By Leigh Vierstra
East High School
Five years ago East High School (EHS) started an exciting partnership. Looking beyond the classroom doors of EHS, students started looking to Kenya to learn more about the world around them in an effort to build a global education program.
PA-MOJA (Swahili for “together”) is an international nonprofit organization started in 2006 by a Canadian primatologist. The organization’s goal is to connect people and wildlife in meaningful ways. With the goal of cultivating globally and culturally competent graduates where students will hold a deep appreciation and respect for all cultures and experiences, EHS classes started to participate in cultural exchange projects — from singing Kenyan songs to writing letters to sharing videos about their communities. Although the cultural exchanges were exciting and students enjoyed them, Leigh Vierstra, the project coordinator, saw that the real need at EHS was a hands-on, experiential learning experience in Kenya specifically designed for some of EHS’s most vulnerable youth.
The vision for EHS’s student PA-MOJA program became a reality in 2015 when Vierstra, along with three other staff members, were able to take 12 students from EHS to Kenya for three weeks. The experience in Kenya, and in the two-year PA-MOJA program, was life changing. The students’ eyes were opened to the world; they grew, matured, became more confident and had a newfound appreciation for the opportunities they have in their lives.
This year EHS is running the PA-MOJA program again. With the goal of creating global citizens and future leaders, the program is hoping to help students like Mwezi O’Malley grow mentally, physically and emotionally. “My team and I will grow in these ways and many more by working side by side with Kenyan students in a Kenyan community. I and 10 of my brothers and sisters will not only learn about another culture and their lives compared to ours, but will also learn many new skills that will help us become future leaders. Our hope is that through our three-week field experience to Kenya and our lifelong journey together as a team we will become empowered to be the leaders our world needs,” O’Malley said.
A key component of the PA-MOJA program is that it is accessible to all students no matter their financial background. Many experiential learning programs like this are very expensive, which can prevent students from participating. The cost of running PA-MOJA is $40,000. In order to make it accessible to all students, the coordinators and students have been working tirelessly over the last few months to raise the money needed. Students have learned to write grants, started online giving campaigns, put on a trivia night and joined up with local restaurants to gather support for their program. At press time the program has $5,500 left to raise, but we hope that a March 14 Benvenuto’s night and a March 28 Culver’s event will help us reach our goal.