Amy Beth Cook, Superintendent
I wanted to share with you a unique and tremendous journey I recently experienced. While I don’t typically take many student days off, I had the opportunity to take a few days of vacation time, paired with a four day weekend in February, to take an all too short trip to Africa. While this seems random, let me explain.
My daughter, Kaila Ann, and her husband, Blake, who are both 28, took a two and a half month leave of absence from their jobs in order to do volunteer work in East Africa. From January to mid-March they worked in a very small, rural village in the region of Pallisa, Uganda. They lived with a pastor and his family who started a school for students ages three to 13, and also run a Children’s Home, currently housing 22 children. These children are not necessarily orphans, but have been taken in as a result of their families not being able to care for them. Many were abused or neglected, some have medical needs, and all were in dire need of care and nutrition. Kaila Ann and Blake worked each weekday in the school, and on weekends, worked with the children in the Children’s Home, and nearly 300 children in the neighboring villages.
Several months ago I began planning to join them for a short time in order to share their experience. While I knew the conditions would be rural, I hardly imagined what I encountered. The town of Pallisa does have buildings, homes and rustic structures, some of which have electricity, but all cooking is done over charcoal stoves. Water is retrieved from underground, via pumps placed throughout the area. Simply gathering water for drinking, cooking and cleaning is a daily chore. The vast majority of the people in the region don’t live within the town, but in surrounding villages in clay huts with thatched roofs. Electricity is mostly non-existent in these villages and again water comes from pumps placed sporadically around the area.
The school itself was a brick structure, housing eight open classrooms. There is no electricity and the only water is via a well and pump. The students attend school weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and receive two meals during the day—which, frankly, is just as important as the education they receive.
The experience, while overwhelming at times, was incredible. During my short time there I had the opportunity to share in each of their experiences—school and teaching, working with the children in the Children’s Home and surrounding village, and life in the town of Pallisa.
What was reinforced for me personally was the kindness and selflessness I see from so many of our young people. Kaila Ann attended Lake Stevens schools from kindergarten through graduation, and I’m extremely grateful to the staff and community members who influenced her education as well as her character. What struck me during my trip is how incredibly proud I am of the work Kaila Ann and Blake did, and how important this work is. They not only gave of their time, but also their personal resources to try to make an impact on others, and were very successful in doing so. They were loved and adored by the children in the school and in the villages, and if only for a short time, added positively to their lives. It was an honor to be able to see this firsthand.
I hear so many stories of students and young adults engaging in volunteer activities like this. I am grateful that so many young people of this generation share this desire to help others. It is so important that we help our children to see the impact that they can have on the lives of others.
Another incredible example of this are Ryan and Kelli Ingram, two of our district teachers who are currently on leave, and with their two elementary age daughters, are serving for a year in Malawi, Africa. We can all learn from these examples of giving and humanitarianism.
What was further reinforced for me professionally, over and over again, is the importance of relationships with children—whether they are the children or young adults we see regularly, or children you only encounter for a short period of time. These Ugandan children, who were surprised and curious to see a “mzungu”, or white person—which was a call or greeting you heard regularly as we were the only three white people in the town—were nonetheless trusting and desirous of any interaction they were offered.
It was amazing what a warm smile, a kind word (even though many did not understand English) and a gentle hug meant to them. Children would shyly come beside me and hold my hand, anxious for whatever interaction I would offer. Others, more bold, would sit as close as possible and place their hand on my lap. And others still would simply jump into your arms anxious for a hug. One older girl, who was 13, whom I only spoke with briefly, came to me as I was leaving and said “I want to be your friend.” My heart melted. The universal language of kindness and compassion was understood by all, and I am sure, made for a far richer experience for me than anything I could offer them.
I shared my experiences in a column to our staff to reinforce the importance of our relationships with our students, and to remind them to never underestimate the importance of every interaction they have with our children and youth. It is a good reminder for all of us. Your actions towards others often contribute to them in more ways than you might ever imagine.