Almanac

Cover Story - March 20, 2013

No small change

Corte Madera students roll up their sleeves to help change the lives of Afghan children

by Renee Batti

Catie Cassani will be teaching first-graders how to play soccer. Alec Vercruysse will set up a lemonade stand — "with coffee to excite the adults." And student leaders of Catie and Alec's school, Corte Madera in Portola Valley, are organizing a community flea market this month — all efforts whose proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Trust in Education, or TIE, which funds projects supporting the people of Afghanistan.

Corte Madera students have been involved in the TIE project for more than six years, and their work has kept four children in the war-torn country off the streets and in the classroom, contributed to more than half the funding to restore a grove of nearly 13,000 fruit trees in a village, and helped equip a new school in the village of Farza that, when it opens in a few months, will be attended by about 225 girls whose prospects for a brighter future are likely to improve dramatically as they pursue an education.

TIE's founder and leader, Budd MacKenzie of Lafayette, spoke at a recent Corte Madera assembly, updating the kids about the projects they have made possible, and others that their continued efforts will help complete. He told the fourth- through eighth-grade students that they have raised more money for TIE than any other participating school.

This fact might not seem so remarkable, considering that the students live in one of the wealthiest communities in the country — except for one key fact: They must raise the money on their own. "I don't want to take a single dime from your parents," Mr. MacKenzie told the students several years ago. In response, he said at the assembly, the kids rolled up their sleeves and earned every penny they contributed to the organization.

About a decade ago, when Mr. MacKenzie began thinking about what he might personally do to improve life for people in a country being battered by war, he considered creating a nonprofit, and came up with a name for it whose acronym suggested its goal. But, he said, he wondered if it was really going to be possible "to tie communities in the United States with villages in Afghanistan." He came to understand that what was needed was imagination and resolve, he told the students at the assembly. "And your school has more more imagination than any school I know of, and your school has more resolve than any school I know of," he added.

Service Learning

The Corte Madera effort is part of the school's Service Learning program, which incorporates into the curriculum a component that gets kids "involved in ... activities where they have the opportunity to learn while making a difference in the lives of others," says former Corte Madera teacher Elaine Winer, who now volunteers with the school's TIE program.

Teachers create lessons that illuminate the history, culture and current life in Afghanistan, enhancing the children's understanding of the people they are helping, she said.

When the children were told they needed to earn any money they donated to TIE, they worked with Ms. Winer and other staff members to come up with projects. They set a fundraising goal of $2,000 last year, and surpassed it.

In a written statement about the effort, fourth- and fifth-grade students said that, through the project, "we learned to be persistent, to follow through on commitments, and also what happens when you put your mind to a task. $2,000 seemed like a big goal, but because we worked together and tried hard, we found out we could accomplish our goal.

"We feel proud because we did something to change someone's life. We are joyful because we helped someone to get an education. And ... we had fun!"

Changing lives

A highlight for the kids last year was "Skype night." Corte Madera students and the four children they sponsor in Afghanistan got to know each other better by talking to each other, through an interpreter, during a group video call.

The four Afghans were once "street children," who made more money on the streets than their parents were able to provide, "so their families didn't let them stay at home," Mr. MacKenzie explained. "It takes $40 per month to replace enough family income to get a kid off the street" and allow him or her to go to school, he said.

The Skype conversation, he told the Corte Madera students, was a near miraculous experience for the Afghan children, who have been able to go to school for four years now thanks to the local students' efforts. "I can't tell you how much (the Skype event) meant to them," he said. When someone lives in abject poverty and faces tremendous challenges to survive, "it's important to know someone cares about you," he said.

The Skype experience "was very magical," sixth-grader Billy Youstra recalled. Seeing how much the four children appreciated what the local students were doing drove home the point that their effort is "changing these people's lives," he said.

Because Corte Madera students surpassed their fundraising goals in recent years, the stipend for the four Afghan children has been raised from $40 to $50 a month. The local effort supports the four children every year, and the extra money the students raise goes to other TIE projects. This year, it will pay for desks in the Farza school, and what's left over will fund playground equipment — a factor in getting kids to school, and keeping them there, Mr. MacKenzie said.

Flea market

The students are sponsoring a community flea market to raise funds for TIE on Friday and Saturday, March 22 and 23, in the Corte Madera School annex, 4575 Alpine Road in Portola Valley. The Friday market is from 3 to 5 p.m.; Saturday hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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