By Tessa Raebeck
Hundreds of art supplies, dozens of books and one Sag Harbor Elementary School teacher are on their way to a school for orphans in Malawi Thursday, July 17.
Science teacher Kryn Olson will spend three weeks at the Jacaranda School for Orphans in the village of Che Mboma, near the city of Limbe in the south of Malawi, a small, landlocked country in southeast Africa.
Ms. Olson, who pioneered the outdoor gardening program at the elementary school, is visiting Jacaranda to work with the children there on a gardening program they’ve started. She’s been researching the types of greens that would be successful in Malawi’s tropical climate and could flourish in African soil.
“It’s going to be an experiment, but exciting,” Ms. Olson said in a recent interview. “They have a very successful program they’ve been working with on gardening and so, they want to have me come and just see how we can join forces and work together on learning and developing what they have.”
The family of a young girl Ms. Olson has been mentoring over the last several years is friends with the owner and developer of the Jacaranda School, Marie Da Silva.
“They invited her to come out and see what I do here,” Ms. Olson said. After Ms. Da Silva visited Sag Harbor, she and Ms. Olson decided to work together in expanding Jacaranda’s garden—and uniting their students as pen pals.
Ms. Olson said Sag Harbor children wrote letters to the kids in Malawi she will carry with her on her trip, and then she will bring the Jacaranda students’ letters back to Sag Harbor. After the first exchange, the students will begin emailing back and forth regularly.
“They can’t stand it, they’re so excited,” Ms. Olson said of her students in Sag Harbor. “It’s really a beautiful thing. There was such a level of humility, but smart humility.”
“They were very excited about being able to write somebody in another country,” she added. “They realize that they live another life, so they were just curious. It was just kids talking to kids; it was beautiful. It wasn’t about depth, it was: Tell me what your country looks like. What animals live there? Do you have a brother or sister?”
Born and raised in Malawi, Ms. Da Silva, who has lost 15 members of her family to the AIDS pandemic, including her father and two of her brothers, came to the United States to work as a nanny and lived in New York City for 19 years. In 2002, she returned to Malawi and, after seeing how many children in her hometown were left out of school, she founded the Jacaranda School for Orphans, operating out of her family home. She used the money she earned working as a nanny to scrape together supplies and teachers’ salaries.
“When she nannied,” Ms. Olson said of Ms. Da Silva, “she really researched the schools and watched how the children were being raised here. She felt that education here was profoundly different. She wanted to expose the children to things she learned here. So she took those concepts back to Malawi with her.”
Twelve years later, the school has 400 students, its own campus and is the only entirely free primary and secondary school in the country. It provides the orphans with a free education, scholarships to high school graduates, uniforms and school supplies, clothes and shoes, daily nutrition, medical care and counseling, AIDS awareness activities, arts programs, agriculture activities and home support in the form of renovation of students’ houses, monthly financial support to the most impoverished children and construction of boarding houses for students in child-headed families.
Ms. Da Silva was recognized as a Top Ten Hero by CNN in 2008.
“It’s really an incredible thing that she did,” Ms. Olson said. “She not only feeds them, but she gives them medicine and funds their education. She has also now sent six kids to college, which is unheard of.”
In addition to bringing the pen pal letters and her school gardening expertise to Malawi, Ms. Olson is also bringing boxes of gifts to the Jacaranda School.
Sag Harbor students raised funds to donate two cases filled with art supplies—hundreds of water color tablets, reams of paper, colored markers and other materials—and “an enormous amount of books,” which will be shipped over on a boat.
“We’re trying to double the size of their library,” Ms. Olson said.
In addition to the books donated by students and their families, Ms. Olson is bringing a suitcase with all her favorites, including Eric Carl classics and “Goodnight Moon.”
Ms. Olson will also help the Jacaranda School enhance its garden, which currently grows carrots, tea and other vegetables.
“What they raise they sell to help support the orphanage,” she said. “And they also really are working at making sure the kids understand that it’s about learning how to be sustainable and how to take care of themselves and not taking things for granted.”
The produce that isn’t sold is used to feed the children.
“She wanted to teach them how to survive in the world,” Ms. Olson said of Ms. Da Silva.