Community groups join with Peace Corps to build schools
Oak Park, Ill.
Sixth graders in Delaware did it by selling tickets for a faculty basketball game. Spanish language students in Virginia sold plants and cookies. And the Oak Park Council on International Affairs here charged extra for tickets to their annual dinner.
The dollars gathered through these varied fund-raising efforts, and channeled through Peace Corps volunteers, have helped build schools in rural towns in developing countries.
In its 18-year history, the Peace Corps Partnership program has been responsible for construction of an estimated 3,000 schools around the globe. In recent years, fund-raising participants have expanded to include church and women's groups as well as schools and the occasional international organization. And the scope of action has similarly broadened to include the construction of such school-related necessities as water cisterns, latrines, and housing for the teacher.
Although ACTION, which formerly administered the Peace Corps, abolished the Partnership program, the newly autonomous Peace Corps has retained the person running the program. Budget cuts are still under way and final status not known, but a spokesman says: ''The future looks good for the Peace Corps Partnership Program.''
While the dollar ceiling on each project is small - generally $500 to $2,000 - it can often make the crucial difference between building and not building to the community proposing the project.
The overseas community, for its part, must agree to contribute one-fourth the project's value, whether in land, labor, or materials. This self-help aspect, the lack of middleman costs, and the cultural exchange that often follows between US and overseas ''partners,'' make the program special in the eyes of its enthusiastic boosters. In addition to letters, such cultural memorabilia as worn softballs, T-shirts, drawings, and musical cassettes are often shipped back and forth. They do a lot, teachers say, to make remote parts of the globe seem closer.
At predominantly black Roosevelt Junior High School in Syracuse, N.Y., ninth-grade social studies teacher Jim Miller says his students were studying world hunger and wanted especially to do something in the field of food or sanitation to help. They settled on a latrine construction project connected to a school in a rural village in Benin, West Africa.
''It's not very glamorous, but there was a need and we wanted something that would give the students some feedback,'' says Mr. Miller, whose students have so far raised about $300 by selling buttons and will raise another $200 after the holidays. Photos, tapes, and letters have already been exchanged and the project is under way. ''This way students know exactly where the money is going and they're hearing about the progress. It's been a good experience for them to see the positive side of giving.''
But if the Peace Corps Partnership program were to hand out any gold stars for faithful and enthusiastic participation, one would surely go to Elsie Jacobsen, who latched onto the idea in 1964 when she first heard about it. She was president of the Oak Park Council on International Affairs at the time. The group, which has received a number of class gifts from local schools and donations from individuals, has helped to build 50 schools in 33 countries.
Mrs. Jacobsen managed a few years ago to travel to the dedication ceremony of one school in Guatamala. She still remembers every detail of the visit, including the 62 hugs bestowed on her from students.
''I'm completely sold on this project,'' she says of the program. ''When you stop to think about it, what's more worthwhile in this worldthan helping a group of kids get off to a good start? And when it's finished, it's not an American school - it's their school.''
It was Gene Bradley, now chairman of the International Management and Development Institute, who first hit on the idea 18 years ago. He was president of an elementary school Parent-Teachers Association in New York State that had a development what he would do with such a sum and was told: ''I'd build a school.'' R. Sargent Shriver, then head of the Peace Corps, was approached and the idea took off.
''It's all very small scale fund-raising,'' confirms Nicole Vanasse, current acting director of the Partnership Program. ''But a little goes a long way, and each dollar goes directly to the project.''
Despite the modest price tags on the new structures, which often double as adult education centers and disaster shelters once they are built, many donors have a difficult time raising enough to make a whole project go. Ms. Vanasse often teams them with other donors according to what they can contribute.
Another problem some teachers report is that letters between the two countries can be the hardest part of the exchange. Clarice Lynn's Spanish classes at the T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., have raised funds to support three schools in Ecuador and another project in Colombia.
''At one point we sent postage,'' she says. ''We were happy to get the letters as we did - it gave the kids a good perspective to communicate with students who were raising vegetables just to have something to eat. But we wrote a lot more letters than we received.''
Mrs. Jacobsen agrees that one cannot gauge the success of any project by the letters that follow. Sometimes communication is easy and natural, and sometimes it isn't. ''I've broken my heart for years on correspondence,'' she says. One of her favorites is a letter from a student in the Philippines that closed: ''I love you forever, sweetheart. Are you a girl or a boy?''