Mountain View Voice

News - August 6, 2010

Learning to stretch a dollar in Kenya

Local non-profit rallies kids to help with 'One Dollar A Day'

by Nick Veronin

Indoor plumbing and electricity have been at the fore of Diana Chou's mind of late, and not because the recent Los Altos High School graduate is planning on getting into the construction business.

Chou says that ever since she returned from Kenya last month, she has been thinking about all the little things she takes for granted, like flushing toilets and light switches conveniently located at the entrance to every room.

"I'm more mindful of the things that I have and more appreciative of the things I've been given," Chou says, reflecting on the trip, which, she says, "changed my life."

She and several of her classmates were in the East African country on a humanitarian mission organized and funded in part by an organization that also hails from Los Altos High School.

One Dollar For Life, a non-profit organization started by Los Altos High School history and economics teacher Robert Freeman in 2006, raises money by asking for one-dollar donations from local students.

Because administrative costs are taken care of by grants, "every dollar a kid gives through one of our fundraisers goes to building a school or a similar type of project," Freeman says.

The money is used to buy materials and to offset labor costs. The students who go on the trips must find a way to finance their own travel expenses.

ODFL has helped build sanitary systems, bring used bikes to Botswana and construct a community center in Indonesia.

"Our dollars go far out there," Freeman says, referring to the developing countries where the program focuses its efforts. This year, ODFL raised $16,000 to help build a secondary school in rural Kenya.

Chou spent 12 days in Nanyuki province working with eight other students and two teachers on Gawaka School. Her group helped shore up the building's foundation by digging a trench around its perimeter and filling it with gravel and cement. They also painted the school, including a map of the world on an inside wall.

Afterward, the group went to three safari parks to see wildlife and learn about East African tribal culture.

"It was awesome," says Sophia Stephens, who will be a junior at Los Altos High School next year. She said the trip helped her make sense out some of the things she had learned about Africa in her English class last year. "It wasn't just theoretical anymore," Stephens says. "I could actually see it. It was actually there."

Chou says that her experiences on ODFL trips, like this summer's trip to Kenya and last summer's trip to Nicaragua, have given her a better understanding of the world at large.

"I've always been a nerd," Chou says. "But this was a different sort of engagement. I went beyond the textbook stuff and looked into current events."

"I wasn't paying attention to the news so much two years ago," Chou says. "Now, because I've been to these places, I'm more interested in what is going on around me."

Chou says she has many friends who could benefit from a trip abroad. "I feel like a lot of my peers are fixated on material things," she says. "I have friends who don't know about the BP oil spill."

Lisa Bolton is a biology teacher at Los Altos High School and the director of delivery services for One Dollar For Life. She served as a chaperone coordinator for the trip to Kenya.

The group stayed with a host family — the Ngari — on their farm, where they grew produce and raised livestock. The Ngari, Bolton says, have six children, many of whom quickly found shared interests with the Los Altos High students.

"They were pretty shocked to find out that the kids were a lot like them," Bolton says. "I think the biggest lesson for the kids is realizing that we're not going in as the great American saviors. They get just as much of the experience as they give."

The students also see that they are fortunate to live in a country where primary and secondary school is free to all, Bolton says. On the Kenyan and Nicaraguan trips, she says, students saw how some parents have to decide which children they can afford to send to school and which they cannot. Bolton says that realization often spurs kids to work harder when they return home.

Carrie Beyer, an incoming junior at Los Altos High School, went to Kenya and Nicaragua with Chou. She says the trips helped her see the similarities among disparate cultures.

"I was amazed that I had so much in common with someone who hadn't even seen the ocean and had been in a car maybe four or five times," Beyer says.

On the plane to Kenya, Beyer had worried that a language barrier would prevent her from communicating with the villagers. However, by the end of her stay, Beyer says she was sharing jokes with the girls in her host family. "Even though we live in such different places, and our daily routines are so different, we can still connect. You can still just be friends."

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