North High, Senegal students connect


Sometimes all it takes is a letter to bring people closer together. That was the case when the students at North High School in Minneapolis and Cite Radio School in Senegal became pen pals.

The relationship with the Senegalese school didn’t begin in Minneapolis, however. It began nearly 10 years ago in Chicago, after Margaret Wright, an elementary school teacher, took a trip to Senegal. There she saw impoverished schools that were not equipped for teaching. Children shared desks in cramped rooms, and many couldn’t even attend school because they lacked proper supplies, clothing and immunization.

When Wright returned to Chicago, she told her elementary students at McDade Classical School about the conditions. The students were then motivated to send pencils to Cite Radio, a school located in a small village 30km outside of Dakar. The French class at McDade also got involved. Because French is the primary language of Senegal, they became pen pals with them.

Soon the project expanded into the community. Donors from the community along with the students gave pencils, medicine, computers, books and other supplies to schools across Senegal. The first year, they sent $30,000 worth of supplies. Today, organizations and concerned people have sponsored families to go to school, invested in small businesses, and updated hospitals and schools. All of this has taken place without any formal organization between the groups and people. It is done purely out of an impulse to help.

After Wright retired from teaching, the pen-pal connection shifted to Minnesota. Last year, Wright gave the letters to her goddaughter, Ann Dillard. Dillard, a consultant at North High School and Patrick Henry High School called Girls in Action™, which tries to build the self-image of girls. At North High School, she teaches in the same room as the French teacher, Mary Schirber. Last December, Dillard asked Schirber if she’d like some letters written in French for her students to respond. Schirber responded with an enthusiastic, “yes.”

The letters exchanged hands, and a new pen-pal relationship began. Dillard gave a few letters to the French teacher at Patrick Henry High School as well.

The Senegalese students’ letters introduced themselves and parts of their culture in neatly written cursive. Many of the letters had drawings of Africa and some had drawings of the Baobab tree, or hands reaching out.

Schirber assigned her 35 students to reply with a 100-word letter. They wrote their name, age, family information and personal interests. Some also sent burned compact discs, or origami peace birds.

Dillard brought the letters with her on her first visit to Senegal earlier this year.

The students were extremely thankful to get the letters. One picture Dillard took shows a kid holding a sign that reads, “Thank you!! Thank you!! North H.S. French students.”

“When I saw those children, they took gratitude to another level. They’re just excited to get a piece of candy, or a sticker,” Dillard said.

Another picture showed Dillard handing Headmaster Mbaye Gueye the red folder full of the letters from Minneapolis. The photos touched Schirber as well.

“That’s actually my red folder that I had sitting up here for weeks so I could see a part of me in Africa.” Schirber said. “And then seeing our North high school French students [photos] being held by the African students, again it was a part of us that was in Africa.”

The experience also moved her students.

“When they said that the kids went to school hoping they would get a letter from someone from the United States, it touched my heart and it made me feel like, ‘oh I wish I could do something more for them,”‘ said Francisca Pass, 17, one of Shirber’s students.

Dillard is continuing her godmother’s tradition. One reason Dillard went to Senegal was to make Girls in Action international. She brought 15 boxes and seven suitcases full of toiletries, medicine and other donations. She then filled up bags with the donations, called “bags of hope,” and handed them out to whomever they came in contact with. She also received money from a few organizations to buy mosquito nets to fight malaria in Senegal. The one of the village chiefs told her that because of everyone’s efforts, last year was the first year that nobody died of Malaria.

“He really just told us how much we’re saving lives,” Dillard said.

Dillard wants everyone to know that they can make a difference, no matter how small the effort.

At the end of the trip her 10-year-old son, Aaron Dillard, handed her two U.S. dollars, and said, “Mom, I want you to buy a mosquito net for a child.”

“And I thought, that’s what it’s all about,” Dillard said.

The North High School students have also expressed an interest tin helping. Pass said she wants to encourage the National Honors Society to help out in Senegal.

“It just starts with a desire, and the possibilities are endless,” Dillard said. “They can adopt a classroom, they can continue to correspond with these children, you know, it’s just endless, it’s just endless!”

People who also contributed to the Senegalese students are:

Natalie Johnson Lee, sponsored a single mother of six children;

Women of Curves Robbinsdale owner Lora Stomos, collected items and sponsored a 23-year-old young lady to beauty school; two years of tuition was paid in full.

Immunization Action Coalition and Shiloh Temple International Ministries, purchased mosquito bed nets to aid in the fight against the deadly disease of Malaria.

Dr. Verna Cornelia Price and Girls in Action™, Donations for girls’ group of 20 students.

And thanks to the host of family and friends who made this possible.

For more information contact Ann Dilliard