Making a difference, one box at a time

Making a difference, one box at a time

CHAMPAIGN – South Side School students took to heart lessons they learned from children at a hospital in Tanzania.

"We have everything here, and we take it all for granted," said fifth-grader Emma Coverdill. "We have great hospitals and good food at the store. In Tanzania, children get a fever and they die."

"It's really scary," said classmate Victoria Carder. "Those children don't have anything. Their moms and dads die, and they're left alone."

Erin O'Leary, also a South Side fifth-grader, got her classmates interested in Tanzania when her Chicago-based aunt, Dr. Carrie Davis, went to work for two months at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center at Moshi.

"She's just out of medical school, and she went there to take care of people," Erin said. "She sent us e-mails about conditions there, and I was worried. She's kind of out there, and the people she was excited about helping, they need a lot of help."

Erin's mother, Garden Hills School Principal Cheryl O'Leary, gave her daughter credit for starting a project that involved classes at both schools.

"She said, 'Why don't we send a box to the children there?'" O'Leary said. "She and her classmates wanted to send clothes, bug spray, all kinds of things. I had to remind her that we have to be practical."

The fifth-graders at South Side decided to send youngsters at the hospital information about themselves and things they could use to have fun.

"We took pictures of our school that show how we do things like recess, and we printed them out," Tessa Schleyhahn said.

"We did research about their lives," said Kelsie Stanhope and Victoria Carder.

"I was sad," said Jenna Martin. "They don't have food and they're not getting better."

O'Leary said teachers at Garden Hills located Tanzania on maps of Africa and talked to their students about the box to be sent to the children there.

"The third-graders made dot-to-dot pictures for them and our kids wanted to give their own pencils and pens to the children there," said O'Leary of her students, 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. "They were so giving. They really wanted to help kids who were less fortunate."

The youngsters included crayons in their box and tucked in Rice Krispie treats and fruit snacks, a favorite of Erin's brother Austin, also a South Side student. They also included pictures of the African continent and asked the youngsters to mark where they live.

The fifth-grade girls said they also learned more about living conditions of some students at Garden Hills, that poverty is close to home as well.

"The two schools working together made us like a family now," O'Leary said.

O'Leary mailed the box early in April. She and her students tracked it to the African continent, and they learned it arrived at its destination early in May, just in time for Davis to distribute the contents before she returned May 18 to Chicago to finish her residency at Christ Hospital.

In her thank-you letter to the children, Davis talked about some of her patients, like 6-year-old Kimaro, and their reaction to the presents.

"Kimaro has a tumor in his belly and is so weak he can't walk or lift his arms," she wrote. "He asked me to feed him a Rice Krispy treat, one krispy at a time. Janes, age 10, has a brain tumor that's affected both her eyes. After chemotherapy, it shrunk and she could see out of her left eye again so she colored the picture of the African continent.

"I now know how hard life is for the children of Tanzania," Davis wrote. "Your gifts did so much to cheer them up. And that is just as important as the medicine a doctor gives. It is important to remember that we can all make a difference in this world, one step at a time."

The South Side girls, all members of Anthony Thomas' class, say the experience was very rewarding and educational, but they're still worried.

It's hard for them to think about treats being such a rare thing for those children that they make them last longer by eating a tiny bit at a time and licking wrappers to enjoy any lingering flavor. They repeat one story about the children who enjoyed their crayoned drawings so much, they asked Davis to tape them on the ceiling so they can see them.

"I feel good that we're helping the children in Africa, but we must do more," said Laurie Jefferson.

"A lot of people there are really sick with AIDS and they have nowhere to go," said Shelby Hanson.

"When we get crayons, they're just crayons, but they're surprised when they push them on paper and they make beautiful colors," Emma said.

"We have a lot of things we don't notice," Tessa said.

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at

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