MAPLEWOOD, NJ — For the third straight year, an enthusiastic group of Jefferson Elementary School fifth-graders have participated in the “Pencils for Ethiopia” program, as part of a community service project. This year, 20 students chose to devote their time to collecting pencils for the cause.
The service project teaches children about the hardships faced by their counterparts in rural Ethiopia, encourages them to share what they have learned with others and inspires donations of both pencils and money that directly benefit those less fortunate in East Africa.
Jefferson School parents Krystina Mahoney and Gwen Dixon are supervising this year’s effort, but, as Mahoney said in a phone interview with News-Record, “The kids have been the drivers of the project. We used their ideas. We are merely the facilitators.”
First, the fifth-graders learned about the challenges facing students in rural Ethiopia. Most schools there have no electricity, and many students walk more than an hour on rough terrain just to get to school. And all too often, a lack of basic supplies prevents children from receiving any education at all.
Emmebeth Mischel grew up in an orphanage in rural Ethiopia and is a founding member of the nonprofit organization Ethiopia’s Tomorrow, Jefferson’s partner in the project. She said the lack of supplies that children in South Orange and Maplewood may take for granted can be a deciding factor in the education of children elsewhere in the world.
“Something as simple as a lack of a pencil can stop rural Ethiopian children from receiving the schooling they deserve,” Mischel told the News-Record at the meeting at the school.
Armed with this new knowledge, Jefferson’s fifth-graders were determined to do something. They met, brainstormed and took action. They began to spread the word for their cause April 27, when they hung posters throughout the school, informing their fellow students about “Pencils For Ethiopia.” The worked together to paint a large Ethiopian flag and a 4-foot-long pencil to show solidarity and to make an impression on their fellow students.
The fifth-graders sent student ambassadors to every classroom in the school to discuss the project, and even visited Marshall Elementary School to involve the younger students in the effort. Fliers were sent home with each student to inform families of the venture, and bins were placed in each classroom to collect the donated pencils and change. As an added incentive, the students introduced a contest: The biggest donor class will win a pizza or ice cream party.
On Monday, May 2, the “Pencils for Ethiopia” squad met again. With the donation bins from each Jefferson classroom collected, some students set about counting pencils and change while others created eye-catching signage for Marshall Elementary School to continue the effort.
At the meeting, several students shared their thoughts about the project and what it means to them to be helping children on the other side of the globe.
“At first, when my mom told me she signed up for this, I asked why,” Keira Mahoney, Krystina Mahoney’s daughter, told the News-Record during the meeting. “She explained that there was a drought in Ethiopia and the kids often had to stay home. Even if they went to school, they still had no pencils to write with. I am really proud that we are making a difference.”
Classmate Neve McGowan called her favorite part of the effort “just knowing that we will make a change in the Ethiopian kids’ education.”
And Walker Szczecina said that he “was surprised to learn that in that area there’s only one school and the kids walk a long way with no shoes.”
“Then they don’t even get an education,” Walker added. “We are looking to change that. It’s a big, amazing thing we are doing.”
The May 2 totals included 4,200 pencils and $300, all of which will be distributed by Mischel directly to the students and faculty of St. Mary’s-Medagdu School, located in the rural mountains of Ethiopia.
“Special thanks go to The Lichtman-Rabney Group at Keller Williams Midtown Direct for their sponsorship and generous donation of $125 to the cause,” Krystina Mahoney said.”
Fran Lichtman, a Realtor at the Lichtman-Rabney Group, responded: “We are thrilled to be a part of this inspiring project.”
Krystina Mahoney is also glad to be participating in such an endeavor.
“It’s a lot of work, but it is easy to do,” she said. “These kids are awesome, and every time I work with them, I learn a little bit more.”
She and the students are just pleased to see their hard work pay off with tangible benefits.
“It worked!” Krystina Mahoney said. “I’m so happy — it worked!”
To make a donation to “Pencils for Ethiopia,” visit Jefferson Elementary School at 518 Ridgewood Road in Maplewood. Donations will be collected in a specially marked bin outside the main school office until May 11.
Photos by Cynthia Burks