Never doubt the power of motivated middle-schoolers.
When it came time for the 110 students at Plaza Middle School’s Middle Years Program (MYP) to decide what they should do for their annual community service project, they looked no further than one of their newest books for inspiration.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, an imaginative young man born and raised in Malawi, who was forced to cut his educational dreams short when a massive famine hit his village. Instead of giving up, though, Kamkwamba taught himself the basics of engineering and was able to build a windmill and water pump to help his family fight off the devastation of drought and famine.
English teacher Tamara Netzel selected the book for her students following her own travels and work with the Creative Global Relief organization in Malawi.
“(The book) could bring that worldview into the curriculum,” Netzel said. “(With MYP) we talk about those global initiatives. It really hit home the plight of the Malawians.”
Netzel’s firsthand experiences in the country paired with the intriguing life story of Kamkwamba stirred the students into action. They began to ask Netzel how they could help a village, like she had on her trip. Netzel brought in a catalog from Creative Global Relief, which identified different donations or purchases that can better the lives of Malawian people.
With malnutrition being a leading problem in Malawi, the purchase of a maize mill, which would allow villages to grind their own corn for food and use it as an economic tool with other villages, could help sustain life in a village.
Students, like eighth-grader Kenzie Wall, were hooked.
“I started thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is a major thing,’” Wall said. “There is only one maize mill for every five villages and the women have to carry their harvest from their farms just for something they can eat. My mom can just drive to the grocery store, pick up groceries and make dinner. I really found it frustrating.”
While the students were passionate, the price tag was hefty: one maize mill cost $5,000.
Still, the students of the MYP program got to work. From bake sales and raffles to gift wrapping stands and reading pledges, the students found new ways to bring in money. Some students even sacrificed birthday and Christmas gifts and instead asked for money donations to the cause.
While they were fundraising, Netzel used her connections to set up Skype sessions with some of the Malawi workers and people she had worked alongside. The students also played with games and toys Netzel had brought back from Malawi, including soccer balls made from old grocery bags and rubber balls from the rubber tree plants.
The transformation of the students through the process was immediate.
At the introduction of the book, Netzel had her student put post-it notes on a map of Africa with the words they associated with the continent. Words like “death,” “disease” and “famine” dominated the map. At the conclusion of the book, Netzel repeated the exercise.
This time, words like “knowledgeable,” “resourceful,” “rich” and “intelligent” were found instead.
The more they learned, the more they wanted to help.
And help they did.
When all was said and done, the students raised more than $7,700.
“I thought this was kind of a long shot,” Netzel said. “$5,000 is a lot of money. They just blew me away.”
After all their work, Creative Global Relief members presented the students with certificates of merit and said a village in Malawi will get their maize mill this summer. They also took a picture of the students to put with the mill when it’s delivered.
Wall, who was the highest fundraiser of the group, bringing in $500 by herself, said some of her classmates were actually disappointed they didn’t raise more.
If they had reached $8,000, they would have been able to buy every item in the Creative Global Relief catalog.
“We still reached pretty high and we were pretty proud of ourselves,” Wall added. “Even if you do a little bit, it can make a big difference.”