A classroom education is not something everyone is privy to. Nearly 4,000 miles away in the Fatick region of Senegal, a country in western Africa, students often squeeze into dark and crumbling mud huts, are taught outside, or have to walk many miles to get to school. Some cannot afford to attend school at all.
In conjunction with buildOn, a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming communities through education, 15 East Hampton High School students will travel to the country to build an elementary school—an experience that is expected to change the lives of both the East Hampton students and the children who will have a brand new school to attend.
“Education is one of the greatest things you can give to a region,” said Junior Rafael Almanzar. “I want to spend as much time as I can with the villagers so we can give them what we have.”
Rafael and his classmates will spend 11 days working alongside villagers to build a two- or three-classroom schoolhouse and will stay with host families who will give them a taste of what life is like in rural Senegal.
According to buildOn’s website, Senegal has a literacy rate of about 39 percent and low enrollment rates in primary and secondary schools. About 54 percent of people live below the poverty line, and almost half of the population is unemployed. Many children cannot attend school because they cannot afford uniforms and supplies. Schools also lack the funding to pay for basic necessities, such as textbooks, electricity and running water.
To combat these tough circumstances, buildOn has constructed 20 schools in Senegal alone and ensured, through covenants with different villages, that the villagers contribute up to 3,000 volunteer work days—and a promise to send girls to be educated in equal numbers as boys.
“This is really about a community activity,” said Priscilla Campbell, who teaches macroeconomics and human geography at East Hampton High School. “The old saying, ‘It takes a village to build a school,’ couldn’t be more true right now.”
So far, the East Hampton students have raised more than $80,000 through donations, bake sales and candy sales, and a yard sale, and need to raise $15,000 more by July 5, when they depart. The students will pay $32,000 in construction costs alone, and more than $60,000 for airfare, in-country expenses and tours they will take.
With the help of the East Hampton community, the students will be able to touch the lives of the Senegalese community.
“Of course, we know education is the great equalizer and probably one of the most important things anyone can get in order to bring them out of poverty,” Ms. Campbell said. “It’s also about exposing the students to what life is really like in developing countries and the lack of facilities that families and children have to live with every day.”
Junior Maggie Pizzo said she expects big things. “I know this is a life-changing experience for me, and for the people we’re going to help,” she said, adding that she’ll get to experience the build with her brother and father who are also going on the trip.
Sixty high school students showed interest in the trip at the start of the planning stage, and a lottery had to be used to select the 15 juniors and seniors who would go. Ms. Campbell said she wants this to become a yearly program in partnership with buildOn.
In 20 years, buildOn has built 543 schools around the globe, in countries like Haiti, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, and Nicaragua, in villages that have historically had no adequate school structure. Each village must sign a covenant ensuring that 50 percent of students at the schools will be female, since in many developing countries girls are often marginalized from access to education, according to Ms. Campbell.
She said while the Senegalese children will truly benefit from a new school, her students will be the ones learning a lesson.
“I think it’s an immersion experience to be living with a family that can exist in one year on what we exist on in a week, and I think this is going to be a very humbling experience for them,” she said. “For them to understand that people live differently all over the world and can be happy on a whole lot less than what we have—I can’t think of a better lesson.”