Well Being: Radnor students getting things done in Uganda

Radnor Middle School teacher Jodi Sabra helps students tie-dye "peace flags" that she will take to the class' pen pals in Uganda.
Radnor Middle School teacher Jodi Sabra helps students tie-dye "peace flags" that she will take to the class' pen pals in Uganda. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2014

Jodi Sabra began her career as an actress. The training has served her well as a sixth-grade social studies and language-arts teacher at Radnor Middle School in Wayne. She views teaching as a performance art, and her style of teaching is infused with her congenital optimism.

In 2009, a college friend who runs a service travel program asked Sabra whether she'd like to involve her students in a pen-pal program with students at a school in Uganda.

"I say yes to everything," Sabra says, and soon her students were writing letters to the Bupala Primary School in the remote Iganga district of Uganda. The school has about 700 students ranging in age from 5 to 15, or from kindergarten to seventh grade.

During correspondence with the school in 2010, Sabra's students learned that their counterparts in Uganda used a latrine with no doors. The Radnor students were dismayed that the African students had no privacy during this most private of functions. So they determined to raise money to build the school a new latrine.

"I went, 'OK, but how?' " Sabra recalls.

Her students are smart and resourceful. They came up with something called a "move-athon," enlisting sponsors to make donations based on how much they ran around after school. The fund-raiser produced $2,500, about half what was needed. The kids were not satisfied; they were determined to obtain the full amount. In conjunction with Club La Maison, they did so with a Zumbathon.

Engineers Without Borders from Los Angeles designed the facility - a brick structure with four private composting toilets that are handicapped accessible. Construction took place in summer 2012 and was overseen by an engineer from Kampala named Moses Bagonza Tindyebwa, who is Sabra's contact and point person in the village.

Sabra went over to see the job completed.

"It was the first new construction in the village in a decade," she says. "The villagers were full of gratitude."

While there, Sabra realized another pressing need: lunch. Some students drop out, she learned, because they'd rather be fed something at home than starve at school.

And so began another phase of Radnor Middle School's outreach. Through bake sales, lemonade stands, and "compassion in action" barbecues, Sabra's classes have been helping ensure students at the school get lunch, with such staples as rice, beans, mashed bananas, and corn mash with peanut sauce.

"A little bit goes a long way in Uganda," Sabra says. "For $150 a week, you can feed 700 kids. "

The effort is "a total grassroots kind of thing," Sabra says, "and the kids love it. Our community is making this possible. We're making a little dent here." Modestly, Sabra, 51, calls herself "a conduit."

On Sunday, Sabra and seven others - students, Radnor alums, friends - will fly to Uganda to help plant an organic garden. Part of the inspiration was a $5,000 "sustainability" grant from SCA Corp. to develop in Radnor students "a sense of eco-awareness." One manifestation: a small organic garden on the windowsill of Sabra's sixth-grade class that she hopes will stimulate an entirely new realm of exchange and communication centered on gardening.

The garden in Uganda will probably be cultivated with ox and plow.

"We're working with a group called Nogamu to teach the village organic gardening. At the very least, they'll learn how to be careful stewards of the land. We're also bringing the village through the organic and fair-trade certification process so they can bring food to the international fair-trade market if they decide to go in this direction."

Sabra's dream is some day to build a solar dehydrator so the villagers can sell fruit such as mangoes year-round to companies such as Mavuno Harvest, which packages dried fruit from Uganda in East Falls.

If it seems most of the benefit is flowing in one direction, Sabra is quick to demur.

"It's made my students incredibly aware of just how well we've got it," Sabra says. "In social studies class, I often say that but for an accident of geography, they landed in Radnor while their pen pals landed where there may not be enough for a pair of shoes or a second shirt or school uniform. Really having a connection to individuals whose circumstances are so vastly different makes it very tangible for middle school kids."

For the last several weeks, Sabra's students have been making tie-dyed peace flags that will be strung between stakes in the Bupala organic garden. The flags are symbols of friendship and our common human bond.

"There are certain fundamental human rights that my students assume every child has, such as a clean, private place to go to the bathroom, or something to eat if you go to school till 5:30," Sabra says. "Acting student to student, community to community, they've made a shift in this village. One year after the latrine building was put in, the government added two new classrooms, so our actions are really having an impact.

"It's crazy and humbling and a genuine testament to the power that kids have to change the world."

For more information or to make a donation, visit www.penpaluganda.blogspot.com.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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