It all started with the promise of a decent pencil sharpener.
Kaj Holm, a senior elementary education major, spent the summer months rounding up nearly $1,700 worth of school supplies to send to the school children he taught during a May study abroad trip to Andros Island, Bahamas, and it was the result of watching a teacher struggle with the simple task of sharpening pencils.
“The teacher was sitting there using a tiny plastic pencil sharpener,” remembered Holm, who’d already sufficiently made the children’s week by handing out mechanical pencils. “I asked her if she’d like me to send her an electric pencil sharpener when I get back home. She said that sounded nice, but having it plugged in would create the risk of blowing the power in the entire school.
“So I suggested one of those industrial metal sharpeners we see in every classroom here at home and kind of take for granted. I got some contact information, and when I got back home, I set up a Facebook event and a page where donations could be accepted. What started as sending a small box of supplies to just one classroom snowballed into this much bigger thing.”
At this point, you may be a little confused. After all, most of us probably don’t think of the Bahamas as a place that needs this kind of charity. After all, we probably picture the resorts, the cruise ships, and the casinos, not the underdeveloped, low-income areas like the one Holm and 16 other education students visited as part of the department’s study abroad program.
“They didn’t have a whole lot going on in the classrooms,” said Holm, who taught third-graders at the Fresh Creek Primary School. “We were told that when we prepared our lessons, we’d need to make sure we brought our own supplies. It was toward the end of their school year, and there were no stores nearby.”
Holm learned that if a teacher runs out of necessary supplies, they have to get replacements from one of the many other Bahamas islands. This could take a week, or it could take six, and the prices on those supplies are very inflated.
“Here at home, we pass out school supplies lists every year and expect parents to go out and get the supplies,” said Holm. “There, it was the teacher’s responsibility to take care of all the supplies for all their students for the entire year. They don’t get a stipend; it’s just what they have to do.”
In other words, the students have to get by with bare-bones supplies -- or less. To Holm, that was particularly heartbreaking because they were as eager to learn as any school children he’d ever encountered.
“The students’ thirst for knowledge was unlike anything I had ever seen before. For them to hang on to every word that came out of my mouth was just amazing. For them, to go to school and finish is a way to have a better life.”
Once he got home, Holm decided he’d like to expand a bit on his pencil sharpener plan. He figured he had nearly 600 friends on Facebook, and if he could get each one to pledge $1 he could totally change a school year for his class in the Bahamas.
“Through that word-of-mouth network, I ended up getting a lot more than I could’ve ever imagined,” admitted Holm, who also solicited some books from Governors State University and Arthur Elementary School, where he recently completed his practicum. Additionally, an acquaintance of his living in Colorado arranged for a nonprofit organization to provide him enough art supplies for all 300 students at the Fresh Creek School.
Holm also made up some fliers and went around asking businesses in his hometown of Urbana for donations, but many people wondered why he wasn’t doing something to help local schools instead one thousands of miles away. He says they can’t imagine how much it means to him to help the children he encountered overseas.
“It’s almost impossible to explain to someone who wasn’t actually there with us,” said Holm.
“There were 17 of us that went, and we know what was going on. We can talk to each other about it, but trying to explain what really happened to our friends and family is almost impossible.”
So would Holm, who student-teaches this spring and will graduate shortly thereafter, have any interest in returning to Andros Island?
“If I didn’t have student loans when I graduate in the spring, I would teach out there in a heartbeat,” said Holm. “I don’t care what the living conditions were like; I just felt like that was my place to be and that I was really making a difference there.
“I’ve got to take things one day at a time. Student loans aren’t easy to pay off, especially on a teacher’s salary. Maybe the time will come and then I’ll gladly go out there. I may take some time to fly out there and just see how the schools are doing; not necessarily teach there, but see what’s going on.”
For now, though, he’ll be happy to keep passing along any donations you might feel moved to contribute.
“As long as it comes in, I’ll take it and send it out,” said Holm.
If you’re interested in donating, you can make an electronic donation at this website.