JERRY CITY - Students at Elmwood Schools are learning that a small investment can go a long way - in this case, all the way to Guatemala.
On Friday morning, the first shift of classes formed assembly lines along tables in the high school's Family and Consumer Sciences room. Wearing hairnets and gloves, the students buzzed with activity as they mixed and measured the dry ingredients for food packages that will be shipped to the Central American country's Pueblo Nuevo school in the Peten region - an area of endemic poverty where families are starving due to drought.
Elmwood has been collecting quarters since September, and subsequently raised more than $1,400 to buy the packages, which each feed six people at a cost of 25 cents a serving. By the end of the day, the 312 student volunteers had stuffed and sealed 17,928 meals as part of the Toledo Region Kids Against Hunger's first packing event. Each of the bags is stamped with an illustrated sticker from the students, who wrote salutations to the Guatemalan children in both Spanish and English.
LeeAnna Houtz, a volunteer student from the Spanish 4 class, said she and her classmates had been learning recently about the economic and nutritional problems in the region and how modest outside assistance could help bring about significant change.
"It was very surprising how difficult their times can be and how much we could actually help just with a little bit of food with each child," said Houtz, who brought in about $30 for the school's "Change for a Quarter" program.
The district decided to supplement its curriculum and assist the Guatemalan school based on the experiences of Deena Ellis, an Elmwood Spanish teacher who first visited the country two summers ago to help doctors translate during medical clinics. It was in Pueblo Nuevo that Ellis learned about the needs of teachers at the village's school.
"The school is basically three classrooms and there's no electricity, and you just sense that the teachers there want to do so much for the children ..., but they just don't know how to go about doing it and don't have the means to do it," she said.
The teachers' dream list of items to improve the school, in fact, contains basic materials that would be taken for granted in the states.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "It's like pencil and paper and construction paper, and the one dream item they put on there was a computer."
Upon returning to Ohio in August, Ellis told other Elmwood educators about the situation in Central America and enlisted their help in collecting quarters for the Kids Against Hunger campaign to reduce the number of undernourished children in the area and to assist the Pueblo Nuevo school with some basic supplies. The district, in turn, collaborated across classes and buildings to support the cause while teaching Elmwood's students about an unfamiliar culture.
In addition to the district-wide quarter collection effort, Sue Leathers enlisted students in her Family, Career and Community Leaders of America organization to collect basic hygiene items and to sew wall hangings that can be used to adorn the steel walls of the Pueblo Nuevo school. The industrials arts students cut several wooden three-dimensional puzzles, and students in the gifted creative writing classes have begun writing stories for the Guatemalan children that will be translated by Elmwood Spanish students and illustrated by art students.
Teresa Pauley, who teaches gifted classes at Elmwood, has also opened a fair trade consignment market in the school that features handmade items from Guatemala.
The collected items will be sent with the packaged food or with Ellis, when she next visits the school.
Stacey Rees, president of the Toledo region's KAH campaign, said the packs - which, when mixed with boiling water, create a rice and soy "casserole" with 21 essential vitamins and minerals - will likely be shipped at the end of the month.
Student involvement is an important part of providing aid, Rees said, because the young people gain a sense of responsibility and ownership when they can put their hands on items of great need to others.
Pauley said the district's involvement already has sparked some conversation about the region among her students.
"It is bringing more awareness to the differences that we experience in an educational setting but also in just our everyday life," she said. "It's hard for them to imagine. They pick up that rice bag and say, 'This would feed a family of five for a day. That's it?' So it's getting them to think about other cultures ... and how people live."
Photo Caption: Kalynn Rickle, from left, Jessie Marsh, and Kraig Stearns, mixing food bags to send to families in Guatamala. 10/16/09 (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)