ms Pagano-Hepburn said the students had to create their pushcart, determine what goods to sell, make the goods, and price the goods. That Pushcart Day raised roughly $2,800 in three hours, nearly all “quarters and nickels,” as Ms Pagano-Hepburn said at the time. She also said it was the first year with such a large profit.

The students were left wondering what to do with the money that was raised.

A letter to the editor in The Newtown Bee in May 2013 from a student at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., offered inspiration. The letter explained Kamiak High School “has a tradition of funding the construction of wells in Liberia, West Africa, through the Well Done Organization.”

The letter went on to say that after learning about the events of 12/14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Kamiak High School leadership class decided to fund a well in Liberia in honor of the lives lost that day. The school raised $2,500 to make that happen.

That letter caught the eye of Reed fifth grade teacher Karen King, who presented this year’s Pushcart Day news to the school board last week with Ms Pagano-Hepburn. Ms King said she brought the idea of funding a well forward after reading the letter. Reed sixth grade teachers Ms Pagano-Hepburn, Lil Martenson, Patrice DiVanno, and Georgia Smith all had students participate in the 2013 and 2014 Pushcart Day events.

Ms Pagano-Hepburn said when the students heard the idea of building a well, “the place went crazy… 900 kids come through our two clusters for three hours, so they all bought the well. They all are involved in it. It’s just such a beautiful experience for them, a total thing.”

That summer, Ms King traveled to Liberia for other projects she is involved in. While there, as she had promised her students, she visited the site where Kamiak High School’s well was built.

“I left, actually, right from the last day of school last year I went right to the airport and I headed to Liberia,” Ms King said, “and one of the first things I did was contact the ambassador to Liberia.”

US Ambassador Deborah Malac and Ms King visited the well sponsored by Kamiak.

“My other chore while I was there, among many other things, was to find a place where our well could be,” said Ms King. “Where the Reed well could be. So about three days after… I happened to be with another organization traveling around visiting different projects.”

She ended up at New Life Christian Academy, where help was needed both with the latrine and with the school’s well.

The building, said Ms King showing a photograph of the school to the school board, was not secure. Three hundred children attend the school under the guidance of seven volunteer teachers, according to Ms King.

“I’ve been to a lot of poor schools,” Ms King said. “I was very touched by the earnestness of the people in the community. They had built these walls with their own hands out of mud and sticks and straw. And they wanted a little bit of a helping hand. When I was there that day they did not know that I could help them, but I decided that was the obvious place for us to dig our well… It was called ‘New Life’: it seemed perfect.”

The new well was built and completed by December 10, 2013.

A sign, designed and created by local artists near the academy, near the well reads, “This well is dedicated to the memory of the 26 Sandy Hook School angels, given by Reed Intermediate School, Newtown, CT, USA, 2012-2013. Kindness matters and love wins.”

“We provided life-giving water to children who are every bit as precious as our own here,” Ms King said.

Chapter Two

“Chapter Two,” as Ms King introduced it to the school board, began when the 2014 Pushcart Warriors became inspired by what the previous year’s sixth graders had accomplished.

Ms Pagano-Hepburn said the 2014 Pushcart Warriors were determined to also help the school, after seeing photos and learning about the well.

The students made lists, brainstorming ways to help New Life Christian Academy.

That was when Ms King shared more news with the sixth grade students. A contact at Scholastic Publishing had heard about Reed’s efforts and offered to donate 600 to 1,000 nonfiction books for New Life Christian Academy. Ms King also said HEARTT, an NGO, offered to ship the books.

Richard Rogers of Scholastic Publishing said, “We all simply saw a great opportunity to bring the global literacy call of ‘Read Every Day. Lead a Better Life’ and combine that with an amazing person like Karen King. We know with her endless talents and dedication, she could put our donation to the very best use.”

Ms Pagano-Hepburn explained that after Ms King shared her news, the students raised the idea of building a place to house the books.

That was on a Friday, and after quickly researching the possibility, it was learned that building a library or school would be too expensive. But by that Sunday, Ms King had more news.

“We had heard that it would be $25,000 to build them a brand-new school, with six classrooms, cinderblock walls, a tin roof, and a cement floor. Of course that was just way too much,” Ms King said. “But over the weekend I had an idea and I reached out to a donor who has done a lot for the Liberian Eye Clinic. He had expressed an interest for doing something positive for Newtown. He was always interested in Liberia; I thought it was just the perfect opportunity.

“He agreed to challenge our students to raise a record $3,000, and if they did, he would partner with them and contribute the remaining $22,000, so that our children could know that they were responsible for building a new school,” said Ms King.

The first donation for the 2014 Pushcart Wars, according to Ms Pagano-Hepburn, came from US Ambassador Deborah Malac, then the students pushed on. Some brought piggy banks, donating nearly $70, Ms Pagano-Hepburn said, remembering she knew the amount raised by the 2014 Pushcart Wars would be “big.”

The warriors ended up raising $5,564.

A New School For The New School Year

According to Ms King, New Life Christian Academy’s new school is being built by the Well Done Organization this summer, and is expected to be completed for school to begin in September.

“This story,” Ms King reflected after the school board’s meeting, “spans two years worth of Pushcart Warriors and Reed students and staff. This has been an incredible experience for me, to be a witness to this swell of good will and life-changing generosity. I feel extremely blessed to have a front row seat to witness all the kindness in the world.”

The “West Coast couple” who donated the remainder of the money to fund the new school were also sent a letter of thanks from the Reed students and staff.

“Words can’t describe how thankful we are for your generosity,” the letter read. “What you are doing for those kids in Liberia and us is truly amazing. This task would not be able to be accomplished without you. When our teacher explained to us what you were doing for us and hundreds of others, she almost broke down crying. Ms King said that you wouldn’t even say your name to her because you didn’t want credit. We thought this was truly brave.”

The letter finished by saying, “You are truly a role model to all of us. We will never forget you and what you did to support us. Even though we have never met you in person, you have surely charmed us, our actions and our thoughts.”

The anonymous donors had a reply saying, through Ms King, “We did it because we believe in education, so how could we not help the Liberian students save their books, and how could we not help your students learn how much of a difference they can make, and how important that is? We loved seeing the pictures of Pushcart Day, and how excited the students were and how much they raised.”

With the school being built now, Ms King told the school board more photos of the finished product should be available by September.

School board Vice Chair Laura Roche thanked the teachers for the presentation and for inspiring their students “with the love and work you do every day… Well done.”

More information about Well Done Organization is available at its website, www.welldoneliberia.org. Well Done’s Founder Daryl Finley has also posted a video, “New Life Christian Academy – Paynesville ‘Kings & Queens’” online on www.vimeo.com as a tribute to the well built at the school.

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