By Tessa Raebeck
Kryn Olson left Malawi in tears. Ms. Olson, a science teacher at the Sag Harbor Elementary School, wasn’t crying because she had a bad trip. It was, in fact, quite the opposite.
“It was really amazing,” Ms. Olson, who left Sag Harbor July 17 to spend over three weeks at the Jacaranda School for Orphans, said of her experience on Tuesday, August 26.
Ms. Olson, who was a driving force in the outdoor gardening program at the Sag Harbor Elementary School, was invited by the school’s founder, Marie Da Silva, to whom she was introduced by Elena and Barbara Gibbs, to spend several weeks in Africa helping Jacaranda students and faculty expand the school’s gardening programs.
During her stay, she worked primarily on agriculture with 16 boys aged 12 to 18. By the end of her trip, she and the boys were nicknamed “The Green Team” and had become close friends. The students accompanied her to the airport when she left; they gave her cards and hand-drawn pictures and sang songs the whole bus ride there—hence the tears.
“We really got to know each other very well, because we were together five to eight hours a day,” Ms. Olson said. “And they were just such good, respectable, hardworking, inquisitive and very intelligent boys. We bonded very, very much.”
The Green Team planted five gardens during the three-week period. Before she left, some in Sag Harbor had expressed concern to Ms. Olson that American seeds would not necessarily grow successfully in African soil. In true science teacher fashion, she did a plenty of research, augmented by hope and, sure enough, the gardens flourished. Within weeks, the seeds grew to be two inches tall and were “so unbelievably successful, ridiculously successful,” said Ms. Olson, who seemed to be in a permanent state of ecstasy over her trip.
After Ms. Olson was initially taken to a Shop-Rite 25 minutes away from the school, she expressed the need to go shopping somewhere slightly more authentic to the local community, and the boys took her instead to the farmers’ market in Limbe. She saw the city market, met the vendors, and got insight into what the locals grow.
“It was a very exciting place for me to go shopping, because it’s where everybody goes that lives there… it was a beautiful, beautiful experience,” she said.
Two days before she left, Ms. Olson and her team of boys had a huge feast, in which they served meals using mature versions, purchased from the market, of the vegetables they were in the process growing.
“I cooked five chickens, we had a huge salad and I cooked potatoes and carrots, tomatoes, peas, celery, everything that I could find in the market,” she recalled.
“And afterward I said, ‘Do you understand why you have planted these vegetables now?’ ‘Cause they eat porridge every day—this was beyond crazy for them,” she continued.
They had a long conversation on the value of well-balanced meals and the boys, she said, could not devour the veggies fast enough, “it was just such a successful end-all… It was really just such a bonding time, I couldn’t have asked for a better result. There was just one good experience after another.”
The Green Team also built a greenhouse, an idea of the boys’, to enable the students to continue growing vegetables during Malawi’s long rainy season.
Ms. Da Silva wants Ms. Olson to return to Jacaranda to design vegetable plots for a pre-school she hopes to build.
Ms. Da Silva and Ms. Olson are hopeful gardening will help to change not only the students’ diet, but also their economic position, as they begin to harvest and sell the crops.
In addition to her Green Team of newly trained farmers, Ms. Olson also built relationships with some of the hundreds of other students at Jacaranda.
“Every time I would walk through the gates,” she said of the children, “they would come running to me with their arms open. Every day, you just felt like your life couldn’t have gotten any better, ’cause there was so much love and so much compassion with these children and the people that worked there… It was awesome, it was just truly, truly awesome.”
Ms. Olson said when she held the smallest of the orphans, they would immediately fall asleep in her arms “because they were so excited about getting nurtured…it was a beautiful experience.”
While volunteer opportunities in Africa are vast, Ms. Olson said what’s special about the Jacaranda Foundation, which supports the school, is that the change it’s instilling in the community is tangible.
Ms. Da Silva and the school’s executive director, Luc Deschamps, “have actually started a big chain reaction that’s going to change Malawi and that could change other communities,” she said.
In addition to the school, they have started a public library in Malawi, outreach courses to empower women through learning to read, write and take care of themselves and other initiatives.
A public school less than five miles from Jacaranda has 3,000 students.
“They have 200 per classroom, one teacher, no books, no paper, no pencils,” said Ms. Olson. “But Luc has actually started to build a library there… it’s like the change is coming, it’s growing and every single time that they do something they look, ‘What’s the next step?’”
“They think bigger than themselves,” she added, “they’re completely compassionate and have no personal agendas. This is their entire life to service this community—not only is that incredibly rare, but it’s quite venturous—it’s an incredibly poor community.”
Ms. Olson’s friends from Sag Harbor, Suzanne Shaw and her daughter Winter, met her in Malawi and she expects many more friends will join her when she returns, which she said will be “as soon as I can.”
Several students and parents have already reached out to Ms. Olson in hopes of joining her next summer.
“I would definitely consider something like this,” she said, “because it’s a wonderful thing to be able to see life at the purest of places. Relationships were just really honest and pure, there’s just a lot less stuff, so there wasn’t any other conversation. It was just magical, I don’t know how else to describe it.”
To donate supplies or money to the Jacaranda School, contact Kryn Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.