John Paul College school teacher Maggie O’Brien has always had a passion for education. After a holiday in Africa, she decided to dedicate her passion and the generosity of the John Paul College students and help rebuild an African school in Kawalazi.
In 1998 you travelled to an African School in Malawi. Tell us the beginning of this amazing story …
During a five month trip, I travelled throughout Africa in a roundabout way from Capetown to Cairo. On the way, I travelled through Malawi and visited a school, where I met Thomas Kwata Phiri, the Principal, and a wonderful little girl Ethie Banda, who ‘adopted’ me. Thomas is an amazing man, diminutive, but a giant of a man in terms of what he achieves. His major concern was ensuring his students had every educational opportunity possible despite having few basic resources. He and his family have welcomed me into their family and have named their granddaughter Maggie.
What were the school conditions like?
The school had 650 students and just five teachers, dirt floors, few desks, virtually no books and no pens. The medical clinic had just one syringe, not advisable in a country with high rates of HIV infection. Teachers had to teach multiple classes, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Some classes had up to 130 students sitting on dirt floors and with no teaching or learning resources.
How did your John Paul College students react to your experience?
The students picked up the project with a passion. Students from Joe’s Year 11 homeroom group were heavily involved in the gathering and packing of resources, and they loved taking part. They really believed that they were making a difference. They became so attached, that they adopted Kawalazi as their major charity focus for Year 12, 2001. They raised $6,500 for Kawalazi. They gathered, packed and sent 350 kilograms of books, pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, folders, sports equipment, uniforms, hats, clothing and most importantly, basic medical supplies like syringes, bandages, dressings and vitamins.
They sent money to help pay the school fees for some of the students. Two of those students are now teachers in the local area, with one back at Kawalazi. Another one has just graduated as a lawyer. These young people were able to continue their education using the Tertiary Education Fund, which we have established for those who are unable to finance their studies themselves. Thomas, in one of his thank you letters, informed us that the netball team had never won a game, but since donning the uniforms we had sent, they had won every game and had ended up regional runners-up to a much bigger city school – such was the impact and pride that having a uniform had on these girls. They are now a force to be reckoned with throughout northern Malawi.
Year 12 made a significant difference to the lives of not only the students, but the entire Kawalazi Community. They also left JPC with a challenge and a legacy – to never forget the children of Kawalazi and to continue to support the school and community – which the college continues to do to this day.
What events does the school participate in to support this cause?
Until this year, Kawalazi fundraising had been low key and largely restricted to Kawalazi Day – one day in the year where students were asked to give a gold coin donation simply because they could and because they wanted to give. For the last eight years, Year 12 students have donated their stationery supplies following their last HSC examination. Last year this was extended to the entire school and on the last day of lessons, students donate their pens, pencils, erasers etc. Members of the SRC test, sharpen, bundle and send the supplies to Africa.
In 2003, Joe and I travelled to Kawalazi to visit the school and community and to set up the sponsorship fund. We were the first white people to stay in the village and were overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome we received from everyone. To hear 360 voices singing hello and farewell was an extremely moving experience. The headman of the Kawalazi district, Chief Chinyakula, made us feel a part of his community and continues to do so with each subsequent visit.
Students, families, staff, friends and community members are able to sponsor a child’s education for just $40 a year. This not only allows Kawalazi students the opportunity to go to secondary school, but it takes pressure off the entire community – money that was used for fees can now be spent in the community for food, medical supplies and clothing. ALL the money goes DIRECTLY to the school and community.
The JPC community also has the opportunity, every 2 – 3 years, through the ‘Kawalazi/African Experience’ (a 17 day trip) to visit Kawalazi to work in the school and community. In 2007 and 2010 we taught lessons, competed against the students in soccer and netball and were soundly defeated each time! We also concreted floors, secured and enhanced classrooms with doors and windows, improved toilet facilities, established and furnished a library and provided medical supplies and glasses for the Clinic.
However, the highlight for many has been the chance to meet the student/s they have been sponsoring, as well as meeting the parents and other relatives and being able to spend time with them. It is a truly emotional and unforgettable experience. We also donated the cost of concreting the floor of the preschool hall, with any funds left over to go towards resources for the children.
Since 2010, the graduating Year 12 classes have donated a sum of money from their hard earned fundraising. This has enabled Thomas and his committee to purchase the necessary supplies for us to do our work when there and which the Kawalazi community are able to continue. It has also enabled houses to be built to attract secondary school teachers to the area, so that Kawalazi students will no longer have to leave the village to complete their final 2 years of education. This will be finalised in 2013.
This year we are purchasing gifts for the poorest members of the Kawalazi Community – chickens, goats, rice, maize, desks and bicycles. Each gift is targeted to a specific person in Kawalazi. Many staff and students are purchasing these as Secret Santa gifts and also for Christmas presents for family members who do not really need anything – the gift that gives twice.
How can other members of the community get involved?
The main way is through sponsorships and donations. We have had some wonderful donations and gifts over the years. Just last week we received a bag full of pens from the Book Warehouse in Toormina; in 2010 we received reading glasses from Saroff Designs.
In 2009 famous Australian author Tony Park paid us a visit to help us raise funds. He even made reference to us and used some teacher names as characters in his book, The Delta. Probably the items we could best benefit from would be medical supplies – syringes, bandages, swabs and vitamins.
This article was published in issue 28 of Coffs Coast Focus